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John Lennon Musical Inspiration
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The Beatles Imagining the Founding Fathers as The Beatles



This is what makes artists artists: they take little bits of things from here and there and put them together in unexpected combinations that seem new and original. Some of them are pretty obvious: one of Little Richard's trademarks is the "Ooooo!" he interjects into a lot of his hit songs. Richard got it from the world of gospel, where it's a standard of Alex Bradford, among others. The Beatles grabbed this little trick for themselves, and it's all over their first recordings: girls went wild when Lennon and McCartney stepped up to a single microphone, shook their mop tops, and went "Ooooo!".

Other borrowings aren't so obvious. JOHN LENNON'S JUKEBOX will introduce most people to a singer-guitarist named Bobby Parker. I'd never heard of him until watching this program, and all I can discover about him is that his record "Watch Your Step" was on the pop BILLBOARD charts for six weeks in 1961 and got as high as number 51. It was released on V-Tone Records, a label I'd also never heard of. The guitar lick Parker plays on this record morphed into "I Feel Fine," but also, I think, "Day Tripper." Watching Parker demonstrate it, I realized that John Lennon probably had trouble playing it: it's simple, but not nearly as simple as Parker makes it seem. And of course, Lennon had no way to watch Parker's fingers. So because John couldn't play that lick, it became another song, "I Feel Fine," which went to number one. ("Day Tripper" only made it to number five.) A Beatles version of "Watch Your Step" would probably have done as well as their version of Arthur Alexander's "Anna," filler on an album.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the music in John Lennon's jukebox was there only to be copied. Especially in pop music, it's essential that the greatest innovators remain fans, enthusiasts, explorers of the past and present. If every time you put on a record it reminds you of work, your useful, creative days are numbered. So it would be fruitless to look through John's contributions to the Beatles in search of what Fontella Bass inspired. The insistent bass line of "Rescue Me" and Fontella's impassioned vocal make a compulsively listenable song -- as is the gospelly "The Soul of the Man" on the other side. I've sat in front of a record player playing those over and over myself, so it's not hard to imagine John doing the same.

Ditto the Lovin' Spoonful. By the time their records started appearing, the Beatles were established and deeply involved in creating their own music. The Spoonful were doing music that was similar, but different enough that John could listen to it and imagine that here was a bunch of Americans who had understandably wanted to imitate the Beatles -- but they'd gotten it wrong, just wrong enough that what they did was completely right.

In the end, the records in John Lennon's jukebox simply confirm that he was a rock and roll fan -- as if there could have been any doubt about that! -- and that he wasn't averse to lifting a little something here and there to further his own art, even if he couldn't imitate it perfectly.

Top banner photos: John Lennon playing harmonica and his portable traveling companion that offers a prehistory of Beatles influences.

Teenaged John Lennon

The teenaged John Lennon loved listening to and singing American rock 'n' roll.

John Lennon performing with the Beatles

John Lennon performing with the Beatles during their first stateside tour in 1964.

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