New Orleans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sept. 16, 1964, concert at City Park on the same day it says goodbye to Cosimo Matassa.
In early 1964, the British music invasion led by the Beatles shook up American music, including the vibrant rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll New Orleans music scene that Matassa helped create via his recording studios.
Matassa, the studio owner and engineer who recorded Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Little Richard, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Earl King and many more, died Thursday at 88. Visitation and a funeral Mass are set for Tuesday at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home.
Tuesday night, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ New Orleans invasion will be observed at Tad Gormley Stadium, formerly City Park Stadium.
Following the Beatles’ Feb. 9, 1964, American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a wave of guitar-playing young Brits followed, including the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and the Rolling Stones.
The musical landscape in the U.S. quickly shifted. Ironically, the British acts displaced many of the American artists whose recordings had inspired them back in Liverpool, Manchester and London.
“Three to six months after the invasion, we were completely disintegrated,” the late promoter and disc jockey manager Jim Russell recalled in 2001. “Because all of our bands had saxophones. How the hell do you find a guitar player overnight, when there’s only two or three in the whole city?”
New Orleans R&B singer Irma Thomas stopped singing one of her own songs because people mistakenly thought she was copying the Rolling Stones. In fact, Thomas released “Time Is on My Side” before the Stones.
“It was the British invasion, and anything somebody from Europe or Britain did was a hit, whether they could sing or not,” she said in 1995.
Decades later, Bonnie Raitt, a singing star who loves New Orleans music, asked Thomas to resume singing “Time Is on My Side.” “Bonnie said, ‘Irma, you know that’s your song and time is on our side!’ ” Thomas quoted Raitt. “ ‘You do it better than they do anyway!’ ”
Drafted in 1962, Frankie Ford (“Sea Cruise”) was away in the U.S. Army when the British invasion began. But even as late as his return to New Orleans in 1965, he told The Advocate in 1998, “a rock ’n’ roll singer couldn’t get arrested. There wasn’t a horn in a band in all of New Orleans, except out in the swamp-pop places.”
Ford found work in the ’60s as a cabaret singer on Bourbon Street. R&B singer Clarence “Frogman” Henry (“Ain’t Got No Home,” “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do”) likewise became a Bourbon Street regular. Ironically, Henry played 18 American tour dates with the Beatles in 1964, including New Orleans.
Paul McCartney was his favorite Beatle, Henry recalled in 1996.
“The one I got along with out of the whole four was Paul McCartney,” he said. “He and I were real good friends. We would hang out with Paul. Ringo would talk a little bit. We didn’t get a chance to talk with John and George. They didn’t talk.”
In another bit of irony, the Beatles’ backstage visit with hometown star Fats Domino was the highlight of their New Orleans visit.
Deacon John Moore, one of the few professional guitarists in his hometown in 1964, isn’t among those who blamed the British invasion for dampening their careers in the mid-’60s. The invasion, he told The Advocate in 1999, made him more popular after he added songs by the Beatles and other British groups to his repertoire.
“No other black performer in town was doing it at the time,” Moore said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to lose all these gigs to the white boys. I’m gonna jump on the bandwagon with them.’ ”
From the start, Moore added, he appreciated the Beatles’ music, “because they had a real fresh approach to pop music. I said, ‘Man, I just can’t go on in the music business ignoring the Beatles.’ ”
Moore and his then-pregnant wife attended the Beatles’ City Park concert.
“I didn’t see any other black people in the whole stadium,” he recalled. “I felt like a fly in a bowl of milk, man.”
On a historical note, if the Beatles’ City Park concert had taken place a few months earlier, Moore’s race could have been cause for his arrest.
The Beatles performed in New Orleans two months after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new federal law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, effectively voiding Louisiana law that forbade blacks and whites from gathering together in public places.