The Beatles in Houston: Yesterday and Today
August 19, 1965 was a Thursday, and Houston was actually enjoying a spell of unseasonably cool weather – high temperatures were only in the middle 90s. Even then the Bayou City was one of the ten largest in the nation, but it was nowhere near the sprawling megalopolis that has now swallowed Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and parts of Liberty, Waller and Chambers counties. But it was still big enough to merit a stop on the Beatles' 1965 U.S. tour, their one and only appearance in Houston as a band.
After they split up, the members' performances in Houston ranged from zero** (John Lennon) to one, George Harrison at Hofheinz Pavilion in 1974; a few more by Ringo Starr, most recently last October at The Woodlands; and a few more than that. Paul McCartney has been here at least five times — in 1976 (with Wings), 1993, 2002, 2005 and 2012, the last a thrilling nearly three-hour tour de force in front of approximately 45,000 ecstatic fans at Minute Maid Park in November 2012. Houston has seen a lot of concerts since the Beatles — who played matinee and evening sets, the custom for popular acts of the time — but none that have so neatly divided the city's musical history into "before" and "after." To mark the occasion, today we thought we'd take a look at the Fab Four's visit from four key angles. Well, five, in honor of Houston native and "fifth Beatle" Billy Preston.
** One urban legend holds that Lennon was interested in putting together a show in the Astrodome while here on family business one time, but it all came to naught.
YESTERDAY: The Beatles came to Houston just a few days after playing Shea Stadium in New York for an estimated crowd of 55,000. Their trip interrupted the recording of an album that marked a turning point in the bands' career: Rubber Soul, which reflected their newfound interest in the folk-rock of Bob Dylan and the Byrds while adding sitar and harpsichord sounds to a host of great tunes: “Drive My Car,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Nowhere Man,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “The Word,” “Michelle,” “I'm Looking Through You,” and so forth.
TODAY: This past April marked 45 years since news of the Beatles' breakup reached the press. As of early Tuesday afternoon, five studio albums and one compilation were ranked among iTunes' 150 top-selling rock albums: 1 (No. 16), Abbey Road (No. 47), The Beatles (the “White Album,” No. 67), Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (No. 116), Revolver (No. 122), and Rubber Soul (No. 142). Recording-wise, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, they continue to be the world's best-selling group of all time, with more than 1 billion units sold worldwide. And consider this: that figure was reported to Guinness by the Beatles' label, EMI, in 2001 — before the explosion in digital-music sales. God only knows what it is a decade and a half later.
This skyline gets us every time.
Om via Flickr commons
YESTERDAY: Then pushing past the 1 million population mark (not counting the considerably diminished suburbs back then), Houston in 1965 was basking in the international spotlight as the home of the newly opened Eighth Wonder of the World, aka the Astrodome. Another newcomer to the area, NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center out in the boonies of Clear Lake, was well on its way to fulfilling President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, although the campus would not be named for his Texan successor — and the nation's sitting president in 1965 — until 1973, four year's after LBJ's death.
TODAY: The Dome has been all but abandoned, mankind has come and gone from the moon, and NASA has only recently recaptured the public's imagination with the New Horizons/Pluto mission. Meanwhile, Houston's population has doubled, with another 4 million in the surrounding metro area. Traffic still sucks, the humidity gets worse every year, there are far too many mattress stores, and the rent is too damn high. But Houston is home, and most of us love it more than ever.
YESTERDAY: The Beatles' Houston concert was sponsored by KILT 610 AM; recordings of the show have long been bootlegged. According to Anybody Seen Dan Lovett? Memoirs of a Media Nomad, the 2014 autobiography of the longtime broadcaster (and KILT reporter at the time), a rivalry with competing station KNUZ forced Houston Beatlemaniacs to wait almost a whole year before seeing the band:
The Beatles opened their North American Tour at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on August 19, 1964, followed by shows in Las Vegas, Seattle, Vancouver and Hollywood. August 26 was the open date. Paul Berlin, the most well-known disc jockey in Houston in those days, had received a call from his contact with The Beatles. He asked if Paul, who was on KNUZ, the rival rock station to KILT, would like to promote a concert by The Beatles on August 26.
Berlin jumped at the opportunity, only to look at his calendar and discover a major conflict. Paul had already booked Sonny and Cher for that date in 1964. He convinced his contact not to bring The Beatles to town and kill his booking. Thus, Houston got Sonny and Cher, while The Beatles twisted and shouted that night at the Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver.
TODAY: KILT switched formats to country in 1981 when it began simulcasting with its FM counterpart, which had in turn switched over from album rock during the Urban Cowboy craze. It became Houston's first station devoted to sports-talk in 1994, and is now primarily known as the Houston Texans' flagship station.
YESTERDAY: Opened in 1937 on the lip of Buffalo Bayou, the Sam Houston Coliseum had a capacity of just over 9,000 people, making it one of the smaller venues on the Beatles' '65 tour — cf. Comiskey Park in Chicago, Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, or Metropolitan Stadium near Minneapolis — but it was Houston's largest indoor arena until the Summit opened in 1975. Its other famous musical alumni include Elvis, the Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, the Beastie Boys and the Black Crowes, whose free concert making up a canceled AstroArena show became the widely circulated “High In Houston” bootleg. (See here for a more extensive list of Coliseum alumni.)
TODAY: To the dismay of Houston Wrestling fans everywhere, the Coliseum was bulldozed in 1998 to make way for the Hobby Center, which opened in 2003 and now traffics in relatively higher-brow fare: Broadway musicals, modern dance companies and concerts by more genteel entertainers such as Diana Krall, Josh Groban and Lyle Lovett.
Photo by Chris Gray
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YESTERDAY: The Beatles sought lodging at the Sheraton-Lincoln, a few blocks away from the Coliseum at Polk and Milam. Built in 1962, the hotel/office development was the first of its kind in Houston and featured more than 500 rooms, plus four separate dining/club areas (one of them private). At the time, future U.S. Senator from Texas Lloyd Bentsen was the president of the insurance company that partnered with Sheraton to build the structure; when the Beatles stayed there, their entourage occupied the entire 18th floor.
TODAY: The hotel closed in 1986. A plan for the neighboring Hyatt to buy it and take over the building fell through, and the building lay vacant for many years until it was finally demolished in the early 2010s. Today it's the parking garage you see above, which isn't even quite finished yet.