Sixty years ago, two young musicians happened upon each other in Liverpool, England, in a meeting that would change the course of popular music forever.
It was July 6, 1957. John Lennon, then 16, was playing with his skiffle group The Quarrymen at a church garden party in the midst of a stultifying heat wave. Paul McCartney, 15, was in the crowd, wearing a white sports jacket with a pink carnation.
In the documentary The Beatles Anthology, McCartney remembers the spectacle of Lennon strutting around in a checked shirt, "and sort of blondish kind of hair, little bit curly, [sideburns], looking pretty cool. And he was playing one of these guitars — guaranteed not to crack, not a very good one — but he was making a very good job of it."
The Quarrymen performed "Come Go With Me" by The Del-Vikings, and though Lennon clearly didn't know the words, he adapted lyrics from blues songs instead. That ingenuity impressed McCartney, who met Lennon after the set. Backstage, McCartney played Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," which in turn impressed Lennon — perhaps in part because McCartney actually knew all the lyrics.
Later, Lennon remembered being uncertain about partnering with such a strong musician, who might challenge his leadership in the group. But that hesitation was short-lived. "I turned around right then on first meeting and said, 'Do you want to join the group?' And I think he said yes the next day," Lennon said, as quoted in The Beatles Anthology.
Though they wouldn't take the name The Beatles for another three years, that meeting between two boys on a sweltering summer afternoon kick-started a creative partnership that yielded nearly 200 songs valued at close to a billion dollars. Right now, the 50th anniversaries of The Beatles' most famous albums are arriving in quick succession: Revolver last year, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band earlier this year and, in 2020, Let It Be.
To think such a storied career all comes back to one moment: that chance encounter one afternoon in a Liverpool church hall.
Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
On this day 60 years ago, two young musicians happened across each other at a church garden party, and that meeting changed the course of popular music forever. NPR's Neda Ulaby has the story.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A stultifying heat wave in 1957 did not stop John Lennon's skiffle group, The Quarrymen, from playing outside a Liverpool church alongside a dog show...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOWHERE BOY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing, unintelligible).
ULABY: ...These scenes, painstakingly recreated in a 2009 movie about the early days of the Beatles, called "Nowhere Boy." Fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney stands watching in the crowd. In "The Beatles Anthology" DVD, the real Paul McCartney remembered the spectacle of John Lennon strutting around in a checkered shirt.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY")
PAUL MCCARTNEY: Sort of blondish kind of hair, a little bit curly, sideboards, looking pretty cool. And he was playing sort of one of these guitars guaranteed not to crack, you know? Not a very good one, but he was making a very good job of it. You know, I remember being quite impressed.
ULABY: After the set, McCartney played a song for Lennon, who was impressed in turn, maybe partly because McCartney actually knew the words to the song. Later, Lennon remembered being uncertain about whether to partner with such a strong musician who might challenge his leadership. But his hesitation lasted only briefly.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN LENNON: And I turned around and right then, on first meeting, said, do you want to join the group? And I think he said yes the next day.
GORDON THOMPSON: That's the beginning of the story.
ULABY: The beginning, says music professor Gordon Thompson, of a 20-year partnership yielding nearly 200 songs now worth close to a billion dollars.
THOMPSON: That's where it starts - that afternoon in that church hall in that part of Liverpool.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF US")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) You and me Sunday driving, not arriving...
ULABY: We're in a peak Beatles anniversary moment right now, with the 50th anniversaries of their most famous albums rolling in practically on top of each other, "Revolver" last year, "Sergeant Pepper's" this year and soon "Let It Be," where this song from.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF US")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) We're on our way home.
ULABY: Today, says Professor Gordon Thompson, on the anniversary of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's very first meeting, maybe it's worth taking a moment to reflect on how shaped we are by the people who've crossed our paths. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.