Eyewitness accounts finally reveal what really happened in the brawl between John Lennon and Chris Montez, which has become one of the great urban legends of rock & roll!
It was March, 1963. Chris Montez’s rock & roll career had just reached its zenith, but was already on the slide. The Mexican-American singer who’d been promoted as the new Ritchie Valens; was slipping off the charts. Chris’s single, “Let’s Dance”, had peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts the previous November, and his follow-up, “Some Kinda Fun,” missed the Top 40 by that much in January.
The future was a bit rosier for Montez’s touring buddy, Tommy Roe. The 20-year-old from Atlanta who’d been touted as the new Buddy Holly ever since his Peggy Sue rip-off, “Sheila”, landed at #1 in September 1962. Then Tommy’s follow-up single cracked the Top 40, but just.
So in March 1963 the two guys were still hustling. Their careers were born thanks to The Day The Music Died in the wreckage of a chartered single-engine V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, near Clear Lake, Iowa.
And they were getting as much mileage as they could from their one-hit-wonders.
Now, following a tour through the segregated Jim Crow South, with a revue of acts that included Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter and Smokey Robinson, Chris and Tommy were heading to England. Both their follow-up singles had made it to Top 10 in the UK, and British audiences were always excited to see pop stars from the States, even those past their expiration date.
As Andrew Loog-Oldman, the future Rolling Stones producer who did publicity for the tour, said, “America was everything, in music and on the screen. It gave us our language. It gave us our hope, so to speak. It gave us our music.”
Chris and Tommy were given the month of March, a tour that pinballed around the UK, from Bristol to Bedford, East Ham to Exeter; twenty-one dates over twenty-three days. Joining them would be their opening act: an up-and-coming band from Liverpool.
Tommy Roe remembered: “The agent called me and said, ‘You’re going to England to do a tour with Chris Montez.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, great. We’re old buddies, so that should be fun.’
“So we get to England, and on the bill with us is this group called the Beatles. Nobody in the States had ever heard of the Beatles. We didn’t know who the Beatles were.”
The two young Americans found out pretty quickly, once they stepped out of the rickety bus and were crushed by Beatlemania. The Beatles second single, the handjob-begging, blue balls anthem, “Please Please Me,” just happened to be at the top of the UK charts that week. And Parlophone was in the process of rush-releasing their first album, while masses of fans swarmed through every door and window at every stop along the way.
Chris Montez said, “Once we got rolling, we couldn’t go anywhere, Tommy Roe and myself and the Beatles. You never know how shocking it is until people rush at you and start tearing at your clothes and screaming. And you’re thinking, ‘Wow, yesterday I was doing nothing, today people are screaming in my face!’ It was kind of exciting.”
Tommy Roe remembered, “We started the tour and these guys have a huge following. They’re just kicking off their career, but their fans are everywhere. They’re chasing them around the theaters and it was really pandemonium. The only time I’d ever seen anything like this was with Elvis.”
The four young Beatles had a busier time than Chris and Tommy, breaking away from the tour, and driving to London to appear on the BBC, or to EMI Studios on Abbey Road for final touches on their debut album. And, for several nights early on, John Lennon was knocked out by a cold, so the Beatles performed as a trio.
Chris remembered the tour this way: “We got along good together. They seemed like regular guys, just rockers. And they loved music. I don’t think the Beatles were aware what was going to happen in their career. Paul was real humble and real nice. Ringo and George were real cards. You know, I had a lot of respect for Lennon, and even more now. But he was who he was. Lennon was, I guess, kind of rambunctious.”
Tommy said, “They were very nice. They were very inquisitive about America. I mean, they asked tons of questions about America. And John, he had a Gibson guitar, and first thing he did on the bus, was say, ‘You know, we did your song ‘Sheila’ at the Star Club in Hamburg and people loved it.’
And he said, ‘But I don’t think I’m playing the chords right….’
And he played it, and sure enough, he was playing a D before the E.
I said, ‘Nah, it goes like, A, E, D, A, like so…’
And he said, ‘Ah, that’s it! I knew I was doing something wrong.’
And then John let me use his guitar on the bus, to write songs.”
The Beatles were driven off on the morning of March 14 for business in London. When they arrived back at the hotel, it was time for the show in Wolverhampton. Chris was holed up with a beer, in a private den set aside for the musicians, safe from the packs of screaming girls outside.
Chris remembered what happened next. “I said, ‘Hey, where were you guys?’
“They said, ‘Oh, we were finishing our album.’
“I said, ‘Really?’
“And they said, ‘You want to hear it?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah,” and they put the record on. The first cut. When they put the needle down, it just knocked me out. I said, ‘What a rocker!’
“And they played me the rest of the album and I said, ‘Paul, play that one again for me. I love that one. That’s my favorite.’
