QUESTION: What is the connection between Meredith Willson and The Beatles?
ANSWER: The song, Till There Was You, written by Meredith Willson for his Broadway blockbuster, The Music Man.
This was the only Broadway song the Beatles ever recorded and, in terms of their early career, it was significant.
Well before the Beatles had achieved worldwide notoriety, Paul McCartney heard Peggy Lee’s version of Till There Was You. He took an instant liking to it and the Beatles added the song to their concert set list to offer variety to their own compositions.
McCartney said he did not know Till was from the Broadway show until many years later. “This led me to songs which were slightly to the left and right of rock and roll,” he stated.
When the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records on New Year’s Day 1962, Till was one of the songs they performed. Although Decca declined to make the group an offer, the company taped the audition — that tape eventually made its way to an EMI executive who found the rendition of the Willson song to be one of the highlights.
On the strength of the executive’s reaction, the Beatles formally auditioned for EMI in June 1962. The result: the group earned their first important recording contract.
Till continued to be part of the Beatles’ standard repertoire. It was on their second American album release, Meet the Beatles!, in January, 1964 (Willson was the only non-Beatle composer on the disc). When the group made their legendary Ed Sullivan Show appearance, a month later, 73 million viewers saw them sing five songs — Till was the second number and, again, the only one not written by a Beatle.
When McCartney went solo years later, he performed it in his live shows. Today, McCartney owns the rights to all Willson’s songs — Till has literally been with him throughout his recording career.
Not that McCartney needs cash, but The Music Man still purrs along comfortably at the box office. The latest revival, starring Hugh Jackman, will arrive at the Winter Garden Theater in New York just before Christmas — previews begin December 20, with opening night scheduled February 10, 2022. Tickets are scarce; it was recently reported that scalpers are asking nearly $4000 per seat (you can buy a lot of trombones with that kind of money).
The original Music Man production opened December 19, 1957, played 1,375 performances and won five Tonys. It also garnered the very first Grammy Award.
The story, set in 1912, focused on a lovable con man, selling band instruments to musically illiterate young people in River City, Iowa (I-oway, if you have seen the show). In the words of one critic, it was “a new masterpiece that you’ll take to your heart because it’s so rich, so funny, so expertly done…it has more than rip-roaring entertainment, it has strength.”
Willson, who grew up in Mason City, Iowa, drew the characters from real people with whom he was acquainted. “I didn’t have to make up anything,” Willson said. “I simply remembered Mason City as closely as I could.”
In his biography, Meredith Wilson, The Unsinkable Music Man, John C. Skipper speculated about the enduring appeal of the show. Skipper quoted sociologist Dr. R. Galen Hanson who said the longevity was due to more than just the music. “There have been all sorts of sociological studies done on life in small towns, dozens of them….There’s never been a better study of small-town life than what Meredith Willson did in The Music Man.”
Dr. Hanson pointed out the underlying themes at the heart of Music Man were redemption and love. “In Willson’s music, love triumphs in the end,” Dr. Hanson explained. “This is a massive legacy because Willson has restated for us one of the lasting truths even befitting of a technological age (maybe more than ever befitting of a cold, technological world): the healing and transformative and profound uplifting power of love.”
When Meredith Wilson passed away at 82 on June 15, 1984, obituaries catalogued his many achievements.
-At 18, he played flute and piccolo in John Philip Sousa’s touring band;
-For six seasons, he was a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra;
-His film scores for The Great Dictator, directed by Charlie Chaplin, and The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler, received Academy Award nominations; and
-He wrote over 400 songs (including three #1 hits and the holiday favorite It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas), two highly regarded symphonies and four musicals.
Willson once said he spent his life trying to write something by way of music that might have a chance of lasting longer than he did. It is ironic that Paul McCartney, a rock superstar, would play a role in Willson reaching this goal.