America is once again taking a hard look at racism, and it didn’t take long for Sir Paul McCartney to weigh in. On June 5, 2020, McCartney posted a reminder of the historic stand his former group, the Beatles, took regarding the proposed segregation of a concert they performed in the South. In his post, he stated, “In 1964, the Beatles were due to play Jacksonville (Florida) and we found out that it was going to be a segregated audience. It felt wrong. We said ‘We’re not doing that!’ And the concert we did do was to their first non-segregated audience. We then made sure this was in our contract. To us, it seemed like common sense.”
McCartney and the rest of the Beatles were bold, especially in 1964, to stand against racism, eager to have all races sit, scream and even faint together. But what was the real story behind the group’s refusal to perform before segregated audiences? Who was the driving force in adding the desegregation clause to their contract rider, and when was it done? And why did McCartney refer only to Jacksonville when they also rocked 23 other cities during that historic tour?
The story of the Beatles’ refusal to perform before segregated audiences actually began in January 1964, a full eight months before the Jacksonville concert. Beatles manager Brian Epstein had booked his group to play a short residency at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. While there, Epstein meet Norman Weiss who was vice president of a New York talent agency named General Artists Corporation, or GAC. Epstein and Weiss discussed the following month’s appearances of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. If those went well, they would come back to America and do a full-scale tour. Weiss knew the American concert landscape well. His knowledge of promoters, venues, hotels and even airline companies to charter planes was vast, and Epstein needed that experience to successfully navigate business in a country unfamiliar to him.
The Beatles’ manager was charting new territory while guiding the hottest act in entertainment and was certainly unacquainted with staging a large-scale tour. He had never fancied himself a manager of a rock ‘n’ roll band and rather preferred the theater. However, in November of 1961, Epstein found himself in a dingy basement club under Mathew Street in Liverpool to see four ill-mannered, leather-clad rockers who were belting out a steady stream of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll to the teenage lunch crowd. He saw something he liked and offered to manage them. After a lot of hard work and more than their share of ups and downs, the group’s popularity in Britain soared. Epstein was a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal and completely taboo. He was also Jewish, so he had often found himself the target of discrimination and insult.
After the band’s successful appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Epstein and Weiss agreed for GAC to represent the group for what would be a monumental tour — 32 shows in 24 cities in 26 venues in just 33 days. The tour would gross over a million dollars. Weiss would comment that in the more than 15 years he had been in the business, he didn’t know of any attraction that could generate that much money in so short a time.
Weiss went to work and presented Brian with a six-page document laden with dates, cities, venues, and potential revenue. Along with well-known metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there was also a large swath of regional cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, and Las Vegas that wanted a piece of the Beatles. Epstein carefully selected the cities and venues where he wanted the group to perform. He maneuvered away from large venues like stadiums that seated tens of thousands, instead gravitating toward smaller, more manageable spaces. Epstein also selected a host of cities in the South such as Montgomery, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Jacksonville. What Epstein didn’t realize were the complexities of race relations in America at the time and Jim Crow laws. It would take Weiss to help guide him through that uncharted territory.
In June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy sought legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” After Kennedy’s assassination, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to finalize the former President’s desire to desegregate saying that “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
On March 30, 1964, a bill came up before the full Senate to debate the proposed Civil Rights Act, and the day after that historic debate, Epstein agreed to contract with Weiss and GAC to formalize the Beatles’ return invasion of the U.S. beginning in August.
Once Epstein decided which cities the Beatles would play, formal contracts were sent out by GAC agents to promoters. In addition to the performance contract, a rider was attached. In 1964, the group’s tour rider was simple, and only page-and-a-half in length. Among the requests were police protection and such technical items as two “Super Trouper” spotlights, microphones, and 40 feet of cord. However, one request stood out and would prove extraordinarily bold for 1964 America. In clause 6, it stated that “ARTISTS WILL NOT BE REQUIRED TO PERFORM BEFORE A SEGREGATED AUDIENCE.”
The “desegregation clause” as it was known was not added just for Southern venues the Beatles performed in but was included from the very start of their touring years in America in 1964, and continued in force during the tours of 1965 and 1966. The rider stipulation was only needed in America. In no other country where the group performed was the clause in the rider necessary.
The person chiefly responsible for including the clause in the rider was Brian Epstein, perhaps with the advice of Norman Weiss. The Beatles themselves usually didn’t get involved in the business side and trusted Epstein to handle negotiations and contracts. Their knowledge of the insertion of the segregation clause in their tour rider perhaps came many months later, and maybe not until the eve of the August 19th launch of the 1964 tour at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
The first evidence of the segregation issue emerged the following day at the press conference at the second stop of the tour in Las Vegas, Nevada. Journalist Larry Kane posed a question to McCartney about segregation at the upcoming show in Jacksonville. The Beatle responded by saying, “We don’t like it if there’s any segregation or anything, because we’re not used to it. We’ve never played to segregated audiences before, and it just seems mad to me. I mean, it may seem right to some people, but to us, it just seems a bit daft.” He ended his comments by speaking for his other three bandmates, “This is the way we all feel and a lot of people in England feel that way because there’s never any segregation in concerts in England and in fact if there was, we probably wouldn’t play them.” Perhaps the boldest on the issue was John Lennon. While giving an interview to Ivor Davis of the London Daily Express at the Toronto stop on September 7th, Lennon stated, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now…I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”
Jacksonville did indeed seem to be the flashpoint even though there were scheduled concerts in New Orleans and Dallas. Still, through the decades, a false narrative surfaced, blaming the Jacksonville concert promoters for threatening segregated seating. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The promoters for the Jacksonville show were the Brennan brothers — W.J. “Bill”, Cyril and Dan “The Music Man”. The brothers and their powerful network of stations (including WAPE, WVOK, WBAM, and WFLI) blanketed coverage in the southeastern United States. They had also spearheaded a hugely successful concert series under such names as the “Shower of Stars”, “The Big BAM Shows”, and “The Big APE Convention”. These shows featured big name, multi-act presentations that rivaled those of Dick Clark. Most noteworthy is the fact that all of their concerts were open to any race; no segregation existed. However, it should be noted the majority of organized large-scale concerts of the day were attended by mostly white audiences.
