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Lennon, McCartney and New Orleans: The Beatles reunion that almost happened

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Lennon, McCartney and New Orleans: The Beatles reunion that almost happened
By Mike Scott
The Times-Picayune 
on November 28, 2016


Paul McCartney's recording session in 1975 with Allen Toussaint (at piano) at Sea-Saint Studio was the event most symbolic of New Orleans' re-entry into the music world, a highly visible reminder recordings were being made in New Orleans again. (Times-Picayune file)

When most people think of The Beatles and New Orleans, they think of 1964 and the Fab Four's one and only concert in the Crescent City, which took place before a swooning crowd -- kept at bay by a swarm of uniformed, tackle-happy NOPD officers -- at City Park Stadium. But just more than 10 years after that brief but eternal half-hour set, the city came tantalizingly close to hosting another Beatles milestone, in the form of a reunion of none other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

That meeting, for which much of the music world had been hoping since the legendary band's 1970 dissolution, never actually happened, of course. But the story behind that near-miss, that almost-history, that elusive happily-ever-after is nicely laid out in author Richard White's book "Come Together: Lennon & McCartney in the Seventies" ($18.95, paperback, Overlook Omnibus). It's a fascinating tale, and one that can be counted on to leave fans of music and of New Orleans wondering wistfully about what could have been.

As the title suggests, White's densely written and painstakingly researched book focuses on Lennon and McCartney's often acrimonious post-Beatles period, which he covers in the sort of detail -- with frequent but still interesting tangents thrown in -- that music lovers will lap up eagerly. While much of it involves the pulling together of previously reported material, it is pulled together nicely, as White takes bits and pieces of various interviews and memoirs to construct a telling and cohesive whole.


Who are those clowns? Paul and Linda McCartney, that's who. They're pictured on Mardi Gras 1975. The two were in town recording the album 'Venus & Mars' with their band Wings. (Photo by Sidney Smith)

At the same time, "Come Together" isn't without its share of fresh insights, including from New Orleans musical legend Allen Toussaint, who discussed with White his work on "Venus and Mars," the album McCartney recorded with his band Wings in New Orleans in early 1975. (Toussaint died in November 2015, as White's book was in the final stages of publication.)

The bulk of White's "Come Together" is set in New York and Los Angeles, with some London happenings sprinkled in. But the meat of the book is that "Venus and Mars" recording session, which played out over about five weeks in January and February 1975 at Sea-Saint Studios on Clematis Avenue -- and which was the event that almost reunited the songwriting world's most celebrated duo.

White chronicles the session in the book's fourth and final section, titled simply "New Orleans" and running a brief but absorbing 59 pages.

'Come Together: Lennon & McCartney in the Seventies'
The cover for the paperback release of Richard White's 'Come Together: Lennon & McCartney in the Seventies,' which includes details of a reunion between the two former Beatles that almost took place in New Orleans. (Overlook Omnibus)

The scene begins in New York City, where McCartney and wife Linda -- on their way from London to New Orleans for that "Venus and Mars" session -- stopped in to visit Sir Paul's old songwriting partner. After dinner at a local restaurant with Lennon and then-girlfriend May Pang, the four returned to Lennon's Big Apple apartment, where McCartney revealed he was headed to New Orleans to record. "We'd like you to meet us there," he told Lennon.

There wouldn't be any pressure to actually record together, though. After all, exactly one week before McCartney's arrival in New Orleans, British courts had severed the last of the legal links tying the Beatles together. Rather, it was pitched as merely a hang session as much as anything else, an opportunity to reconnect personally after that very public, and at times ugly, divorce.

At the same time, McCartney knew full well that Lennon had always wanted to spend some quality time kicking around the birthplace of jazz. A decade earlier, when they had come to New Orleans to play for that City Park crowd, the lads had scheduled a day off in the hopes of exploring the stomping grounds of so many of their R&B musical influences. A too-good-to-pass-up offer to add a date in Kansas City saw those plans scratched at the last minute, however.

Upon arriving in Kansas City on the day after their New Orleans show -- on what would have been a rare day off -- the band was asked at a press conference if there were any places in the United States they'd like to see. Without hesitation, an apparently regretful Lennon responded, "New Orleans is one of them."

Now, all these years later, McCartney figured he'd give Lennon the chance, according to White's telling. And if the city's fertile musical scene bore a creative reunion? Well, so much the better, as far as Sir Paul was concerned.

"McCartney's premise for his old partner's visit to Sea-Saint was: come down and visit us, and watch us record," White writes. "Having already spent two weeks in the Crescent City, Paul would happily welcome John back into the creative fold. Pang was convinced that if Lennon reached Louisiana, something new could be initiated. She also felt sure that McCartney would do the rest and bring Lennon back into the studio. It's possible that Paul, and John, too, privately anticipated an opportunity to play, write or even record together again."

