The greatest musical group in history, and there is no debate about that sorry, traveled the world during the 1960s as they brought their music to millions. For the people of Canada, there were not frequent stops by The Beatles, but there were some and today on the podcast, I am looking at those stops by the greatest band in the world to the greatest country in the world. I may be a bit biased here.
This episode is going to cover the North American touring years of The Beatles, from 1964 to 1966, with some stories from the remaining years of the decade, and a couple of items from the 1970s.
Beginning on Feb. 18, 1963, Canadians would first hear the song Love Me Do but it did not exactly light the country on fire. Paul White, the executive for Capitol Records Canada, would state it sold 170 copies in total. Please Please Me would sell 280 records and From Me To You sold 300.
It seemed that Canada was not interested in The Beatles.
That would all change though, with She Loves You, released in September 1963. The song quickly exploded in popularity, selling 100,000 copies and the earlier songs would have to be reissued due to the huge spike in demand by the public now clamoring for The Beatles.
The United States gets a lot of attention for being where The Beatles made their debut on television, but it was in Canada that the Beatles were embraced first here, nearly a year before they broke through in the United States. The songs All My Loving, Roll Over Beethoven and Twist and Shout were not available in the United States and it was up to Canada and Capitol Canada to manufacture the songs here and ship them to the United States.
Capitol Canada would ship 100,000 copies of each song, but some estimates put the exports of the songs at 350,000 copies each.
Between 1962 and 1966, The Beatles performed in over 1,400 concerts across the planet, with the vast majority being in the United Kingdom. Of those 1,400 or so concerts, seven were performed in Canada, amounting to half of a per cent of all of their concerts.
The Winnipeg Stopover
The first time the Beatles arrived in Canada, let alone played in Canada was not in Toronto, nor was it in Montreal or Vancouver. It was in Winnipeg.
The Beatles were flying from London to San Francisco for their first major North American tour. Before they could get to San Francisco, they needed to refuel and that refueling spot was the Winnipeg airport. This would have likely just been a quick stop that no one would have noticed until word spread after but a man by the name of Bob Burns at CJAY TV learned The Beatles were on their way and he put out the word on local radio to announce that The Beatles, the hottest band in the world, was landing at Winnipeg. Before long, the airport was full of fans, kept behind a fence off the runway, hoping to see a glimpse of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The band landed on Aug. 18, 1964 at 2:05 p.m.
There were no plans to disembark in Winnipeg but Brian Epstein, seeing the huge crowd of people, convinced the band to make a brief appearance.
Before that happened, a local high school student decided to take a chance on seeing the band.
A young man by the name of Bruce Decker would take this chance to see the biggest band in the world. Arriving at the airport, he would run across the runway, up the stairs and nearly get into the plane before being grabbed by security. The entire incident is captured in a wonderful series of photographs.
According to Decker, who said in an interview later, he had seen that the door was open on the plane and no one was standing on the steps. He decided to risk it and see if he could reach The Beatles. He would say, “just as they were wrestling with me, I caught a glimpse of The Beatles through the door and they were all chuckling. I just did it for a bit of fun and didn’t realize there was anything attached to it.”
For a brief fraction of an instant after he was taken back to the crowd by the RCMP, Decker was a celebrity. He would say, “A girl recognized me and begged me to let her take my photo. Then another two girls saw me and pushed me into a corner. Tears streaming down their faces as they asked me, what did they look like? Did you see anything? How does Ringo look?” Afterward, he went to a coffee shop where another girl recognized him, put down a dollar and told the owner he couldn’t have anything he wanted to drink.
Decker’s brush with musical greatness didn’t stop there. He would briefly play in a band called The Deverons with Burton Cummings, followed by a second brief moment on rhythm guitar with The Guess Who.
After the whole incident, Paul McCartney exited the plane and yelled “Hello Winnipeg” and came down the stairs as a throng of reporters swarmed around him.
Bob Burns would quickly interview John Lennon saying “Bob Burns from CJAY Television”, to which Lennon responded “That’s not my fault”. Burns then said “you must be glad to stretch your legs”, to which Lennon responded “among other things.”
Burns would state that Ringo Starr was the most gregarious of the band and seemed the most mature.
