When The Beatles played Shea Stadium August 15th, 1965, most people don't realize there were quite a few opening acts, specifically, Killer Joe Piro and His Discothèque Dancers, Motown star Brenda Holloway, King Curtis and Sounds Incorporated. These groups all got some face time in "The Beatles Play Shea Stadium" documentary.
However, there was another opening act that did not make the film's final cut - Cannibal & the Headhunters. Instead of this gig being the band's breakthrough to the big time, sadly the Headhunters were lost in the jungles of history.
This is particularly surprising for two notable reasons. Firstly, the band made a small but critical contribution to rock & roll history with their recording of "Land of 1,000 Dances." You know, that song that goes "Na. Na Na Na Na. Na Na Na Na Na-na-na na-na-na." Legend has it that Cannibal forgot the words when they cut their version and started na-na-ing. The producer loved the improv and made it part of the song. Later on, Wilson Pickett cut his version, which most folks recognize as the definitive version. But Pickett used the Na-Na opening as well, stolen directly from Cannibal's faulty memory. Here is the band doing their thing:
Secondly, Paul McCartney specifically asked manager Brian Epstein for the "Na Na boys" to open for The Beatles on their tour. One wonders if the Beatles and the Headhunters ever talked shop backstage at Shea or anywhere on that tour. And did Paul steal Cannibal's lyrics for the ending of Hey Jude? Is the band entitled to any royalties?
Thirdly, Cannibal & the Headhunters are part of a rich yet little appreciated part of music history - latin rock bands. The North Hollywood arts blog just published a fascinating history of Chicano rock, from which Kingman just learned of C & the H's contribution to Shea and rock & roll history. Please take a moment to read the entire article. Meanwhile, here is the excerpt about my new favorite band, at least for today:
On August 15, 1965, while their hometown, Los Angeles, was in the midst of its worst-ever race riot, four Mexican-American performers in their late teens prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium in New York. Outside their makeshift dressing room, some 55,000 fans were arriving to the biggest stadium concert in the 10-year history of rock and roll. They bought tickets not to see this band, Cannibal and the Headhunters, but the Beatles, who would perform later.
The story is that Paul McCartney had told the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein, he wanted the "Na Na boys" to open for the British group on the August portion of its 1965 American tour. Earlier that year, Cannibal and the Headhunters had released a cover of a song originally recorded in 1961 by Chris Kenner, a black performer from New Orleans, entitled "Land of a Thousand Dances" that featured the lead singer, Frankie Garcia (Cannibal), chanting "na, na, na, na, na" in a slow, sexy sequence for the opening 15-20 seconds. "Land of a Thousand Dances" became a national hit, partly because listeners were intrigued by that unusual opening, which legend has it occurred when Garcia forget the actual lyrics. Rather than have the band start over, producer Billy Cardenas has said he signaled from the recording booth for them to keep going, hearing in that spontaneous introduction a brilliant hook.
Perhaps McCartney had the song in his head a few years later, when he wrote "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da," with its inclusion of the nonsensical sounds "bra," "la" and "da." A year after Cannibal and the Headhunters released "Land of a Thousand Dances," the great soul singer Wilson Pickett recorded his own version that included the same opening. As a consequence of the Pickett recording, which reached # 6 on the Billboard Top 40, black civil rights marchers in the late summer of 1966 chanted "na na na na..." as they walked across dusty southern back roads, probably unaware that the phrase had originated with a charismatic Mexican-American singer from East Los Angeles.
For Cannibal and the Headhunters and their manager, a white man in his 30s named Eddie Davis, who loved watching young Mexican-American groups perform rhythm and blues songs in their unique style, the offer to open for the Beatles on a tour that included a stop at the Hollywood Bowl was both exhilarating and daunting. The opportunity couldn't be surpassed -- an audience of 50,000+, national media coverage, the possibility of trading on a connection to the most popular rock and roll band in the world -- but delirious Beatle fans, especially girls between the ages of 12 and 17, were not known for their patience and understanding.
Ever since the Beatles first came to the United States, in February 1964, their concerts had included fans - most of them female -- who behaved with rudeness and disdain toward the hapless opening acts, which the kids regarded as useless diversions preventing them from hearing and seeing the kings of rock and roll. Since many of these performers looked like the Beatles, what chance did four brown-skin youths who played black-based r'n'b have in keeping the audience engaged?
But the Beatles and especially their manager Brian Epstein made a wise choice. Cannibal and the Headhunters had already endured the pressure of performing on stage for black audiences who until the rising of the curtain assumed the group looked like them. They had been fooled by "Land of a Thousand Dances," specifically its hard, bass-driven funk sound and one-chord structure, ideal for an extended soul jam at a live performance. Further circumstantial evidence of the group's blackness could be gleaned from the calm confidence of the lead singer that he has mastered all the latest dances steps, and its name, suggestive of Africa, though hardly in a flattering way. Members of the group in subsequent interviews recounted with amusement the puzzled looks on the faces of black patrons at East Coast urban venues when they discovered the true identity of Cannibal and the Headhunters. But when the song started, propelled by the familiar beat, and the group performed their tight, self-choreographed dance routines, including the rowboat, which involved them sitting on the stage, a few feet apart, moving their hips in unison, black audiences went wild. Forgotten was the curious ethnic makeup of the group; all that mattered was that they sounded and looked as genuine as anything in the Motown stable of stars.
