Looking Back at 45 Years of Publishing Beatlefan

Looking Back at 45 Years of Publishing Beatlefan

Beatlefan first was published just before Christmas in 1978, so we’re marking its 45th anniversary. Through various landmark anniversaries in the past, Executive Editor Al Sussman, our original New York correspondent, has interviewed Bill and Leslie King about how the publication came to be and their adventures through the years. Here’s a new conversation to mark the magazine’s 45th birthday. …

The first issue of Beatlefan had an interview with former Wings drummer Joe English. Did the interviews in those very early days come about through your “day job” covering music at The Atlanta Constitution, or through other sources?

Initially, most of them came via my job at the paper. That certainly was the case with the Joe English interview, which was set up before Beatlefan even came into being.

As I explain in the first part of my Beatlefan Annotated series in Issue #265, prior to being tapped to drum in McCartney’s band, New York native English had been living around Macon, Ga., then a music hotbed thanks to Capricorn Records and the Allman Brothers Band. He’d played in a pickup band with Butch Trucks of the ABB. 

I’d first met English while he still officially was a member of Wings when he attended the annual Capricorn Records Barbecue outside Macon in August 1977. At that time, he was very enthusiastic about the sessions for what turned out to be “London Town.” “It’s going to be another ‘Band on the Run’,” he told me.

When Jimmy McCulloch left Wings a month or so later, I talked with Joe’s wife, who indicated he would continue with the McCartney band.

Joe English from his time with Wings.

But, then, a couple of months later, the Wings Club Sandwich newsletter announced that English had decided to “return full time to his family in America.” 

A few months after that, in the spring of 1978, I got word that English was in Atlanta doing some work at a local recording studio with Tall Dogs (the jazz-rock group he’d started earlier with Butch Trucks), and that he was willing to chat about his career.

So, I spent some time with him at the studio and he talked at length about his time in Wings. I wrote the story up for the Constitution and then, later that year when Leslie and I decided to start Beatlefan, it seemed like a natural cover story.

During the early years, many of the interviews we did continued to come to me through the newspaper, including my chats with the surviving members of Badfinger and Tony Sheridan, but as Beatlefan became better known, the process sometimes was reversed, with me getting interviews for our magazine that I later repurposed for the paper. Walter Shenson, producer of “A Hard Day’s Night,” was one of those instances.

This might sound completely primitive to younger folks, but describe how a typical issue of Beatlefan was created in those early days.

It was a very different process from nowadays. These were the days before desktop computer publishing. Back then, the articles written for us came via the mail in manuscript form produced on typewriters — or, sometimes, even handwritten! (Our contact with contributors was either via long-distance phone call, mail or mailgrams, which were delivered like a telegram.)

I compiled the news from clippings sent to us — and various music trade publications we subscribed to — and wrote everything on a typewriter — first an old-fashioned one my Dad had bought me in college, and then an electric model like we used at the paper in those days.

I would edit the articles with a pen or marker, and then Leslie would typeset them on Compugraphic equipment owned by a college pal, Gene Christie, which necessitated evening trips after work to the little room he rented in town about a half hour away from us by Interstate highway.

The first issue of Beatlefan featured Joe English on the cover.

The Compugraphic would spit out long (I’m talking several feet long, in some cases) columns of type that then had to be trimmed, waxed and pasted up in page form. Those forms then would be copied by the neighborhood Kwik Kopy shop that printed our early issues on uncoated white paper stock.  

We didn’t get an office until early in 1979, so I pasted up that first issue on the kitchen table of our apartment, with only a borrowed X-acto knife and wooden rolling pin as my tools. No wonder some of it’s a bit crooked! After we got the office, my artsy-and-craftsy mother built me a light table like graphic artists used, which made the paste-up process much easier.

In later years, after Gene moved to Washington, DC, we’d send him the copy, he’d typeset it and then he’d overnight the galleys (as those long strips of type were called) to us for me to paste up. After the first several years of publication, we moved to a format that featured a glossy cover and newsprint pages inside, and the magazine was printed by a weekly newspaper about an hour away from us.

