He paid $44,000 for a piece of Beatles history. He just sold it for $2 million.
By John Kelly
January 3 2016
Russ Lease of Columbia, Md., with some of his Beatles collection. The bass drumhead in the background recently sold for more than $2 million. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
In the words of the immortal Spinal Tap: Hello, Cleveland!
Also: Goodbye, Cleveland!
I wasn’t there for long, just the night of Dec. 27 and the following day. My Lovely Wife and I stopped on our way back from visiting her sister in Evanston, Ill.
I love Washington, but it’s a good idea to get out of it every now and then. And no offense to my family living in North Carolina, but boy is it nice to drive on an interstate that isn’t called “I-95.” Breezewood, Pa., may be a strange carbuncle, I-80 may cross the featureless landscape of Ohio, and Gary, Ind., may resemble Mordor, but at least traffic was moving. We weren’t inching past Quantico at a snail’s pace, like you do on 95.
All we had to contend with was rain in all its myriad guises, from fine mist to apocalyptic downpour. There were some scary moments in Indiana when it seemed as if we’d been plunged into a carwash. Even the truckers — those jaded cowboys of the asphalt — were slowing down and putting on their hazards.
Those sorts of conditions always remind me of riding in the back seat when we lived in Texas. Thunderstorms would explode across the landscape, my father would grip the steering wheel tightly, and my mother would lead my brother and me in reciting the rosary.
All of us have since fallen from the church, but it seemed to work at the time.
It was dark when Ruth and I drove through Chicago on our way to Evanston. The tips of the skyscrapers of the Second City were bathed in green and red light. We saw the same a few nights later when we entered Cleveland.
I have to say, these light displays were very cool, a little bit of civic holiday togetherness. It made me wonder why the people who manage Washington’s buildings don’t do something similar. Can they switch out the bulbs at Christmastime? (One that does is The Post’s new home at Franklin Square.)
When I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I looked for bits of Washington. It was there in such artists as Marvin Gaye (Class of 1987) and Dave Grohl (Class of 2014, with Nirvana). An exhibit on local radio allowed visitors to touch-screen their way across the airwaves and remember what it was like when radio was different in every city. There was a mention of WHFS, complete with a mini profile of DJ Weasel, who for some reason was called “The Weasel.”
I gazed at every artifact, read every bit of wall text, settled in for the video compilation of inductees. That video should be engraved on impermeable media and sent out with the next interstellar probe, blasting Bo Diddley to Blondie. I’d put our indigenous Earthling rock-and-roll up against any music anywhere in the galaxy.
The beat goes on
As a drummer and a Beatles fan, I was excited to see one of Ringo Starr’s black oyster pearl Ludwig drum kits at the hall. The distinctive “drop T” Beatles reproduction head on the front of the bass drum was made by Russ Lease of Columbia, Md.
Russ sells reproduction Beatles clothing and collects Beatles memorabilia. The very Beatles bass drumhead that was on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 is the greatest piece in his collection.
Or was, I should say. Russ sold the drumhead at auction on Nov. 7.
He’d paid $44,000 for it in 1994, a shocking amount for a piece that Sotheby’s couldn’t guarantee was genuine. But with the skill and tenacity of a forensic investigator, Russ proved it was the Sullivan head.
Julien’s Auctions put an estimate of $800,000 to $1 million on the head. At that price, only the deepest pockets were in the running in the lead-up to the auction, among them Hollywood director Chris Columbus and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. (“Paul Allen was a real jerk throughout the whole thing,” Russ told me.)
In the end, what Russ calls the most significant Beatles artifact not owned by a Beatle or his estate went to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay . The price: $2,125,000.
Although the drumhead had been part of his life for more than 20 years, Russ said he was okay with seeing it go.
“I don’t want to die with this stuff,” he said.
Still, when Ringo auctioned many of his possessions recently, Russ couldn’t resist picking up the suit the drummer wore for most of the early scenes in “A Hard Day’s Night.” At $50,000, it was a steal.
Money — that’s what I want
This is the final week of The Washington Post Helping Hand, my effort to raise $250,000 for three very worthy local charities: Community of Hope, Homestretch and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.
Each works with homeless families or teens in our area. They offer more than just a place to live, buoying clients with counseling, life skills classes and job training. Your donation can help this vital work continue. To donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.