LOS ANGELES — Dave Grohl was on his way to rehearsals for a TV special marking the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show when the panic set in.
"Suddenly it hit me: Maybe I ought to listen to the record again before we rehearse it," the founding member of Nirvana and Foo Fighters said of his impending run-through of While My Guitar Gently Weeps with guitarists Joe Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. for The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles.
The two-hour special will air Sunday, exactly half a century after the Fab Four's appearance on Sullivan's show kicked Beatlemania into high gear on American shores.
"Finally I thought, (forget) it," he said later, during a short break between the Beatles show rehearsal and his session with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age working up their performance for last week's Grammy Awards telecast. "When I got there and sat down at the drums and started playing, all the fills were there — they just came out (because) I've been listening to this stuff my whole life."
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Grohl's moment of clarity about the DNA-deep resonance of the Beatles' music in his life was echoed repeatedly by the musicians who perform in the special, which piggybacks on this year's Grammy Awards show with performances by Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, John Legend, Pharrell Williams, emcee LL Cool J and, of course, the surviving members of the Fab Four: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
"We had no idea Ed Sullivan was the biggest show in America," Starr, 73, said, flanked by fellow Brit rocker Peter Frampton, American guitarist Steve Lukather of Toto and other members of the band that musician, producer and Blue Note Records label chief Don Was put together to accompany Starr's and others' performances. "We just knew we were coming to do some TV show. All we cared about was that we were coming to America. New York! Nothing else mattered."
Wonder not only vividly remembers the profound effect the Beatles' performance on the Sullivan show had on him as a 13-year-old musician but also recalled his early exposure to them while he was on tour in England, a child R&B prodigy at Motown Records who was billed at the time as "Little Stevie Wonder" while riding the crest of his first No.1 hit, Fingertips-Pt. 2.
"I'd heard them in England from being over there and I was telling people about The Beatles, how they had a great sound, with these great chord structures," Wonder said at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the special was taped, after his run-through of We Can Work It Out, the 1965 Beatles hit that he brought back into the Top 20 six years later with his funky arrangement.
"Obviously when I heard John Lennon singing Please Mr. Postman (the 1961 hit by another Motown act, the Marvelettes),' it was a good experience to hear another take on American R&B," Wonder said. "They loved Little Richard and Buddy Holly, and when they did their version of (Smokey Robinson's) You Really Got a Hold on Me, it was great."
In addition, the show's tribute to the ongoing impact of the Beatles' music spurred the reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as Eurythmics, performing together for the first time in nearly a decade. Alicia Keys, Walsh, Jeff Lynne, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Ed Sheeran, performers from the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas Beatles show Love and George Harrison's son, Dhani Harrison, are among those featured in the Beatles special who didn't appear on the Grammy telecast.
Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale and actress-singer Anna Kendrick pump up the celebrity content with introductions to various performances, and longtime Beatles associate and Monty Python founding member Eric Idle delivered a lighthearted introduction tapping into his Rutles parody of Beatlemania. Idle also narrates separate video biographies of each Beatle that will be included in the show.
The efficacy of grabbing several au courant hit makers to serve up their interpretations of Beatles songs isn't likely to ingratiate this show to aficionados. Nor is it likely to quiet choruses of "It's all too much!" from those who grouse that the lionization of the band and its music has gone on long enough, a sentiment that surfaced in a number of critiques of McCartney's and Starr's performances for the Grammy Awards show.
But to those for whom there can never be an overdose of Beatles music, it's worth noting that the show inspired the first performance of the biggest hit of the Beatles' hit-laden career, Hey Jude, by McCartney and Starr together since they recorded the song in 1968, well after the group had given up live concerts.
"That was incredible," said Was, known in music circles for his laid-back, "that's cool" attitude. "It's the best thing I've ever seen."