A selection of Beatlefan covers through the years.

Eventually, in 1991, we bought the first in a long series of Apple Macintosh computers (the old LC model), and so there was no more outside typesetting. I would print out the stories from the Mac, but I still pasted them up on the light table. The photos were “screened” (so that they consisted of tiny dots) at a local print shop, and they were pasted down on the pages just like the type.

We switched to another printing company in the early 2000s, where my brother Jonathan worked as an account rep, and eventually we followed him to the company that has printed Beatlefan since 2008. These days, the production is all digital — the magazine pages and photos are provided in PDF and JPEG form to the printer. And, of course, we run full-color covers.

I also should mention that my brother Tim helped us out with many a mailing of Beatlefan in the early years, in addition to attending quite a few McCartney concerts with me.

One of the perks of that “day job” was that you got to attend a number of press conferences and more informal Q&A sessions with Paul, Ringo and George. Any memories from those sessions?

I’ve participated in quite a few press conferences with Paul and Ringo through the years, but my first one-on-one interview with a Beatle was George, in 1976 at a press gathering in Washington, DC, after he signed with Warner Bros. He chatted casually with reporters at a reception and then, as a seated dinner wound down, I went over and knelt by him with my tape recorder and interviewed him. It was quite a thrill.

McCartney did several group interviews to promote “Give My Regards to Broad Street.”

Also quite thrilling was the hour that I got to spend with Paul (and about five other reporters from Eastern papers) in a small conference room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, when he was doing advance publicity for the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” film. As I’ve written in Beatlefan in the past, I got there early, correctly guessed where Paul would sit and positioned myself to his immediate left. I got to ask lots of questions and also snapped pictures while he talked. It was an unforgettable experience!

Beginning with that first issue, there have been Beatlefan interviews with virtually every major Beatles figure alive during the magazine’s first 45 years. Any special ones come to mind?

Well, Walter Shenson, whom I mentioned earlier, was pretty special. That happened at Beatlefest, as it was known then, and was arranged by Mark Lapidos. (As I explain in the blog posted I did a couple of months ago about how Beatlefan came to be, Mark always has been considered the honorary “godfather” of our magazine.) I later spent time with Walter at other Beatlefests, and even got recruited to go out onstage with him in the ballroom once to interview him. And, in later years, he and I chatted on the phone a couple of times.

Legendary Beatles and Apple Corps publicity director Derek Taylor was another special case. I first interviewed him in Liverpool, when Leslie and I were attending a fan convention there at the Adelphi Hotel. He was, as you might imagine, a marvelous interview subject. — extremely loquacious, debonair and charming.

Derek Taylor talked to Beatlefan several times.

A few years later, he had a book coming out for one of the “Sgt. Pepper” anniversaries, and the publisher’s publicist set up a phone interview. Derek not only remembered our previous encounter, but he recalled that I had a beard, and he quoted something I’d said in our earlier interview.

Then, years after that, when “The Beatles Anthology” was about to premiere, ABC set me up with another phone interview with Derek, who modestly told the publicist handing him the phone that there was nothing he could tell me about The Beatles that I didn’t already know.

Through the years, I have interviewed many other Beatles relatives, friends and associates, including Cynthia Lennon, May Pang, Mike McCartney, Alistair Taylor, Vic Spinetti, Leo McKern, Pete Shotton, Jürgen Vollmer, Sid Bernstein, Phil Ramone, Jack Douglas, Elliot Mintz and quite a few members of McCartney’s various bands. And, of course, we’ve had numerous interviews with other Beatles-related figures that were conducted by various Beatlefan contributors.

Other than the obvious (John, Brian, Mal), are there any interviews that were near-misses, either for you or any of the contributors?

