I’d have to say that it was about a year ago that my Brooklyn high school classmate, and CultureSonar honcho, Al Cattabiani, ”endorsed” my idea of writing a piece about how The Beatles entwined themselves into the lives of my extended ethnic Italian-American family. The Beatles were the “glue” that bound the cousins on my father’s side of the family. The boys were obsessed with sports, but all together, we always had the Fab Four.
Candy Leonard unintentionally provided me with an opening in her excellent piece 7 Ways The Beatles Changed Boomer Childhoods Overnight. Our family story falls neatly into her 3rd category: The youngest Beatle fans started routinely hanging out with older kids.
My Dad’s parents settled in America in 1922. My grandfather initially arrived on these shores in 1911, and having been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1918 and gaining his U.S. citizenship, he returned home following his brother’s death in the Italian war effort, where he met and married my grandmother. They had 5 sons and a daughter, all of whom had children.
Our family was very Americanized, as all the boys served in the U.S. Armed Forces before leaving home and starting families, producing 21 grandchildren. This lent itself to a lot of bursting-at-the-seams family gatherings, at which point, as the oldest child of the youngest child, I was accepted into the older cousin group at an early age, never having sat the “kiddie table.” More on that below.
My “initiation” began as a kindergartner on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. We watched as a family in our apartment by Prospect Park, me focused like a laser on each of the four: the hair, the moves, and especially the harmonies. The next day, my Mom purchased Meet The Beatles! at a now long-gone Flatbush department store called Discount City. She was 23 with 3 kids, and a huge fan of the 1950’s rock and roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount.
We had a Zenith Victrola on which my Dad used to play his Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como records. He was a listener of WNEW-AM where William B. Williams spun American standards. I was 5, yet learned how to get a record started and I played that Beatles album over and over, especially Side One. I was particularly taken with the harmonies on All I’ve Got To Do and It Won’t Be Long.
My Dad’s oldest brother lived nearby, with a teenage son who took up guitar and started a band, and two daughters, slightly older than me, who had more of the records, as well as Beatle buttons, which they generously shared with me. In front of our block of apartment buildings, the street was teeming with little baby boomers talking all Beatles, all the time. I could hold my own in conversations with those “ancient” 3rd and 4th graders.
The Ed Sullivan Show became a staple in our home until it left the airwaves, save for nights when The Wonderful World Of Disney showed a cartoon. In addition to The Beatles, we watched all the other British Invasion bands, then morphed into the Folk/Pop, Motown, and the Psychedelic eras, with a smattering of Joan Rivers, Stiller and Meara, Senor Wences and of course, Topo Gigio. We had those appearances, and the two movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and that was it.
For a socially aware little kid like me, getting your music “fix” was confined primarily to TV, especially Beatle cartoons, and AM radio. I couldn’t buy my first album until I got a job in 1975, so this took work (especially after I joined Columbia House at age 5. Hey, the reply card said “free.” BTW, my Dad was really pissed). Fortunately, this is where my friends and extended family came in.
Major holidays and family events like christenings and graduations brought all my cousins together. Over time, our hair was getting longer and clothes a little wilder. We would be together, records would begin playing, and deep discussions would ensue: “Did you hear the new album?”; “Why is their hair so long on Rubber Soul?”; “No, ‘Lucy In The Sky’ is about a girl, not LSD.”; “Is Paul really dead?”; “Wait: Paul is dead?!”; “Who is Yoko?”; “They’re breaking up?”; “Who is this May Pang?”; “They’re getting back together?”; “But we just got John back.” Thud.
A really memorable event was when my cousin Mike brought his guitar to a party at my house and led us all in “Hey Jude.” That was the closest I ever felt to everyone.
To this day, we still have The Beatles. They’ve provided our wedding songs, and we make dedications on New York’s Q104.3’s “Breakfast With The Beatles” show for family events like births of grandchildren. We’ve attended concerts together to see Paul and Ringo play live, as well as The Fab Faux and Rain. Several of us have attended Beatle Fests and even visited Liverpool, and the zebra crosswalk at Abbey Road.
And to come full circle, we even said goodbye to my cousin Ron by playing Let It Be.
Sir George Martin had said that “each generation finds The Beatles.” I feel fortunate that my family found them at the very beginning in America, and that we’ve had them to provide the soundtrack to our lives.
Photo: Getty Images