Paul McCartney costumes as a clown on Mardi Gras 1975. The former Beatle was in town recording the album 'Venus & Mars' with his band Wings. (Photo by Sidney Smith)

If Lennon and McCartney were to record together again, the thinking goes, a full-on Beatles reunion bringing in former bandmates Ringo Starr and George Harrison couldn't have been far behind.

According to Pang, writing in her own memoir, Lennon was indeed open to the idea, both of working with McCartney again and of heading down South to New Orleans. "He kept bringing up the trip," Pang said, "and each time he mentioned it, he grew more enthusiastic."

It's there that White's narrative splits into two, and that a long-awaited Beatles reunion was scuttled by circumstance.

One side of the narrative focuses on McCartney's extended stay in New Orleans, which is covered in colorful detail, from the band's riverboat press conference to their stay at Chartres Street's Le Richelieu Hotel to the regular parade of lookyloos that routinely turned up Sea-Saint, hoping to get a glimpse of a musical legend.

"Paul was so at ease with everyone," said one such lookyloo, local fan Gina Fontana. "He didn't rush things at all. He signed autographs and posed for pictures. He kept making all these cute faces. He had the McCartney charm on full blast."

Also included are fantastic details of the session itself, as well as descriptions of the influence of the local music scene on McCartney, which is perhaps most evident in the song "My Carnival," recorded as part of the session. ("My Carnival" didn't make it on the original "Venus and Mars" release, although it was included as a bonus track on later pressings, as well as a B-side to McCartney's 1985 tune "Spies Like Us.")

Paul McCartney in New Orleans
A article from the Jan. 18, 1975, edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans announcing the arrival of Paul McCartney, who come to town for an extended stay with his band Wings to record the album 'Venus & Mars.' (File image)

The other narrative, though -- and, as it turns out, the more consequential of the two, at least from a Beatles fan's perspective -- played out in New York. Featuring a cast of supporting characters that includes the likes of David Bowie, Art Garfunkel and others, it centers on Lennon's serious consideration of McCartney's offer to travel to New Orleans, and then his reconsideration of it, apparently at the behest of a villain familiar to Beatles fans.

As it turns out, days before Lennon and Pang were to pack for New Orleans, a call from the other woman in Lennon's life -- his wife, Yoko Ono -- came through. She wanted him to pay her a visit at their apartment at The Dakota in New York. It was something about a cure for his nicotine addiction. He agreed to stop by for what he assured Pang would be a short visit, a few hours at most.

What happened next is cloudy, but here's the gist: Lennon would return to Ono and The Dakota, and he would stay there. He would also pull the plug on any plans to travel to New Orleans for the Sea-Saint session.

Lennon and McCartney remained friends, though, with Paul dropping in on John repeatedly during his stopovers in New York. In subsequent years, they both talked publicly about the prospect of a Beatles reunion -- as did everyone -- but it never materialized.

The opportunity had passed. The Sea-Saint session in New Orleans would be the closest Lennon and McCartney would ever come to collaborating creatively again. As Lennon wrote in his song "God," the dream was over.

An article from the Feb. 14, 1975, edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans about former Beatle Paul McCartney being mistaken by a local for John Lennon. (File image)


Former Beatle John Lennon, circa 1971. Lennon was invited by former songwriting partner Paul McCartney to attend a recording session in 1975 at New Orleans' Sea-Saint Studios. Lennon had reportedly decided to take him up on the offer initially, which could have led to a Beatles reunion, but he apparently changed his mind at the last minute. (AP Photo, File)


Who are those clowns? Paul and Linda McCartney, that's who. They're pictured on Mardi Gras 1975. The two were in town recording the album 'Venus & Mars' with their band Wings. (Photo by Sidney Smith)


Paul McCartney dresses as a clown on Mardi Gras 1975. The former Beatle was in town recording the album 'Venus & Mars' with his band Wings. (Photo by Sidney Smith)

A article from the Jan. 18, 1975, edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans announcing the arrival of Paul McCartney, who come to town for an extended stay with his band Wings to record the album 'Venus & Mars.' (File image)

An article from the Feb. 15, 1975, edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans about the theft of photos of former Beatle Paul McCartney, who was in town recording the album 'Venus & Mars' with the band Wings. (File image)

Ernie K-Doe with Linda and Paul McCartney, March 24, 1975, following the recording of the Wings album 'Venus & Mars' in New Orleans. (File image)

An article from the Feb. 9, 1975, edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans about former Beatle Paul McCartney recording the album 'Venus & Mars' in town with his band Wings. (File image)



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