By Christopher Scapelliti Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward | Getty Images
The Beatles might have recorded Revolver at Stax in Memphis were it not for greed, according to a previously unreleased letter written by George Harrison in May 1966.
The letter was addressed to Atlanta DJ Paul Drew, who befriended the Beatles on their 1964 and 1965 world tours. The document was recently revealed when Jeff Gold, a Los Angeles rock collectibles dealer, put it up for sale.
The letter, which takes up three sides of paper, is written in Harrison’s handwriting. In it, he brings Drew up to date on the Beatles’ studio work (they were recording Revolver at EMI’s Abbey Road studio in London by then), promises to send copies of their latest single, “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” and gives him an update on the birth of a baby to Beatles roadie Mal Evans and his wife.
The Stax reference comes in a postscript. “Did you hear that we nearly recorded in Memphis with Jim Stuart?” Harrison writes, misspelling the name of Stax producer Jim Stewart. “We would all like it a lot, but too many people get insane with money ideas at the mention of the word ‘Beatles,’ so it fell through!”
It’s been rumored for years that the group had considered recording at Stax, the southern soul label where Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.s and Albert King cut numerous sides in the Sixties. The attraction for the Beatles was clear. They had veered into soul and funk territory on their 1965 album Rubber Soul, with cuts like “Drive My Car” and “The Word.” John Lennon was himself a Redding fan, and Harrison had suggested the bass line for “Drive My Car” after hearing Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bassline on Redding’s “Respect.” They had also grown tired of recording at Abbey Road and were looking for a new sound.
Stax insiders have said for years that the Beatles scheduled sessions there but canceled them over “security concerns.” Allegedly, those fears arose over threats the Beatles received in the wake of Lennon’s remarks in March 1966 that they were “more popular than Jesus.” Such concerns would have been well founded: when they performed in Memphis on August 19, 1966, they were greeted by protests, record burnings and death threats, including one made by a local Ku Klux Klan member.
However, the Beatles’ decision predated those concerns—they’d begun recording Revolver in March, well before Lennon’s comments caused an uproar in the United States. Harrison’s letter at last confirms that Stax was considered and explains why the session never took place.
Drew with Harrison in 1966.
The guitarist mentions in the letter that he was writing it while waiting for Lennon and Ringo Starr to pick him up for a session at Abbey Road studio. The envelope is postmarked May 7, 1966, a Saturday; Harrison wrote “Friday” at the top of the letter, which would presumably mean that it was written May 6. On that day, Lennon, Harrison and Paul McCartney recorded backing vocals for Lennon’s Revolver track “I’m Only Sleeping.”
Harrison also writes that the album will be released in August and notes that Capitol, the Beatles’ North American label, will release what he calls “an intermediate album with unused tracks from Rubber Soul, a few old singles and about two or three of the new tracks we have just cut.”
That album was Yesterday and Today, which was indeed released in North America on June 20, a little more than six weeks ahead of Revolver. The Beatles were known to disdain Capitol’s practice of slicing and dicing their catalog, but Harrison’s letter reveals that they knew quite a bit about what the label was doing. For that matter, Yesterday and Today was originally scheduled to be released with the infamous butcher cover (left), which many believe was the Beatles’ statement on Capitol’s attitude toward their catalog.
You can see the letter (now sold) and read more at RecordMecca.com.