By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Thursday, March 16, 2017
Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney
When The Beatles toured North America in 1964, late summer, fan mobs tracked them like a public prey.
“The Beatles couldn’t get out anywhere,” recalled Bill English, a singer on the tour, decades later. “When we played Vegas [the second stop] they couldn’t go down and gamble or play slot machines. We’re staying at the Sands Hotel, and they took slot machines up to the rooms.
“When we played at Indianapolis, people started rocking the bus… And New Orleans was the worst. It was scary.”
The Beatles took refuge on their chartered tour jet, airborne, letting loose in high seclusion. “There wasn’t any sitting in your seat on flights. It was a wild party every time,” said English, formerly of the Bill Black Combo, front band of the Fab Four. “We had a tail section on the plane, a big round couch with a bar. We’d be back there talking and drinking, having a big time.”
That’s how English learned of a Beatles plot for escape to the Ozarks, at the plane bar, Thursday night of the final week on tour. A secret trip to the Missouri hills had been arranged, exclusively for the famed rockers, but they wanted English on that party too. He recounted the conversation:
“Come ’ere,” said Paul McCartney, motioning to English, an Ozarks native. English drew close and McCartney briefed him in Brit accent. “We’re going to a place called Alton, Missourah. ’ave you ever heard of it? We want you to go with us.”
“Alton, Missouri?” English replied, sensing another Beatles prank. “Man, that’s only about 50 miles from my hometown, Piedmont, Missouri.”
“Yeah,” McCartney said. “We’re going to leave for Alton and nobody knows. We’re going to this ranch and ride horses and everything. Then they’re going to pick us up and we’re going on to New York City.”
Thirty years later, English laughed at the memory. “It takes me about 10 or 15 minutes, and I realize McCartney’s serious. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ ”
In early August of 1964, Bill English prepared for his second year of teaching junior-high PE classes at Potosi, Mo., in the state’s Lead Belt. He was 24, stalled in rock n’ roll after showing potential. Then his college band-mate Bob Tucker phoned from Memphis, a rising guitarist and booking agent.
Tucker now led the Bill Black Combo, named for its founder, the former bass player for Elvis Presley. The Beatles had requested The Combo for their new American swing through 28 cities in 31 days, and Tucker needed a singer.
“I had three weeks to go before teaching school,” English said. “And Tucker calls me, says, ‘I’ve talked to Bill Black, and he said call English and see if he wants the job.’ I’d set in, sung with different groups around northeast Arkansas and Memphis, and Black had heard me. Well, my mom and dad had worked all my life to put me through school, to get me a degree to teach or coach—but I wanted to play rock n’ roll. So bad.”
English would make $4,420 in salary for the school year. Tucker guaranteed him a year’s music dates for about $10,000 plus pay for the Beatles tour. English’s decision seemed easy, but first he had to see his father, Joe English, long-time music director at Piedmont High. “So I drive from Potosi to Piedmont, dreadin’ to tell my dad. But he said, ‘Man, get your clothes packed! Go for it.’ ”
Potosi Schools had to find a new PE teacher and Bill English was on his way to the Beatles tour, however slowly the ride began. “Bob Tucker, great guy—he always figured out how he could save some money, because he was manager of the group,” English said. “And Tucker put us on a bus in Memphis. Greyhound. We rode fifty-seven hours… to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. From then on it was first class.”
English and Tucker didn’t begin as Beatles fans, really. They were “rockabilly” players from the ’50s, influenced by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, more. But so were The Beatles, as Tucker found out.
“When we were in Key West, Florida, Ringo and Paul came up to me and said, ‘Look, can you go to town and buy us some albums? We want to hear some music,’ ” Tucker recalled, speaking with me in Marion, Ark. “So they give me $600, and I went into town and I bought every damn album I could find.
“And, man, they would put an album on, and play a cut, then set it sailing across the room. But when they got to Carl Perkins, or Jerry Lee Lewis, or anything that came out of the Memphis region, by god they played every cut. They really listened. And I feel like they came up with doing a couple of Carls [Perkins songs on the tour] because of that. They had a high regard for Memphis music and southern music. Definitely Memphis music.”
The Beatles show began with the Bill Black Combo, followed by The Righteous Brothers, The Exciters, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jackie DeShannon, additional acts depending on locale, before the big headliner.
The Combo landed “a lot of work because we were instrumental, we had some chart records, so we were a viable opening act,” Tucker said. “That’s why we were on the Beatle tour, because we went out and did our two or three songs, and then we backed the other solo artists. They didn’t have to have four bands. On the Beatle tour, there were four acts in front of them. Today it would be only The Beatles.”
English remembered: “We’d come on, the Bill Black Combo, and I was the fortunate person—or unfortunate one—to walk out there. The first person to say, Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to The Beatles tour. Well, you just said the word Beatles anytime, people went crazy.”
English and Tucker held no illusion of their own stardom, or lack of it. Yet ego duped English at least once, on stage at Forest Hills Stadium in New York. “I got into about the third song…,” he said. “And the crowd was nice; they’d applauded and everything.