After that experience, what did the guys have to fear from suburban teens in a state of hysteria counting down the seconds before the announcer proclaimed "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles"!!? Looking back decades later, the members of Cannibal and the Headhunters recalled the surreal quality of the performances, including Shea Stadium; massive audiences, many of whom appeared to be miles from the stage, alternately bored, indifferent or excited while the group tore into "Land of a Thousand Dances." Some residents of Ramona Gardens, the housing projects east of downtown LA where the four were raised, and surrounding Mexican-American neighborhoods managed to score tickets to the Beatles concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which took place two weeks after the Shea Stadium performance. For these concertgoers, a minority in more ways than one, the British group was great, but the opening act was special. Around Ramona, the headline in late August of '65 was not "Beatles come to Los Angeles," but "local boys make good."
Because according to the 1966 Batman Message Board, The Caped Crusader himself, along with The Riddler also played a gig at Shea Stadium on June 25, 1966.
Besides Adam West and Frank Gorshin, the show was supposed to feature eight other acts:
The Young Rascals. The Detroit Sound. The Batusi Girls Jr. Walker and The All-Stars. The Temptations The Chiffons Shades of Blue. Skitch Henderson and his orchestra.
Then Batman himself would ride out of the bullpen to greet the crowd and battle the Riddler, before both villain and hero sang a few numbers. But according to the NY Times coverage of the day, the concert was less than successful, forever relegated to the deepest recesses of Shea's finer musical moments.
If you were there, please let us know some more details!
But August was a great month in general for Shea's rock & roll history. Simon & Garfunkel, The Concert for Peace are just a few of the momentous gigs hosted at Loge13's former home.
Another legendary August gig is worth mentioning - The Police rocked Shea in August, 1983. As we previously wrote, Joan Jett and REM opened for Sting and co that day. Besides playing the big blue and orange stage, The Police shared a similarity with other Shea bands.Simon disdained his Garfunkel. John argued with his Paul. The Clashed clashed and The Who barely got along. But The Police seemed to really hate each other at times.
And here's some proof. In this British news clip, The Police are being interviewed backstage at Shea when Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland begin to wrestle. Turns out, Sting broke his rib on camera and would play hurt at Shea, making him an honorary Met. If you don't have the patience for the whole clip, jump to 3:33 for the carnage:
The Beatles christened the joint - and really invented stadium rock - August 15, 1965. But some folks forget that The Beatles took the Long & Winding Road back to Shea in 1966, exactly 44 years ago Yesterday.
Unlike the previous year's gig, the August 23, 1966 show was not a sellout. According to the Beatles Bible, over 11,000 tickets remained unsold. Was this a sign of The Beatles' waning popularity (remember this was after John's "Bigger than Jesus" comments) or were fans just apprehensive about being caught in the same teeny-bopper angst that occurred in 1965?
Even if a sellout eluded the Liverpudlians, the gig was still a success. According to Beatles Bible:
"The Beatles made more money from their appearance than they had in 1965,
receiving $189,000 - 65 per cent of the gross takings of $292,000."
Fans did not come together to enjoy a long set. here is the complete play list:
Rock And Roll Music She's A Woman If I Needed Someone Day Tripper Baby's In Black I Feel Fine Yesterday I Wanna Be Your Man Nowhere Man Paperback Writer Long Tall Sally
By this point, the band had endured a lifetime of Hard Day's Nights. The photo above of John in a Shea locker room clearly shows an artist removed from his days of cheery mop top abandonment. In fact, the 1966 Shea gig was one of the last shows The Beatles ever played in the U.S. Less than a week later, the band would perform in San Francisco, before heading to Japan. After that, the Fab Four would never tour again.
P.S. - BTW While The Beatles rocked Shea the night of August 23, 1966, The Mets rocked Wrigley Field during the day, beating Leo Durocher's Cubs 4-1. Cleon Jones hit a 2-run homer in the 7th to open up the lead for Wes Westrum's club, earning a complete game victory for Dennis Ribant.
Big props to the Mets for giving props to Brooklyn's own Adam MCA Yauch, one third of the mighty Beastie Boys, who passed away from cancer Friday at the too young age of 47.
David Wright has been walking up to the plate to Beasties for years...usually Sabotage from Ill Communication. The NY Daily News reported that the whole team changed their tune Friday night:
During Friday's game against Arizona, the Mets paid tribute to the New
York music icon by playing Beasties music when they walked up to the
plate. The idea was hatched and spearheaded by infielder Justin Turner and outfielder Scott Hairston.
David Wright, who usually walks up to the Beasties "Sabotage," used "Brass Monkey" on Friday.
Personally I would have walked up to "Sure Shot." The Beasties were a huge part of 1986 and my freshman year of college...Licensed to Ill and Queens own Run DMC's Rasing Hell were in perpetual rotation, along with Lets Go Mets Go. Back then, sporting a Mets hat was not an ironic gesture. Here are The Beastie Boys rocking the mike on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. RIP MCA: