The late Larry Payton, founder and captain of the Celebrity Attractions ship, did a lot of great things for Tulsa. He also did something pretty great for the members of 1964: The Tribute, one of the world's preeminent Beatles tribute acts, too. He booked the hell out of them.
Since 1984, 1964 has played at least one show in Tulsa every year.
"Thanks to Larry Payton, Tulsa is the only city we've been in every single year we've been together," said Mark Benson, who plays the role of John Lennon with the faux Fab Four. "Larry was just gold."
That's worked out well for Benson and friends, since they get to play live music for a living, but it's been a boon for fans, too--and not just diehard Beatles lovers, either.
"We never intended it to be full time, and we'll probably do 100 shows this year," Benson said. "I was as surprised as anyone. You'd expect people who grew up with it to be nostalgic about it, but we've found that there's no age group that doesn't love this."
He said that in pretty much every show, there's a variation on a theme.
"Every form of music has its own age group," he said, "but we look out and see three generations of a family in the audience, and no one is going, 'Can we leave yet?' It seems to really unite everyone. And even if you're not the person who knows every piece of Beatles trivia and what Paul ate for breakfast the day he wrote 'Yesterday,' this is a show that people love. "
There are many questions for Benson and his Beatle-esque buds. And he patiently answered all of them, pretending that he hadn't been asked those same questions 100 times before. First and foremost might be the question as to how you approach playing a Beatles show. You're not, after all, going to decide to do "Eleanor Rigby" with just an autoharp, bongos, and a trumpet, since that's totally not what the audience would be expecting.
"Basically, this is more like a Beatles concert than a story," Benson said in preface. "We're showing that if you went to a Beatles concert, this is what you would have seen. Everything we have is as authentic-sounding and -looking as we can make it."
So really, there's no changing the music, no revamping of the songs, no playing the tunes any differently than what's on the records.
"The only arranging is what songs we're going to do in what order," he said. "You don't want to have nothing but guitar changes the whole night, and you don't want to have all John songs in a row or all Ringo songs.
It's a show designed so you know what it was like when the Beatles were touring. So from that standpoint, you want it to be believable for people who were there and for people who weren't there to see what it was like to be at a Beatles concert."
Since the Beatles didn't exactly tour all that much behind epics like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, there's not much sense in trying to recreate those all-but-nonexistent performances.
"To that end, we stick to music that is pretty much from Revolver and before--when they had similar haircuts and dressed the same," Benson said.
Still, even with that cutoff point in the band's catalogue, there's still a boatload of music to choose from for a show, and while there are songs everyone expects to hear, there's just not enough time in the evening to do all of them.
"You can't not play 'Twist and Shout,'" Benson laughed. "You can't not play 'Yesterday.' So that's a percentage of the show. If you look at the Beatles' catalog, it's amazing all the songs these guys wrote and that everybody knows. There's about a half a dozen songs you can switch out. You can't make a completely Paul-weighted or John-weighted show. Paul sings this one, John sings this one and George and John sing backup."
So with that half-dozen songs that the popularity of the Beatles' catalogue dictates that a tribute act could conceivably decide not to play from night to night, that brings up decision-making time when writing a set list.
"The fight we have is what amazing, number one hit do we take out so that we can play this other amazing, number one hit? What's the balance?" he said.
They have apparently found that balance, though, since the band plays about 100 shows a year to rave reviews. But how do they keep going?
"Starbucks," Benson said. "The truth is, you do get a boost from the audiences. That's not a cop-out instead of an answer, either. It's true. When you see a whole family loving this, that puts you on the moon. You get to play your favorite music, and then you get letters from people who say, 'I can't thank you enough for such a great night. My son picked up the guitar again, and now I always know where he is, because he's always playing."
One of those questions that 1964: The Tribute fields often concerns whoever is playing Sir Paul and whether he is actually left-handed. Currently playing the role is Graham Alexander, who is decidedly not left-handed, according to Benson. In fact, 1964 has yet to have an actual lefty play that role. Still, Paul plays his Hofner left-handed, and this is an accurate show, so....
"It's something you have to work at," Benson said. "My original partner fought it and fought it and fought it and he finally said, 'You know what I did? I stopped thinking right-handed and just commit to thinking this is the way to do it.' We had times when the bass would just stop, and I'd look over and he'd have this look on his face like, 'I'm re-booting.' "Have you ever played Rock Band? You know how people who can actually play guitar kind of suck at it? Maybe the better you are and the more schooled you are playing right-handed, the harder it is to play left-handed."
But Alexander makes it work, as does the rest of the group, as anyone who has ever seen 1964: The Tribute can attest. And that's a lot of people over the past 29 years. So nearly three decades of being The Beatles must be time-consuming. One wonders if Benson and company have other musical projects in the works, of if it's just all Beatles all the time.
"We just don't have time, but we all write and have all been musicians all of our adult life," Benson said. "We've all been in 100 bands and been in the biz, so to speak, since forever. We're usually out about two or three days a week. The rest of the time is family and paying bills that didn't' get paid when we were away."
The Beatles experience comes to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Chapman Music Hall this Friday, July 19, as 1964: The Tribute takes the stage at 8pm. Tickets are available at 918-596-7111 or through the PAC's website at tulsapac.com. Audience members should note that there is an expectation from the band, too.
"As you know, you're supposed to scream at a Beatles show," Benson said. "It's a part of being in the audience."
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