COVER STORY

THE NIGHT THE BEATLES PLAYED THE GATOR BOWL

… And almost died here

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Reminders of the legendary power and influence of The Beatles appear in the faces of listeners every time I tell the story about my thrill ride in their motorcade and my exclusive interview on their plane following their Gator Bowl concert 50 years, one month, and two weeks ago, on Sept. 11, 1964.

They hang on every word with child-like anticipation. The abridged version won’t do. They want the whole story, repeated again and again. The mesmerized have included CEOs and doctors, lawyers and politicians, journalists and musicians, grandmas and teenagers. It’s a story that enchanted even the Harvard Law School-educated president of a highbrow china company, one which I’m certain clinched a marketing job for me.

Like so many others, he sat in an almost hypnotic trance, mouth half-opened until the jaw-dropping line: But for fate, providence or divine intervention — you decide — The Beatles or I might have been killed that night by a speeding car that came like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere and barely missed the motorcade.

Imagine, if you can, a world without The Beatles after 1964, a world without Help or Rubber Soul or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The White Album. Or without Sir Paul McCartney, now 72, who performs in Jacksonville for only the second time on Oct. 25 at Veterans Memorial Arena.

Back then, in the late summer of ’64, Jacksonville provided a mixed bag of firsts for the lads from Liverpool: their first outdoor performance in winds from a hurricane; the first time they received a poor reception at the airport; and most significantly, the first place where they took a public stand on and had a public showdown over civil rights. When they learned that the Gator Bowl had segregated seating, they threatened to cancel unless stadium officials changed the policy. Though the Civil Rights Act had become the law of the land in July, in August, Northeast Florida was making national news for racial unrest and violence. Five days before they were due to perform, The Beatles issued a bold-for-the-time statement to the press: “We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere.”

The Jacksonville experience was a wakeup call for The Fab Four, one that led to a stipulation of a non-discrimination clause in their future performance contracts.

How much of an impact the legendary quartet had on civil rights in this corner of the world can only be speculated, though McCartney will return 50 years on to a Northeast Florida community that now has its first black mayor. What is clear, however, is that my own world changed dramatically after The Beatles visited Jacksonville. After my story appeared on the front page of the Jacksonville Journal, it was picked up by the Associated Press. In the days and weeks following, young girls from around the country tracked me down by phone to ask what the adored musicians were “really,
really” like.

The interview that took place in the band’s private airplane is the beginning of my Cinderella story — the defining moment in the life of a just-turned-19-year-old who was struggling to pay rent as well as tuition for night classes at Jacksonville University. Landing that story catapulted my career as a journalist. It also sparked the flames of a newsroom romance that led to a 42-year marriage and two wonderful daughters, who I am convinced would not exist had it not been for The Beatles.

And here’s the thing: I wasn’t even a fan.

 


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