Before the Fab Four appeared on the Ed Sullivan show fifty years ago, Tommy Roe remembers the Beatles as his opening act
By Tom Ward
With all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, here is a story about a friend of mine who had a sneak preview of the Fab Four before they came to America. A few years ago, singer/songwriter Tommy Roe appeared as our guest at a charity golf event in New England. I recall him telling me after the round about his time with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
As it turned out, Tommy had a front row seat to watch the mayhem surrounding this new group called the “Beatles”. Roe was booked as one of the headliners, along with fellow singer Chris Montez (“Let’s Dance“), to tour England back in 1963. At the time, Tommy had a big hit song called “Sheila”. As incredible as it may seem now, the Beatles were the opening act for Roe and Montez. Roe recalled, “My experience on the Beatles tour wasn’t anything new for me because of my experience at the Elvis concert. I had seen this before. But now I am witnessing this phenom from backstage. I knew from the beginning of our tour, that these four guys, the Beatles, were on their way. The boys, along with their manager Brian Epstein, had been talking to me about how much they would like to release their record in the US, and I told Brian that I would try to get them a deal. I tried to get my record label, ABC Paramount, to sign them to a recording contract when I returned to New York after our tour. I was the golden boy at the label at the time with a big hit, ‘Sheila’, and could sit down with the powers that be whenever I wanted. I alerted my producer to meet me in New York and set up the appointment with the president of the label. When we arrived at the office, I was a little nervous because I had never pitched another act before, and wasn’t sure what to expect. They all congratulated me on my recent tour, and asked to see the album that I brought back from England to pitch to the label. When they saw the album cover of the Beatles’ picture, the room just went silent. Then my producer blurted out something like ‘well you have to hear them.’ The president of the label dropped the needle down on the record, played a few bars of ‘Please, Please, Me’ and then picked up the needle and told us, ‘This is garbage, you let us be the talent scouts, and Tommy, we have a nice room at the Waldorf for you with a nice TV. Go to your hotel, and write us another hit.’ Needless to say, I was shocked and devastated by their reaction, and the whole experience. About 6 months later, the Beatles got their record deal, and now every time the executives at my label would see me coming, they would run for the exit.”
February 11th, 1964 was the date of the first-ever show by the Fab Four on U.S. soil, two nights after their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. Tommy Roe returned the favor and opened for them that night at the group’s invitation after he played with them during a 1963 British tour. Roe said, “I was invited to open the show for the Beatles at the Washington Coliseum in Washington DC. They had already performed in New York on the Sullivan show so we knew it would be exciting. Beatle mania became a word we would all become familiar with in a short time. It turned out to be a crazy night.” For the record, Jay and the Americans and the Righteous Brothers joined Roe as opening acts. The original show was attended by 8,092 people who paid ticket prices between $2 and $4. “The concert was a big deal. It was an amazing scene. They were really catching on and everybody came to that show, either hanging out backstage and trying to become the 5th Beatle, or trying to get on the bill. They kept adding people. Originally, it was just the Chiffons and me. But the Righteous Brothers, Caravelles and Jay and the Americans were also there. The marquee didn’t say anything about the other acts. It just said ‘The Beatles’. It was all about them. But I wasn’t offended. That’s just the way it worked out. I was there to do my two songs and then get off the stage,” said Roe. “After the show we met briefly and I congratulated them on their success, and that was the last time I saw the Beatles in person.” Tommy felt that they had not changed at all from the time he first met them a year earlier in England. He recalls, “They were really humble about the success they were having in the US, and looked forward to seeing our country. They were great guys to hang out with during those early days.”
Tommy Roe continued on with his own highly successful musical career throughout the 1960’s with numerous top 40 hits on Top Billboard such as Sheila, Everybody, Jam Up & Jellytight, Stagger Lee, Susie Darlin’, Sweet Pea, Hooray for Hazel, and perhaps his biggest hit in 1969, “Dizzy”. To learn more about Tommy’s wonderful career checkout his website at www.tommyroe.com.
Now, fifty years later, Tommy Roe will pay homage to the Fab Four by recreating his set from the February 11, 1964 show at the Washington Coliseum as part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles invasion of America. The Washington Coliseum will once again be the site of Roe’s (and the Beatles’) music with a full re-creation of the event featuring Tommy Roe and the Beatles tribute band Beatle Mania Now. The event is being produced by the DC Preservation League and the Douglas Development Corporation, who have also assembled an exhibit of photographs from the night. In retrospect, the 71-year-old Roe summed up what the Beatles meant to performers like himself and fans worldwide. He said, “I believe the Beatles’ success is hard to relate to other artists because they really stand alone. I think the song writing team of Paul McCartney and John Lennon are unmatched in contemporary music, and their achievements are unparalleled, certainly in my life time.”
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com