“He said, ‘You like that one?’
“I said, ‘Yeah!”
That first cut on the Beatles’ first album was “I Saw Her Standing There,” the one that began with the count-in: “One, two, three, FUCK!”
Chris Montez would turn out to be the last pop star the Beatles would open for. He was also the first to hear The Beatles’ debut album. And, by the final week of the tour, Chris would be the one standing right in the middle of the road, the first victim of Beatlemania, run over by the locomotive of sex, adolescence and rock & roll, stoked by those four words. One. Two. Three. FUCK!
As Andrew Loog Oldman remembered, “Chris came in just as the curtain was coming down and he watched. He had a wonderful experience, as we all did, but there was just now no denying what was happening with this incredible phenomenon, the Beatles. By April, they were it.”
The tour moved along. Everyone got along on the bus. The Beatles did their half dozen numbers and made way for the American headliners. Chris learned to perform with the Beatle fans stragglers rushing the stage.
The album Please Please Me was released on Friday, March 22. On Saturday night, way up in the northeast, in Newscastle-Upon-Tyne, there was a celebration after the show, and the dispute that until now has been the most disputed moment in rock & roll history.
John comes in, all the Beatles come in, and John’s got a beer in his hand and he’s really whacked, you know, just drunk out of his head and…”
Late Saturday night, March 23, 1963, or possibly in the early morning hours of March 24th, John Lennon and Chris Montez got into it.
As Tommy remembered it, “Somebody in the business threw them a party. It was in a beautiful house, kind of a country house out in the forest. Everybody was drinking beer and having a good time. And Chris had left the party and was on the bus asleep in his seat. And we all come piling back on. I come on, I sit down next to Chris. And John comes in….”
One would think that this would be one triumphant night on which Lennon would have held his fire, except for the fact that he never could hold his liquor. Remember March 14, 1974?
The Troubadour, West Hollywood?
You know, the waitress who responded to his, “Do you know who I am?” with, “Yeah, you’re some asshole with a Kotex on his forehead.”
Tommy continues, “I sit down next to Chris, and John comes in, all the Beatles come in, and John’s got a beer in his hand and he’s really whacked, you know, just drunk out of his head and…”
Chris interrupts, “Lennon poured beer on my head!”
Tommy continues, “He pours the beer on Chris’s head, sitting in his seat, and Chris wakes up, he’s wet with beer, and he goes, ‘Oh man, what’s that?’ He was pissed!”
Chris interjects, “And John says, ‘You son of a so and so.’ I was shocked. I was perturbed, I got real pissed, and I got up and I said, ‘Hey, you! What the hell you think you’re doing? You want some?’ and started rushing at him.
“Because I didn’t take any of that crap, you know?
“We started throwing punches and we got tied up together.”
Tommy picks it up, “And the big scuffle starts, and we start fighting in the aisles and scuffling and, you know, it was kind of ugly.”
Chris said, “Actually, Tommy Roe stepped in and broke it up.”
Tommy again, “I got between them, everybody was scuffling, and we kind of scuffled down in the floor, got between the seats and stuff.”
Chris recalled, “Tommy said, ‘If you want anything with him, you want something with me, too!’”
Tommy said, “Well, it was only against a dozen, man. We were the only American acts. Chris was getting ready to hit him, and it’s like, we don’t want to go there. We’d already had a fight on that tour between the road manager and one of the guys in the band. And the road manager butted this guy, and his face just opened up. It was like a really a rowdy group, from what we were used to.”
“And that’s how it ended. There was no winner.”
“I said, ‘Paul, just get away from me, I don’t want nothing to do with you guys. You know, you pissed me off!”As for Lennon, Chris recalled, “John? I guess he was a wise guy. But I got the sense that, I shouldn’t say this, that he was jealous of who I was or what I did. I don’t know what his problem was, but I didn’t like it too much.”The next day, the show rolled into Liverpool. It was a homecoming for the Beatles, and a chance for Chris Montez to show he didn’t harbor any hard feelings.
Chris remembered it this way, “When we arrived in Liverpool, I told my manager, ‘This is their town. Let them close the show.’
“He said, ‘You sure?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, It’s no big thing.’
“And that’s the way it was with me.’”
The Beatles closed the show in Liverpool and they wound up headlining the remaining six nights of the tour. Chris Montez had no problem with that, either, although it turned out that one performer did hold a grudge that final week on the bus. Turned out, John was just a jealous guy.
Tommy said, “Before the fight, John was letting me use his Gibson guitar on the bus to write songs. The next day he said, ‘You can’t use my guitar anymore! That’s it. That’s it! No more. Leave my guitar alone.’
It just got cold after that. And by this time, they had the tour locked up.
It was really a Beatles tour by this time.”
It really was.