Today, August 11, is a red-letter date in my musicianship and, indeed, in my life. On this day in 1968, the Beatles released what would soon be their most iconic hit single ever, “Hey Jude.”
I remember hearing the song on the tinny table radio my brother Keith and I kept in our bedroom. Living in Los Angeles, we were always tuned to either KHJ or KRLA so we could stay in touch with the Top 40, the soundtrack of our youth. The summer of 1968 gave us a few good songs to groove to: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel; “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris; “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones; “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors. Great songs all, but these hits didn’t soothe the troubled spirit of America, which was still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the civil unrest that followed, and the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
I think I first heard “Hey Jude” on KHJ on The Real Don Steele Show, and the DJ introduced “the latest hit by the greatest band in the world” with his usual enthusiastic coolness. I was immediately mesmerized. A new Beatles song was always cause for celebration but this was something altogether different, coming on the heels of the band’s experimental psychedelic era. “Hey Jude” was essentially a simple ballad, stripped of the sitars, mellotrons, and Stravinski-esque orchestras of their trippy Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I loved the song’s optimism and warmth that reconfirmed for us fans that the Beatles were still making the coolest music ever. It was just the song that America needed to hear in that troubled summer. But more than anything, what really caught my ear was Paul McCartney’s piano playing. The Beatles used piano on their songs before, on “Slow Down,” “Not a Second Time,” and “Good Day Sunshine.” But “Hey Jude” was their first song where the piano, not the guitar, was the featured main instrument. The song was played endlessly by AM radio, and each hearing only goaded me on to one inevitable conclusion:
I must learn how to play the piano!
My family had a nice upright piano in the living room and I dallied on it, like most kids did, by playing “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” But now I wanted to really learn how to play. So I went to a music store and found the sheet music for “Hey Jude.” I already knew how to read notes because I had been playing the flute since third grade. How hard could it be?
Plenty hard! Now I had to figure out the bass clef and fit both right-hand and left-hand parts together. I struggled mightily, and my halting rendition eventually annoyed my siblings who had to endure my playing over and over again. In frustration from my lack of progress, I slammed the piano cover shut, stormed to my room, and turned on the radio. Once again, “Hey Jude” was playing, well on its way to Number One, a position it would hold for nine weeks. So I listened again, this time with great concentration, and noticed that Paul was not playing what was arranged on the printed sheet music. He was playing simple chords that I identified as F, C, Bb . . .
Ah ha! This was one of the greatest “ah ha!” moments of my young life. I ran back to the piano and simply played the chords that Paul was playing, with the same rhythm and beat he applied. I eventually figured out a way to fit the melody with the chords in the right hand, and play a simple bass in the left hand. Who needed to read the sheet music exactly? All I needed was a knowledge of the chords, a grasp of the melody, and a sense of the beat. More than anything else, I needed to “own” the song in my heart. The ubiquitous presence of “Hey Jude” on the airwaves that late summer ensured that the song would be burned into my subconscious.
And then I did a totally reckless thing: I decided to perform “Hey Jude” at my school’s talent show that fall.
I must have been crazy. I went to Queen of Angels High School Seminary in San Fernando, California. That June, I went home for the summer not knowing how to play the piano. Now, I returned in the fall to my sophomore year, claiming to not only be a pianist but a performer of the year’s biggest song? It was suicide. If I failed, I would be ostracized by a seminary community that pulled no punches in caustic humor and sarcasm.
So I practiced. And I practiced. And I practiced. Some of my classmates who doubted my ability poked their heads into the music room and began to believe I might be able to do it.
The talent show (we called it that oh-so-seminary name, “gaudeamus”) was in October. As I recall, there were the usual duos who sang and played guitar, and maybe one or two pianists who performed some classical pieces. I was the lone sophomore on the bill and when I was introduced a cheer went up from my classmates. I took my seat at the piano, the crowd grew quiet, and I started playing “Hey Jude.”
It was a simply chorded rendition that probably came across as grade schoolish, but I moved the song forward with a good beat. No one sang the vocals; it was a pure piano realization. I really don’t remember if I was nervous. I do recall feeding off the good vibes of performing, of having the appreciation of a listening audience. And then I did something that I probably shouldn’t have done: I played the “Na-na-na-na” ending chorus for the full seven minutes that the Beatles played on the record.
Na, na, na, na-na-na-na.
Some of the guys were starting to grumble but I was determined to finish the song. Finally, at the last chord, I slowed to a ritardando and stopped. The audience erupted into cheers, perhaps more from relief that the song was over than from anything else. As one last flourish, I pulled a page out of Arte Johnson’s “old man” character on the then-hot Laugh-In TV show and fell off the bench in a dead feint. Now the audience was on its feet.
Not only had I learned to play the piano in a couple of months, not only had I performed a popular hit Beatle song before a discriminating audience, but I also flashed a hint of the showmanship that would serve me well in my later years. It was the greatest feeling in the world!
To this day I still get teased about my piano debut by some of my high school classmates. But my friends know that I went on from that landmark moment to build a career for myself as a musician and composer. And it all began with “Hey Jude.”