The Shea Vox continental organ
|Playing with his elbow, John Lennon at Shea Stadium, 1965.|
The Vox Continental Portable Organ used by John Lennon at the historic August 15, 1965, Shea Stadium concert, as well as the Beatles’ August 13, 1965 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and on the studio recording of “I’m Down” didn’t last long.
|The actual organ used at Shea Stadium in 1965.|
In front of a crowd of 55 600, Lennon closed out the most famous concert in history with a frenzied rendition of “I’m Down”, in which he wildly pounded on the offered keyboard, resulting in the organ not working properly for the next show in Toronto on August 17.
The next day in Atlanta, the organ was traded in for a functioning Vox Continental organ from the Thomas Organ Center – The Vox Shoppe, the exchange being completed by a local Atlanta policeman. At the concert in Atlanta they had a rare opportunity to hear the organ in concert, as the stage was equipped with something of a rarity for the Beatles in those days, monitor speakers!
It was done especially for The Beatles. FB ‘Duke’ Mewborn, the boss of Atlanta hi-fi store Baker Audio, decided to give the group something that had never been done before: monitor speakers on the stage, pointing towards the group, to allow them to hear their voices and instruments.
“It was adequate. We got over it, we were on top of it. You could hear them amidst the screaming,” commented Mewborn.
It wasn’t just on stage that the sound was different. The state-of-the-art setup on the field included four Altec 1570 amplifiers, each giving 175 watts of sound, which in turn powered two stacks of Altec A7 speakers. Although unremarkable today, in 1965 it was an unheard of amount of power for a pop concert. The difference was noted from the stage, with Paul McCartney exclaiming after “She’s A Woman”: “It’s loud, isn’t it? Great!”
Being able to hear themselves enabled The Beatles to play tighter than usual, and they were delighted with the results. Afterwards, Brian Epstein suggested that Mewborn deal with the sound for their other shows, but the offer was turned down.
The organ remained in the possession of the owner of The Vox Shoppe in Atlanta for nearly four decades.
The organ itself is distinguished by a non-standard Vox Continental logo adhered to the front of the case, which is clearly visible in pictures and film from the event and from the set of The Ed Sullivan Show two days prior.
Before auctioning away the organ in 2008 at Christies’s Punk/Rock auction at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza for $182,500, the original organ was repaired, keeping all the original parts (which were in pristine condition) and was fully functional at the time of the auction.
The organ features a four octave keyboard, wood weighted black and white keys (reversed), detachable Z-shaped chrome frame stand, orange top and accompanying cases.
Prior to the auction, the organ was featured in exhibitions at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, The Beatles Story in Liverpool and “John Lennon Unfinished Music” at Cite de la Musique in Paris.
“I’m Down” was specifically composed by McCartney to serve as the show closer, a studio version was recorded at the same day as “Yesterday” and released as the B-side of the “Help!” single and elsewhere. The Beatles had previously closed their shows with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, but wanted to be able to use one of their own songs as the closing rocker for their shows. Having tried for a while to write such a song, McCartney finally came up with “I’m Down”. “That’s Paul…with a little help from me, I think,” said John Lennon in 1980. Paul is quoted as saying, “I’m not sure if John had any input on it, in fact I don’t think he did. But not wishing to be churlish, with most of these I’ll always credit him with 10 per cent just in case he fixed a word or offered a suggestion. But at least 90 per cent of that would be mine.”
“Long Tall Sally” was still used for their European tour in June/July, but starting with the fan club concert in Blackpool, August 1st, it was replaced by “I’m Down”, just nine days after it had been released as the B-side to the “Help!” single in Britain. As we know, the song was the show closer for the USA tour in August. This was continued on the UK tour in December, and all in all “I’m Down” was performed at 34 concerts in 1965.
The song continued to be the set list closer in 1966, the first concert being the NME Poll Winners concert at Wembley Empire Pool, London, England on May 1, 1966. “I’m Down” was kept during the Bravo Beatles Blitztournee of Germany, as well as on their Far East tour of Manila and Tokyo.
Then came that final tour, the USA tour of 1966. Now The Beatles started to alternate between playing “I’m Down” and “Long Tall Sally”. When the tour started at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, IL, on August 12, 1966 “I’m Down” was played at the afternoon concert at 3 pm, but substituted by “Long Tall Sally” for the evening’s show at 7.30pm. This practice continued, whenever they played two concerts in a row somewhere, they would play “I’m Down” at one show and “Long Tall Sally” at the other. This rule is confirmed by the one exception, at both August 19 shows at the Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis, TN, “Long Tall Sally” was the featured closer. In the cities where they gave only one concert, “Long Tall Sally” was favoured, and was the closer of their last ever concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, CA on August 29. Their last performance of “I’m Down” was at one of their Seattle Center Coliseum concerts in Seattle, WA, on August 25, 1966.
As Paul McCartney was the principal singer of both songs, one would think that he would favour his own “I’m Down” when he started touring again, after The Beatles. However, it was “Long Tall Sally” that he chose to close the concerts on the Wings tour of 1972. In fact, he never sang “I’m Down” again, until the Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden, New York, on October 20, 2001, where he opened with it. At the time, McCartney was criticised for opening with such an “unknown” Beatles song.
Another eight years went by, until he started playing the song regularly on his 2009 tour of USA. He performed it nine times in the middle of the set list during that tour, before again abandoning it. The performance of the song at Citi Field in New York City was released on a live CD & DVD album from the tour, “Good Evening New York City“. In the concert film, “I’m Down” switches back and forth between McCartney’s 2009 performance and The Beatles’ 1965 performance at Shea Stadium. On the bonus DVD, the complete McCartney performance is shown.
If you want to know more about “I’m Down” you must be a Beatlemaniac, but here it is.
Another tidbit about the Atlanta organ. The local promoter had promised an Atlanta band they could open the show. Brian Epstein at first nixed that, but after the band, a surf-rock group called the Atlanta Vibrations, helped facilitate getting a replacement Vox organ for Lennon, Epstein relented and let the local band open the concert with three numbers.
The August 1stconcert at Blackpool wasn't a Fan Club show, it was a live TV broadcast in Mike and Bernie Winters' regular weekly TV show, Blackpool Night Out.