If the Brennans were not to blame for the threat of segregation, who was? The answer may be found in Jacksonville’s own city officials. The Gator Bowl was municipally-owned and followed Jim Crow laws. Whites were allowed to sit anywhere whereas African-American’s were relegated to the upper tiers of the stadium or certain sections. Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July, Gator Bowl officials had every right to segregate the concert.
The Beatles concert on September 11th was the first concert the Gator Bowl hosted. Discussions about seating by the venue’s management no doubt ensued after the Brennans signed the performance contract with GAC and Epstein on April 16th. However, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July, cities across the nation were attempting to erase segregation laws. Despite this effort, many areas of the South, including Jacksonville, were slow to act. The city of Jacksonville would be going against the law if they tried to enforce segregated seating, and the legally binding tour rider certainly wasn’t in the city’s favor.
While Gator Bowl officials relented to a desegregated audience for the concert, two other venues Epstein had chosen were problematic. One was the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, which was to host a concert on September 10th. The other was Municipal Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a show had been set for September 15th. The state of Alabama was challenging in that Governor George W. Wallace had declared a year earlier, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” And North Carolina was equally slow to act in integrating public spaces. Consequently, both concerts were scrapped.
Another problem arose prior to the concert when a union organization, The American Guild of Variety Artists, threatened to form a picket line around the Gator Bowl until its demands of dues and fees were met. The Beatles could play their instruments but were not allowed to sing a note until Epstein and GAC gave in and paid the fees. They did.
After the 16th stop of the tour in Montreal, Canada, the Beatles entourage boarded its chartered American Flyers flight to Florida. Along with the segregation issue, another problem was brewing off the Florida coast: Hurricane Dora. The pilots for American Flyers Airlines suggested to tour management that they divert to Key West to escape Dora’s path. The original plan had been to arrive in Jacksonville and spend two days aboard a private yacht before the concert on the 11th.
With the remnants of Dora still swirling, and President Johnson departing after surveying the damage, the Beatles’ plane touched down in the early afternoon at Jacksonville’s Imeson Field, arriving from Key West. The city resembled a war zone. Harrison recalled that “it was windy as hell, and it was dark with heavy black clouds everywhere. As we were approaching, we could see the devastation — palms trees fallen over and a mess laying everywhere.”
The touring party was immediately whisked to the next problematic (and controversial) destination — The Hotel George Washington. “The Wonder Hotel of the South”, as it was known, did not accept African-American guests, even after the Civil Rights Act had become law. The first hint of a problem with the Beatles’ booking at the hotel arose at the press conference in Denver on August 26th. When asked about segregation and their Jacksonville hotel’s pro-segregation policy, Harrison responded, “We don’t know about our accommodations at all. We don’t arrange that. We don’t appear anywhere where there is (segregation), I mean, half of our show is colored, anyway.” At another press gathering a few days before their Florida arrival, a journalist asked, “Why did you cancel your hotel reservations in Jacksonville?” Hoping to avert a scene, Lennon skirted around the question. The reservations at the George Washington had already been canceled because the Beatles’ entourage included Black support acts, among them the Exciters and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Brenda Reid, lead singer of the Exciters, even had her mother accompany her and the rest of the group on the tour. The question of who canceled the reservations first, GAC or the Hotel George Washington is still up for debate.
However, the Beatles did use the hotel for their obligatory press conference prior to the concert. Once again, the group members brought attention to the social injustices of the day. At the gathering, a question was asked about their stay and their room situation. Munching a turkey sandwich, Ringo Starr calmly replied, “We usually eat in the room, but seeing the hotel’s got no room for us, we have to eat here.” Lennon added, “it’s unfortunate, that,” with Starr adding the final emphasis, “unfortunate.”
The appearance of the Beatles at the Gator Bowl was delayed until an unauthorized film crew that had dogged the band at each concert stop was ordered to leave the venue. Beatles press officer Derek Taylor came out on stage and enlisted the crowd’s help to oust the filmmakers from the grounds. Epstein was strongly against others earning royalties without his knowledge.
Despite Hurricane Dora and the destruction it left in its wake, the Gator Bowl hosted around 23,000 fans, a figure still far short of the Brennan brothers’ expectations. But the Beatles carried on, performing a rousing 37-minute set on a wind-blown stage. After the concert, the group boarded transport back to the airport and flew out in the middle of the night to their next stop in Boston.
The Beatles’ stand against segregation is well-known, but the story has been flawed for decades. The desegregation rider was in force for the Jacksonville concert but was always in place — from the very beginning of the tour at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1964 all the way to the last-ever show at Candlestick Park in 1966. The promoters, the Brennan brothers, never threatened segregation at the Gator Bowl and, in fact, hosted desegregated rock ‘n’ roll concerts all through the southeast for a couple of decades. Beatles manager Brian Epstein, a long-forgotten part of story, was really the driving force for adding the desegregation clause in the tour rider, receiving the Beatles’ full support. As McCartney said in 2020, recollecting 1964, “to us it seemed like common sense.”
It seems even truer today.
Photo: Beatles in 1964 (Getty Images)