Fifty Years Ago, The Beatles Played Cleveland One Last Time

Dec 1, 2016

The Beatles' 1964 concert in Cleveland caused such a ruckus, the city banned the group in 1965. They returned in 1966 in a show sponsored by WIXY 1260 radio. Station owner Norman Wain says the backlash to John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment, coupled with Cleveland Municipal Stadium's 80,000 seating capacity, made for a less-than-packed-house.
Credit BEATLESBIBLE.COM

Fifty years ago today, The Beatles played Cleveland for the second -- and last -- time.  The band's show at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on August 14, 1966 was part of their final tour.  Just 15 days later, they would give up touring forever following a show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.  Their tour that year was marred by backlash to John Lennon’s comment that the group was “bigger than Jesus,” as well as noisy, sometimes unruly crowds.  In Cleveland, the show had to be stopped briefly when thousands of fans stormed the field. 

It was a far-cry from their first tour, when they played Cleveland’s Public Hall, as WKSU's Kabir Bhatia originally reported in 2014.

By September of 1964, Cleveland was ready for The Beatles. The biggest act in showbiz was winding down its first major U.S. tour, invading cities like a polite-but-irreverent band of redcoats.

Don Webster: “Is there a chief Beatle?  Is there a leader of the group?”

John Lennon: “Not really. If anybody gets the blame for anything, it’s me.”

The Fab Four held a press conference just before their first show at Public Hall. About 10,000 screaming fans would turn the concert into chaos. Dave Schwensen is the author of “The Beatles In Cleveland” as well as a new book on the group's Shea Stadium appearance.

“The police in Cleveland really couldn't understand why these four long-haired kids needed more protection than President Kennedy when he'd come to Cleveland a year or so before. So they considered this to be babysitting duty.

"And they pretty much turned around to look at The Beatles; they watched the show to see what all the fuss 

The Beatles gave a lengthy press conference at the Sheraton Hotel before their first appearance here. 'Upbeat' (then called 'The Big 5 Show') was a new TV show, hosted by Don Webster and a rotating series of WHK DJs. At the end of the press conference, Webster got a few minutes with George Harrison and John Lennon, the closest the Fab Four ever came to appearing on 'Upbeat.'
Credit YOUTUBE

  was about. And that's how come they didn't see all the kids rushing up behind them. I think they got into their third song, which was 'All My Loving,' and it was too much for the kids. That's when everything went crazy and they rushed the stage.”

"It was really chaos at that point," says WKSU's Vivian Goodman.

"There was such disappointment among those in the audience.  I do recall that as we were leaving, my feet left the ground momentarily in that crush of the mob.  I mean there really were a lot of people."

Goodman got to go with a friend who won tickets from WHK radio.

"I don't know how she won it -- my friend, Karen.  But her boyfriend was very upset about it.  He was jealous of The Beatles.  Many boyfriends were jealous of The Beatles back then.  According to Karen -- this is the story -- she thinks he stole the tickets.  And suddenly she couldn't find them.  But in the end, something must have been worked out with WHK because we were there."

Goodman would go on to attend hundreds of concerts -- including Woodstock -- but that 1964 Beatles show left an indelible impression on the 16-year-old.

"I had never been to a rock concert.  I was loving the Beatles.  I wasn't among the girls who absolutely went hysterical.  There were tears.  There were hysterics.  I didn't relate to that; I just loved the music."

Keith Relf (left) led the Yardbirds until their demise, which was shortly after this appearance on 'Upbeat.' Guitarist Jimmy Page (right) then recruited three 'New Yardbirds' to finish out tour commitments, and eventually changed the band's name to Led Zeppelin.
Credit DAVID SPERO

Banned, on the run
No one was hurt, but the madness led to the Beatles being banned from Cleveland on their 1965 tour. In 1966, John Lennon’s out-of-context remark that the group was “bigger than Jesus” led to a firestorm, and they played to a less-than-packed Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Just weeks later, the Beatles stopped touring forever.

But back on the north coast, fans could still hear – and sometimes see – their favorite bands on television.

Music television
Channel 5 debuted “The Big 5 Show” in September of ’64. One of the first episodes featured a Beatles interview, their only personal appearance on the show. By 1966, the show went national under the name “Upbeat,” and hosted everyone from Bob Seger to Parliament-Funkadelic to The Yardbirds. All of those acts are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today, as is The Velvet Underground.

The lost tapes
The Velvet Underground's only television appearances outside of New York happened right here in Cleveland, the first on July 8, 1967. Those shows no longer exist, because videotapes were expensive back then and often got reused.

That lack of re-runability is one reason “Upbeat” is not as well-known today as network shows like “American Bandstand” or “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Those shows could afford to save and rerun episodes.

But the memories remain, such as this bittersweet moment with Otis Redding.

That’s one show that was saved. Redding died in a plane crash hours later.

“He was just such a wonderful man. He always took time to go and sit in the audience and talk with the kids," says David Spero, whose father, Herman, produced "Upbeat." David started as a 13 year-old cue-card boy.

Herman wanted to concentrate on up to a dozen acts per episode, aping Top 40 radio. David remembers seeing groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Simon & Garfunkel (making their TV debut) play live. But he remembers a lot of lip-synching, too, especially from groups getting ready for a network appearance.

“For most of the Motown artists, they would come down and play Leo’s Casino and then they’d come over and play the ‘Upbeat’ show before they played ‘Ed Sullivan.’  All of the wardrobe people and the choreographers, they’d sit and they’d work with them after seeing how it played on an ‘Upbeat’ and kind of fine-tune it for the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’”

The downbeat of 'Upbeat'

'Upbeat' was produced by Herman Spero (right) at WEWS. His son, David, eventually helped run the show, then branched out into on-air work on WMMS and M105, and for many years managed Joe Walsh, Harry Nilsson and many other artists.
Credit DAVID SPERO

"Ed went off in 1971, and so did “Upbeat.”

Host Don Webster would go on to serve as Channel 5’s weatherman for decades. David Spero moved into talent relations, managing Joe Walsh and Harry Nilsson, among many others.

The Rock Hall maintains an exhibit of Cleveland-related rock memorabilia, featuring some of the clips that survive from “Upbeat.” And The Beatles, of course, were never heard from again.

The Beatles' 1966 set list usually consisted of Rock And Roll Music, She's A Woman, If I Needed Someone, Day Tripper, Baby's In Black, I Feel Fine, Yesterday, I Wanna Be Your Man, Nowhere Man, Paperback Writer and I'm Down.  A professionally recorded snapshot of this era is available on the 1977 album "The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl."  Read about the band’s semi-reunion here in 2015.