“But I mean, buddy, all of a sudden they came to their feet. And I think, Man alive, I’m gettin’ to ’em! They’re diggin’ me! And Tucker, he’s kinda sarcastic and loved to do this—he could tell I was really gittin’ off—and he walks up behind me on stage, says, ‘English, you idiot. They’re not clapping for you. The Beatles are landing backstage in a helicopter right now!’ ”
Friday evening, Sept. 18, 1964, The Beatles tour played in Dallas at Memorial Auditorium. From there the Fab Four and Bill English bolted for the Missouri Ozarks, bound for a private estate along the spring-fed Eleven Point River. “We left Dallas right after The Beatles hit the last note,” English recalled.
“We went backstage, out the back, and got into laundry trucks. They took us to a limousine and out to the airport. We flew that night to the old Walnut Ridge Air Force base in northeast Arkansas.”
Reed Pigman, owner of the charter airlines transporting The Beatles, had set them up at his secluded ranch on the Eleven Point. There they could unwind some 36 hours in solitude, supposedly. A local man, Junior Lance, came to Walnut Ridge to meet the rock stars, fetch them back to the Missouri hills.
“Junior Lance,” English said, smiling, reminded of the name. “So he picked us up. Back then you called his Chevrolet a Carryall, and now they’re Suburbans. And we go through Pocahontas [Ark.] and McCartney wanted to stop and get a cheeseburger, something to eat. Junior said, ‘Nope, I have orders to take you straight to the ranch.’ He kinda thought they were goofy, the Beatles. And we show up there and nobody was supposed to know. Nobody. It was top secret.”
But awry had gone the plan, already. “We had no more got into the house and the phone started ringing,” English said. “At that time, KXOK in St. Louis was the Top 40 station around. For years on radio. And we’d answer the phone—I’d answer—and they’d say, ‘Are the Beatles really there?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Thus, typically of wherever The Beatles slept that August and September in America, fans awaited them next morning outside—a rural stone road notwithstanding. Number estimates vary on the small crowd who country-stalked The Beatles at Pigman Ranch that Saturday, appearing at the gate from wee hours onward. A few hundred total, perhaps, with the proverbial crying girls.
One young woman didn’t fuss over rebuff by Beatles security. Judy Woods, reared locally, knew an alternative route to see The Beatles at Pigman Ranch—through her husband, Don, budding premier guide of Ozarks fishing. I spoke with Don Woods in 1994, streams expert, the same week I interviewed other locals and Bill English about The Beatles in ’64.
“The front gate [at Pigman], they had it guarded. They wouldn’t let people in that big ol’ buffalo fence,” Woods said. “I told Judy I’d go home and get the boat and motor.”
Woods met back with his wife a couple miles upstream from Pigman property at Riverton village, a country store and dwellings. They launched boat below the bridge of Highway 160, joined aboard by a couple friends. Oldest age of the group was barely 20. “The moon was out. We didn’t even take a flashlight, afraid somebody would see us, you know,” recalled Woods, a friend of the Pigmans.
“We went on down the Eleven Point, and I’d been a guide about four years at that time. I was familiar with the water, and I knew where to park the boat down there and walk up a road to the ranch… We opened a backyard gate and walked in around this large home, which had about 14 rooms. Just slipped in there, stillness of night, and peeked in the big window and there they were [The Beatles]. That was the first long hair I’d ever seen on a man,” Woods said, chuckling. “And they were playin’ cards, havin’ a good time. They had some women in there with ’em.”
English didn’t know those groupies in the house on Eleven Point River. The women weren’t local, he said later, and Pigman barred stewardesses from this Beatles trip. Whatever, twas a fine time, apparently, although rock stars were paranoid in moments, even out in the sticks.
McCartney managed to rattle English a bit himself, the Ozarker, what for the Londoner’s country driving. The two had grabbed fishing poles and headed for a pond on the Pigman estate. “McCartney gets into about a ’50 Ford and we’re driving down this gravel road,” English said. “Paul says, ‘I haven’t driven a car in years!’ I said, ‘Slow down.’ He said, ‘I don’t have a driver’s license! They took my license away from me!’
“So we end up goin’ fishing at a pond, me and Paul McCartney… We’re sitting there at the pond, just fishing, and here out of nowhere these people start comin’ on. Paul says, ‘If they get to the other side of the pond, we’re making a mad dash to the car.’ And we did, because he was scared to death. It was wild.
“We had a good time though. We rode horses,” English said. “A lot of people will remember the cover of Life Magazine, shot by Ron Joy. We had about five photographers [on the tour], and he took the picture of the Beatles sticking their heads out of the horse stall at the barn at Alton, Missouri.”
Bill English died of recurring cancer at age 66 in 2006, a retired salesman and musician, longtime resident of Van Buren, Mo., on the Current River near Big Spring. Many folks near and far had lost a beloved friend, but one of character unforgettable, forever alive in mind.
Last week Bob Tucker laughed in northeast Arkansas, river delta land across from Memphis, discussing his old college roomie and stage mate. “English—The Beatles liked him, and invited him to go to the ranch with ’em, and all that stuff.”
Tucker’s round face lit up, eyes twinkling. He’d get in the last shot between two smart-assed pals, with love. “Bill English did more with less talent than anybody in the history of music. You can quote me,” Tucker declared, laughing.
“What Bill English did have was personality and showmanship. Now, he was long and tall on that. And he was a great friend, and he had a talent for making everybody feel like he was their best friend. And that’s a gift.”
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.