Well, we never had a near-miss with him, but the Great White Whale would have been Neil Aspinall. But there never was a chance of that happening, for us or any other publication (though we did run a chat with him during “Anthology” times that was provided by EMI). I also would have loved to chat with Maureen, Ringo’s first wife, but she wasn’t available, either. And, of course, Jane Asher would have been a terrific interview, but she never has talked publicly about her time with Paul and The Beatles. But, generally, through our vast network of contributors and correspondents, we’ve gotten interviews with just about everyone involved with The Beatles who has a story worth telling.

Bill and Leslie in the late 1980s.

Leslie, tell us the story of seeing a copy of Beatlefan on the episode of CBS’ “48 Hours” devoted to Paul’s 1989-90 tour and calling Bill, in those pre-cell phone days, at a hotel in London during the U.K. leg of the tour.

Leslie: CBS devoted the second anniversary edition of “48 Hours” to Paul on tour. I saw it on TV, and the Chicago Beatles fans being interviewed kept positioning a copy of the latest Beatlefan to catch the camera. I got very excited and called Bill at the hotel in Marylebone to tell him about that unexpected experience. 

Bill: I was in London with my friends Mark Gunter and John Sosebee to see a couple of Paul’s shows at Wembley Arena and do some Beatling. We all got a big kick out of Leslie’s call about the show, and when we got back to Georgia, we watched the video. The fan CBS was following was Joy Waugh-O`Donnell, who was a subscriber to Beatlefan.

Beatlefan stalwart Al Sussman (left) with Olivia and Bill King.

Bill, tell us about the story of the unnamed source who saw a copy of Beatlefan at, if memory serves, Paul’s Cavendish Avenue home?

Actually, it was at Paul’s studio. Someone we’re in contact with was waiting to talk with Paul and was browsing his bookshelf and came across a copy of Beatlefan. Ironically, I believe it was an issue that had John Lennon on the cover!

Paul and Ringo’s return to touring in 1989 ushered in a new era for Beatlefan. Tell us about how the tour reports began and developed, and your and Leslie’s adventures during the early tours.

Those early tours were monsters to deal with, coverage wise, as we still were in the days where people were sending in clippings and snapshots, and we really were inundated.

In those days, we did a detailed, city-by-city report on all the shows, since the tours weren’t of the never-ending variety, like they are now.

As for adventures, one time Ken Sharp and I were interviewing some of the members of Macca’s band before a show at Madison Square Garden and then, in trying to find our way out, we found ourselves on the floor of the arena, with Paul and the band onstage waiting to do a sound check! He obviously was waiting for us to leave, so we did.

Another time, Ken got me and Allan Kozinn seats right in front of Ringo — literally just a few feet away from him — for a show with the Roundheads at the Bottom Line club in New York City.

Bill and John Sosebee attended many concerts together over the years.

And then there was the time that my brother Tim and John Sosebee and I accidentally ended up on an MPL van that took us into the backstage area before a show at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I’ve told that story before in a SOMETHING NEW blog paying tribute to John, whom we lost last year.

Through the years, I traveled extensively following Paul and Ringo tours, hitting such places as New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Dallas, St. Louis, Memphis, Orlando and London. Leslie and our kids also have seen shows in such places as DC, Houston, New York, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Nashville, and multiple shows in South Carolina and North Carolina.

These days, though, I generally only hit one show per tour. Not only am I a lot older, but the cost of concert tickets has skyrocketed. Back in 1993 when Paul toured, some friends and I hit shows in New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis, before returning to Atlanta for Paul’s concert there, and then following him to Columbia, SC (with my son Bill in tow), and then on to Orlando. Later in that same tour, we hit shows in New Jersey and Charlotte. Nowadays, even if I wanted to want to hit the road like that, the cost of seeing that many shows would be prohibitive.

As for our coverage, while we still report on the tours in Beatlefan, we don’t really do the city-by-city thing anymore, since there rarely is much difference from one venue to the next. Instead, we report the highlights of the tour and then zero-in on one or two cities, with firsthand coverage from contributors who were there. Last year, I did one of our major tour reports after Leslie and I and our kids saw Paul at the Wake Forest University stadium in North Carolina.

