Once when the world was younger and air transportation giants, Trans World Airlines and Pan American made Delta no more than a dot on the industry, a lone plane touched down on a runway at Memphis International Airport. It was August 1966 and the globe's most celebrated rock n' roll band touched down in the Bluff City.
MORE: The Beatles historic visit to rural Arkansas
The Beatles had already conquered the world, but their first real trip of playing southern venues was already off to a rocky start. Even the popular Memphis disc jockey, Johnny Dark, who emceed the show that drew a record twelve thousand plus screaming patrons, had originally had his doubts about the "pioneers" of the British musical invasion. "I didn't think much of them, you know…until 'She Loves You' came out, and then all of a sudden I realized, hey, these guys really are good," said Dark. "It really, really shocked me that they were going to be in Memphis."
Just five months earlier, in an interview with a British newspaper, the always loquacious John Lennon, had basically put his foot in his mouth in casually alleging the band had become "more popular than Jesus." Lennon, dubbed "the smart Beatle," would spend most of the band's 1966 North American World Tour, which included Birmingham and Memphis, trying to explain the real context in which he'd made the statement. By the time the group reached Memphis, anti-Beatles music forces had organized record burnings and a Ku Klux Klansman had publicly promised to bring some type of retribution against the perceived "godless' English invaders.
"Actually there were signs and demonstrations in downtown Memphis. At the Mid-South Coliseum, where The Beatles were going to perform those two shows, they were walking around with signs...'Down with the Beatles' and all. It was kind of a tense moment," says George Klein an emcee at The Beatles Memphis concert.
Yet, despite a unanimously passed resolution, by the then Memphis City Commission, declaring the group was officially not welcomed to come to Memphis, The Beatles went on with their scheduled shows at the Mid-South Coliseum. No doubt an inspiration had been supplied to them three weeks earlier, through an arranged clandestine visit to Beverly Hills to meet their idol, Elvis Presley. A "fly on the wall" happening that got off to rough start as related to Elvis confidante, George Klein. "Elvis was watching television. The Beatles just were frozen. They were in awe of Elvis and they weren't saying anything," recalls Klein. "Finally, after about fifteen minutes or so, Elvis said, 'Look, if you fellows are not going to say anything, I'm just going to crash. I'm going to bed!' They went, 'oh, no, Elvis! Don't do that.' and they jumped up and started to ask him questions and talking to him about certain recordings."
On August 19, 1966 The Beatles set an attendance record at the Coliseum with two shows, at a ticket price of $5.50 apiece. The afternoon show, hosted by Klein went well. An eleven song set smoothly performed in 28 minutes. But, even before the show, tensions brought on by Lennon's statement, had put the previously irreverent group in the unfamiliar position of being on the defensive when fielding media questions.
John Lennon said, "They're entitled to not like us. We're entitled not to have anything to do with them, if we don't want to or not regard them. We've got our rights, you know."
However, The Beatles' second show brought with it a harrowing preamble to what was to become a violent age of rebellion. As Lennon soloed on the song, "If I Needed Someone," what was later identified as a "cherry bomb" was thrown from the balcony to the front rows. As a security force of 80 Memphis Police officers raced to the wings to protect Dark, standing next to Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, the lads from Liverpool showed their professionalism.
"I jumped about three feet in the air. I thought it was a rifle shot because they had just been in Birmingham with the thing about Christ. I thought, man, somebody's gone off the deep end here. It was loud! I mean really loud," recalled Dark. "The Beatles never missed a beat. They kept playing and when they finished, Paul McCartney..they all bowed and Paul McCartney look at me and went wooooooosh. Like boy! Because I'm sure they thought it was a gunshot too."
Lennon would later say of the moment, "That's when I knew that was the last tour." Ten days later The Beatles final live concert of their career as a band would end in San Francisco. For fans like Linn Sitler, who attended the concert, the moments and the memories of The Beatles' day and night in Memphis were declarative of a new generation's emergence. Sitler says, "My best friend and I would sit in front of my parents stereo and scream. I know the first time we did it, my parents came running in, what's wrong? We were just screaming because of The Beatles. It was something that we could claim for our own."