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New Beatles Exhibit Focuses on Early American Influences - 2001-08-14

American influences on the early music of the Beatles is the subject of a new exhibition at Liverpool's Beatles' Story Museum.

Called "Inspirations: the American Roots of the Beatles' Music," the exhibit depicts the artists and music the Fab Four listened to and copied in the late 1950s and early '60s before they developed their own sound.

By the time the Beatles took the world by storm, they had been playing together since the late '50s. That is when they were teenagers honing their craft to the beat of American rock n' roll.

It is this early time that is the focus of the latest exhibition at the Beatles' Story Museum located in Liverpool's dockside area on the banks of the Mersey River.

The exhibit is the first joint project between the museum and the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Among the memorabilia on display are Duane Eddy's guitar, Gene Vincent's leather jacket and a wide variety of photographs and publicity material.

Shelagh Johnston is the curator at the Beatles' Story Museum. She says a lot of the American musical influences in Liverpool in the 1950s came via the sea. "The American seafarers would come into Liverpool. They would go into the local jazz clubs and blues cellars because Liverpool always had a tremendous sort of culture anyway," she explains. "It was just different and this American influence suddenly started to take a hold and of course, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, it was all happening here and the whole thing melted into this huge melting pot, which eventually exploded into the Mersey sound of the early '60s. So, the youngsters here were quite well up on American rock n' roll from the mid to late '50s."

Back in those days, Ms. Johnston knew the group well because she ran the Beatles fan club in Liverpool. She says Paul McCartney was especially fond of certain records coming off the ships. "Buddy Holly. His music," she says. "Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, I think were probably his greatest admired. Certainly not speaking on his behalf, but just going by his music and the influences and the way Paul's music is portrayed, I think beautiful melody and ballad songs are his forte."

And as for the influences on his future song writing partner, John Lennon, "I think Elvis was a great influence and I think also people like Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, just the exciting side of rock n' roll music that influenced John, probably," Ms. Johnston says.

Original Beatles' drummer, Pete Best remembers those wonderful days, now 40 years ago, of sitting around with the lads, listening to American rock n' roll singles and trying to copy them word for word. "The songs were, if you look back at them, quite simple in the melody lines and the vocal harmonies and all the rest of it," he says. "So, the actual content of them was pretty easy, it was not anything that was too extravagant. But basically what you were doing was listening to it. Getting the format. Getting the drum patterns down. You know, John and George would be getting the guitar riffs, the underlying chords. Whether there were any harmonies there. Stu or Paul would be listening to the baseline. And it was basically a case of: OK, have we got those parts off? And if it was a case of, yeah, let us throw it into the melting pot and let's play it. And we will play it the way we felt it should come out."

And once the early Beatles felt comfortable with a few new songs, Mr. Best says they went right out and played them on stage. "It went down very well simply because of the fact that we were playing a lot of - suppose you could say now, it is a horrible expression - but hard-edged rock," Mr. Best says. "From the great rock n' rollers. And we were not too much into what was going on in the English hit parade. We felt that that was a little bit light for us. In as much as sort of the way the songs were being written, the way it was being delivered. So, we were concentrating more on the American greats."

And if not for those American greats, Pete Best says the Beatles would have never become as big as they eventually did. "Without those influences," he says, "it was those early influences which made us sit down and turn around and say, OK, let see if we can write some material."

They obviously did and they went on to become what many consider the greatest rock n' roll band in history.

The exhibition at the Beatles' Story Museum continues through next April and it will be one of the highlights as well at this year's Liverpool Beatle Fest, which runs from August 22-28.