As the band got back on the plane, Ringo suggested that the group might return to Winnipeg following their North American tour.
In less than half an hour, The Beatles were on their way never to return to Winnipeg.
The First Canadian Show: Vancouver
After playing some shows on the west coast of the United States, The Beatles would make their first official stop in Canada to perform. The concert would be held at the PNE’s open-air Empire Stadium on Aug. 22, 1964, with local radio host Red Robinson serving as the Master of Ceremonies.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. The show was supposed to start at 8 p.m. but it wouldn’t kick off until 9:23 p.m. because the pilot of the plane The Beatles were on forgot to sign a document and they had to take the Beatles in a car back to the airport to finish the paperwork, and then head back to the stadium.
At the stadium, 20,000 fans were going crazy waiting for the band to appear.
The Beatles would open with Twist and Shout. By halfway through the show, the crowd was near rioting and Robinson was told to go on stage to tell the crowd to calm down or else The Beatles would have to leave. Robinson would walk out on stage at the end of a song and told the crowd to back up because there was fear of people being injured. Unfortunately, John Lennon though he was just coming out on stage and would tell Robinson “Get off our stage, nobody interrupts The Beatles” and Robinson responded “John, Brian Epstein sent me up here” John looked down and Brian gave him an okay sign and John would then say to Robinson “Okay, carry on mate.”
In all, the band would play 11 songs but chose not to play I Want To Hold Your Hand. While the concert was being performed, it was broadcast live on CKNW.
The band would continue their show, while the fans screamed. The show was short, lasting 27 minutes and once the show was over, the band left the stage and got into a waiting limousine and were driven to the Vancouver International Airport. They would then fly straight to Los Angeles.
This was the band’s one and only show in Western Canada.
The Beatles Arrive In Toronto
Flying into Toronto after performing in the United States, the band would sign autographs for immigration officials before being driven to the King Edward Hotel. Fans were already starting to gather at the hotel and when the band stepped out of the car, Paul would have his shirt torn by a fan, while he and Ringo were separated from John and George. Thankfully, the police were able to quickly restore order on the street and get the band into their hotel suite. After the band arrived in the suite, they found a 14-year-old girl hiding in the linen closet.
One funny story from the band’s time in Toronto was that Philip Givens, the mayor of Toronto, along with his wife, called at the suite at 1:30 p.m. but were turned away by a blonde woman. They were told that two of The Beatles were sleeping and two others were with relatives. The next day, the Daily Star would have a headline that said “Beatles’ Blonde Snubs Mayor”
For their concert, which was held at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Beatles left by the back entrance of the hotel into a police wagon. At the stadium, 4,000 police officers and Mounties were on duty, surrounding a five-block area that had been sectioned off 12 hours before the arrival of the group.
The first concert was supposed to start at 4 p.m. but the band would get to the stage at 5:30 and were introduced by Jungle Jay Nelson of the local radio station.
One Globe and Mail reporter said that the concert was impossible to hear because four Beatles can’t out vocalize a Maple Leaf Gardens full of youngsters baying out their adulation.
After the show, the band took photographs with local DJs, fan club presidents and Miss Canada, before giving a press conference. At 10 p.m. they would begin their second performance.
The Beatles In Montreal
The day after they played their two shows in Toronto, the band would make its way over to Quebec to play two more concerts in Montreal, the only visit the band would have in the city. The band’s only time in Quebec would be marred by death threats against them from French-Canadian separatists. Police sharpshooters had to be present at the Montreal Forum during the concert. The concerts would pass without any problems but it was something that was on the minds of The Beatles.
In 1990s, George Harrison would say, “A Montreal newspaper reported that somebody was going to kill Ringo because they didn’t like his nose or something? Because he was probably the most British of The Beatles. I don’t know.”
Ring would say of the incident, “Some people decided to make an example of me, as an English Jew. The one major fault is I’m not Jewish. Threats we took in our stride. I mean, suddenly there would be a few more cops and this was one of the few times I was really worried.”
Upon arriving in Montreal, The Beatles were greeted by throngs of fans as usual, lining the streets, clutching magazines and singing their favourite Beatles’ songs.
