It was, by all accounts, a full-tilt episode of Beatlemania. The British foursome played a stadium full of hysterical fans in City Park on Sept. 16, 1964, their songs all but drowned out by the screams of teenage girls.
It was their only New Orleans concert, the highlight of a visit less than 24 hours long.
This Tuesday, the concert’s 50th anniversary, WYES-TV will mark the event with a performance by Beatles tribute band the Fab Four at Tad Gormley Stadium, formerly City Park Stadium.
New Orleans was the 22nd stop on the Beatles’ 25-city, 31-concert North American tour. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr played in City Park for an enraptured crowd of 12,000. The audience included hysterical teen girls, young children — and terrified parents.
About 15 minutes into the Beatles’ half-hour show, an eruption of girls poured from the stadium stands onto the field. They rushed toward police barricades in front of the makeshift stage. Police estimated that 700 teenagers participated in the onslaught.
Florence Hughes, an LSU journalism sophomore sent by The Baton Rouge State-Times newspaper to cover the Beatles’ visit, reported that “the girls broke into hysterics when Ringo began singing ‘Boys,’ and the football field was swarming with fans.”
Fifty years after that late summer night in City Park, memories of the concert remain vivid for those who attended, including Sarah Whelan. Then a Lakeview first-grader, Whelan attended the show with her mother and two younger brothers.
Initially, the scene in the stadium was calm, she said, but Beatles fans grew impatient with the opening acts — New Orleans R&B artist Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jackie DeShannon, Bill Black Combo and the Exciters.
While the fans waited, the Beatles were in a small trailer behind the stadium, meeting Fats Domino and serenading the New Orleans music star with one of his many hits, “I’m in Love Again.”
The Beatles finally took the stage at 9:25 p.m.
“And people just tore the place apart,” Whelan recalled. “The screams were constant. Girls were crying, they were collapsing. And they rushed the field.”
Whelan, her mother and brothers were overrun by the wave of girls that spilled out of the stands onto the field. “They were coming down on top of us,” Whelan said. “We had to crouch down and cover our heads.”
“Frogman” Henry later said his tour with the Beatles was unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“The doctors and the ambulances and the policemen,” he marveled. “When we got to New Orleans, they were tackling the children like they were playing football, because the crowd had broken loose from the barricade.”
‘A highlight of my life’
Marcia Kavanaugh, WYES community projects producer and host of “Informed Sources,” was a sophomore at Archbishop Chapelle High School when she experienced the Beatles in City Park. She’d won a ticket to the show from WNOE radio and a seat on the field in front of the stage.
“When the Beatles came on it was pandemonium,” Kavanaugh said. “The police were everywhere chasing after the girls. Those of us there on the field were being run over. The kids in wheelchairs were knocked over. I was knocked over.”
During the melee, one of Kavanaugh’s legs got caught in her folding chair. She pulled herself free, grabbed the chair and ran down the field to escape the bedlam. Not wanting to miss any of the show, she stood on the chair watching through her binoculars. A police officer, paying no heed to the field-seat ticket she waved in his face, ordered her off the field.
“He thrust me up in the stands,” Kavanaugh said. “A mom was there with her kids. She did not like the way the officer talked to me and let him know that. I rode out the rest of the concert with those folks.”
Escaping the melee
Randy Jackson, who’d later be a member of the nationally known New Orleans rock band Zebra, was 9 in 1964. His parents were musicians and, unlike some other parents, weren’t troubled by their children’s love for the Beatles or overly shocked by the $5 ticket price, high for the time.
Seeing the Beatles in City Park, Jackson said from his Long Island home, “it was a highlight of my life. We’d watched it on TV. Then we saw it for real. I’ll never forget it. I’ve seen a lot of concerts since then, but nothing like that.”
Jackson’s memories of the concert include a huge father-daughter fight that played out in front of him.
“One girl, about 15, wanted to go down on the field,” he said. “Her father grabbed her arm. She was screaming like a maniac, trying to get away from him. He wouldn’t let her go down there.”
Following the stampede that raced over Whelan and her brothers, their traumatized mother insisted they leave. “It’s too dangerous,” she said. The reluctant Whelan dragged her feet to their car. She’d heard nothing but screaming in the stadium but, once they were outside, the Beatles’ songs were clearly audible.
“The sound radiated out of the stadium,” she said. “It was fantastic. And all these people were sitting on their porches, their steps, listening. I heard the Beatles all the way to the car and we were parked blocks away. I’ll never forget it, as long as I live.”
About 225 police officers and other security personnel spent more than 20 minutes restoring order in the stadium, The Times-Picayune reported.
About 200 unconscious girls were revived via ammonia spirits, and one girl who’d broken her arm refused to go to the hospital, returning to the stands instead.
And the aftermath
“I want to thank everybody for coming, including the football players,” McCartney said before the group played its final song, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.”
Larry Kane, the Miami reporter who traveled with the Beatles during their 1964 American tour, asked the Beatles about the New Orleans riot.
“It was good fun watching the police play football with the kids,” Ringo said.
“That’s about the closest we’ve been, really, to getting worried,” McCartney said.
McCartney also told Kane that he wished the group could have more contact with its fans.
“We were thinking the other day,” he said, “that if somebody does come up with one of these privileged things again, that we’ll just say, ‘Well, I’m afraid we don’t want to meet them, but instead we’ll just pick out the equivalent number of fans, bring them in, meet them and have a chat with them.’ ”
Student reporter Hughes’ next-day story for The State-Times included details about the group being mobbed at The Congress Inn motel on Chef Menteur Highway. She expressed sympathy for the world’s most famous music stars.
“You can’t realize how they are pushed about, mobbed and questioned,” Hughes wrote. “They have no lives to call their own. They are treated like machines, not like human beings, and they are wonderful people! … By 11:30 the Beatles had left New Orleans, and all they had seen — I know because I was there — were a motel room and City Park Stadium.”
The Beatles’ chartered plane flew from New Orleans to Kansas City, Missouri. Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City Athletics baseball team, lured the reluctant Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, there with an unprecedented $150,000 guarantee.
In contrast, Beatles historian and New Orleans tax lawyer Bruce Spizer said, Herb Holiday, the local disc jockey who promoted the City Park show, guaranteed the group $20,000 and 60 percent of the gate.
Originally, Spizer added, Sept. 17 was to be a day off in New Orleans. The British Beatles loved American rhythm-and-blues. They wanted to visit the city’s music clubs. Asked the next day during their Kansas City press conference if there was any place in America the Beatles wanted see that they hadn’t had a chance to see, Lennon quipped, “New Orleans is one of them.”
WYES Beatles 50th anniversary tribute featuring The Fab Four
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday (gates open at 5 p.m.)
WHERE: Tad Gormley Stadium, City Park, New Orleans
TICKETS: $35 in advance, $40 at the gate, $150 VIP, etix.com