When John Lennon Channeled Jerry Lee Lewis at the Beatles’ Shea Stadium Concert
If you hear about The Beatles‘ final tour, you can see why the Fab Four stopped performing live. During that last pass through America, the Fab Four grappled with a “ban” of their music in the South (and threats from various groups) on top of the usual security risks.
But that was only the half of it. Maybe the biggest problem of all was the sound. With tens of thousands of girls screaming, the band couldn’t hear themselves play. Ringo Starr recalled the band’s playing as “really bad” and the shows themselves “pretty boring” in those days.
John Lennon, who described the band’s concerts as “sort of a freak show,” had begun singing whatever joke lyrics popped into his head at these dates. (No one could hear anything, anyhow.) But John recognized the power of some Beatles shows.
The band’s attendance-record-breaking ’65 show at Shea Stadium stood out in particular. “It was marvelous,” John said in Anthology. “It was the biggest crowd we ever played to, anywhere in the world.” And John channeled Jerry Lee Lewis on the band’s “screamer” of a track, “I’m Down.”
John went for Lewis’s wild piano theatrics on ‘I’m Down’
During the Beatles’ performing days, the band was big on rockers that would keep the crowd jumping. That August 15 at Shea, they brought a full-tilt set that included, “Ticket to Ride,” “I Feel Fine,” “Help!,” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Just when fans thought they couldn’t scream anymore, the band tore into “I’m Down,” the blistering “corker” of a song Paul McCartney wrote in the Little Richard style. As on the studio version, John handled the Vox organ part — and he made it count.
While George Harrison took a guitar solo, the camera flashed to John going wild at the keys. “I was doing all Jerry Lee,” he later said. “I was jumping about and I only played about two bars of it … I was putting my foot on it and George couldn’t play for laughing.”
In the footage, you see John also dropping his elbow on the keys for several crazy runs on the keyboard. For John’s own solo, he pulls out more tricks in the “Killer” handbook, like raising his left hand while playing with his right.
John kissed Lewis’s feet at a 1970s concert
There were few people John held in higher esteem than Jerry Lee, the rock pioneer who shook the world with tracks like “Great Balls of Fire.” And if you watch vintage footage of Jerry Lee in his prime shows, you see why John felt that way.
On a typical run through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” the Killer would slam the high notes with his foot while playing his song’s chords below. (The crowd’s fevered reaction tells the rest of the story.) There was simply no one like him.
When John met Jerry Lee at a 1970s show in Los Angeles, the former Beatle did all he could to pay his respects. That included John getting down on the ground so he could kiss Jerry Lee’s feet. While it’s hard to surprise the Killer, he definitely didn’t see that coming.
“I had no idea [Lennon] was going to do that,” he told GQ in 2009. “[John] said, ‘I just wanted you to know you are the man who made it possible for me to be a star in rock ‘n’ roll music.’ I just kind of froze. Nobody has ever done that.”