The Beatles would take the stage for their first concert at 5:20 p.m., performing a 12-song set. They would play their second show at 8:30 p.m. and then chose not to stay in Montreal and instead fly from Montreal to Jacksonville, Florida. In all, the band stayed only eight hours in Montreal. A total of 9,500 fans were at the first show, followed by 11,500 at the second show.
The Beatles Return To Toronto
On Aug. 17, 1965, The Beatles returned to Canada for two shows and once again fans were waiting for them to arrive, camping out to capture tickets to the show. Fans once again tried to touch and rush towards the band when they arrived, only to be repelled by Toronto police officers who formed a fence with linked arms to contain the fans.
The group had flown in New York, arriving in the morning and staying at the King Edward Sheraton once again. Fans had booked dozens of rooms in the hotel in the hope of meeting the group.
Each of the shows were seen by 18,000 people with the band playing their usual 12-song set, lasting for 27 minutes in all.
When the band played at Maple Leaf Gardens, Harold Ballard, the owner of the stadium and the Maple Leafs, turned up the heat in the building, turned off the water fountains and made a huge amount of money selling drinks out of the concession as a result.
Unlike the previous year when the band was on the front page of Toronto newspapers, this year they were on the inside pages with many starting to say that Beatlemania was fading and the band would soon disappear from relevance.
The Last Tour And The Last Canadian Concert
One year to the day that the band played Toronto, it would return in 1966 for the last two shows the band would ever play on Canadian soil. The tour was also the last the band would ever play and eight shows and 12 days after they played Toronto, the band would end their touring days forever so they could focus on making music in the studio.
The first concert would take place at 4 p.m. and was seen by 15,000 fans, while the second concert was held at 8 p.m. in front of 17,000 fans.
One person at the concert was John Tory, who was 12-years-old and would go on to become the current mayor of Toronto. He would say of the concert, “The volume of the screaming was such that you could barely hear the music.”
Jungle Jay Nelson once again served as the emcee of the concert, which saw 50 audience members treated for shock.
The Beatles would stay in Toronto for the night before flying out to Boston on Aug. 18.
After The Beatles played their last Canadian concert, many critics said that the band was going to be gone soon.
While the band would never tour again, they would redefine popular music for the remainder of the 1960s and remain just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
While the band would never play in Canada again, the country would still see the members of the band play individually. John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr all played solo shows in the country but arguably the most famous solo Beatle story comes from John Lennon and when he held a Bed-in For Peace in Montreal from May 26 to June 1, 1969.
Lennon and Yoko had held a bed-in in Amsterdam earlier in the year and the second bed-in was going to take place in New York but due to a 1968 cannabis conviction, Lennon was not allowed in the United States. They then intended to host the event in the Bahamas but they could only spend one night there because of the heat and it was after that they decided to hold the demonstration in Canada. They landed in Toronto and stayed at the King Edward Hotel and were granted a 10-Day Visitor Status. They had to choose between Montreal and Toronto and chose Montreal because it was closer to New York, which would make American press coverage easier. John and Yoko flew to Montreal on May 26 and stayed in rooms 1738, 1740, 1742 and 1744 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. During their week in Montreal, they would record Give Peace A Chance in room 1742 on June 1, 1969. Andre Perry, who owned a recording studio in the city, set up a simple set up of four microphones and a four-track recorder.
The couple would also meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
In 1991, the hotel received permission from Yoko Ono to begin renting room 1742 in Lennon’s name and a recent renovation turned all four rooms that the couple stayed in, into one large suite with two bedrooms, a dining room, two lounges, two bathroom and a pantry. The suite also includes virtual reality goggles so you can experience the view from the bed through the perspective of John Lennon. Today, Room 1742 is called the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Suite.
Christopher Simpson, a friend of mine from my journalism days, told me a story of a friend of his from high school who got a call from a friend in Montreal saying “you won’t believe this but I’ve got John Lennon here.” Her friend then put on a guy that sounded a lot like John Lennon but Christopher’s friend didn’t believe it, and Lennon had to convince her that it was indeed him. After a couple of minutes, she hung up. Later, she found find out that Lennon was indeed in Montreal and that was indeed him on the phone with her.
Information comes from ReadReidRead, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, Global News, Wikipedia, Manitoba Music Museum, The Toronto Star, the Beatles Bible, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Plaques