How did Beatlefan’s 1994 Threetles scoop come about, and how did it get international coverage? And what was the literal “kick” to the story?

Longtime readers will have read this before, and I wrote about it in a Quick Cuts blog a few years back, but we had just closed out an issue of Beatlefan and took it to the printer the night before.

I had taken some vacation time, because we were expecting our second child at any time. I got a phone call from one of our contributing editors that afternoon. He had just gotten off the phone with the manager of one of Ringo Starr’s closest friends. He said that Ringo, George Harrison and Paul McCartney were in the studio recording a John Lennon song, “Free As a Bird.”

This was big news. We’d already reported that the three Beatles were planning on recording together, but until that point no one knew what song.

The Threetles sessions produced Beatlefan’s biggest international scoop.

Leslie and I immediately decided to put out an issue of our Beatlefan/EXTRA! supplementary newsletter with the scoop that evening, and also to print enough additional copies to insert them into every copy of the magazine that had already gone to press as a free bonus. The Beatlefan/EXTRA! fax subscribers received the news that evening (remember when people had fax machines?) and the newsletter mailing went out later that night. Thanks to Allan Kozinn, The New York Times picked up the story and attributed it to Beatlefan, which got us mentioned widely (and even led to a couple of calls to us from London papers).

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Leslie woke me up and told me that she was in labor. We took our son Bill over to the next-door neighbor’s house and then we set off in the car for the hospital.

Along the way, we ran into one roadblock and, as I was racing down one of Atlanta’s major thoroughfares at about 85 mph, an Atlanta police car suddenly pulled up beside us. I rolled down the window and hollered, “Woman in labor!” 

The officer nodded and escorted us to the hospital, leading the way with blue lights flashing, and our daughter Olivia was born a few hours later.

As I’ve always told her, a lot of kids hear interesting stories from their parents about the circumstances of their birth, but how many of those stories involve The Beatles and a high-speed police escort?

Unlike the out-of-the-blue shock of John Lennon’s murder, Beatlefan had time to prepare for George’s passing. You and I talked tentatively about it as early as July of 2001. What sort of plans were you able to make, and how did the magazine’s coverage actually turn out?

I touched base with you and several other contributors in advance and discussed what we’d do if George passed. That meant we didn’t really have to scramble, like we did in December 1980, when we tore up our second anniversary issue, which was almost complete, and decided to turn it into a Lennon commemorative. For George, we fully planned commemorative coverage, and I was very pleased with it. I think it had some of our best-written pieces ever.

An interesting side story was that I had been the copy desk chief for The Atlanta Journal, our afternoon paper, after leaving the entertainment beat in 1986, but a few weeks before George died, the Journal had been merged into the morning Atlanta Constitution and I had been moved back to the Features Department, where I’d worked many years before as the rock critic. I helped edit the daily living and arts section.

Bill’s George Harrison obituary ran on the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But, for a few months, the combined papers continued to do an early afternoon edition. I worked the early morning shift in Features and was at the paper and saw on the wires that George had died. A few minutes later, one of the assistant managing editors came by my desk and asked if I would be willing to write an obituary on George (my Beatles sideline was well-known at the paper).

I was honored to be asked, and immediately agreed to do it. My story on George ran on the front page of the Journal-Constitution and also was distributed nationally over the New York Times news service. It ran in papers around the country.

Another thing I recall was that, unlike John’s death, which came out of the blue and left me virtually no time to really react ,because I was so busy covering it, George’s passing was something we were dreading but expecting. And, perhaps because of that, it hit me quicker, emotionally. Whereas I did several TV and radio appearances talking about John right after he was killed, I begged off when asked to do the same after George died. I just didn’t want to talk about it.

A newspaper feature about Beatlefan that future contributor Brad Hundt wrote circa 1989.

We talked 10 years ago about Beatlefan’s journalistic stance from the start. Do you still get any complaints from readers don’t like the tone of a review or article?

Rarely. While some folks in the very early years of Beatlefan were surprised to see a fanzine that wasn’t afraid to say an album released by a Beatle was subpar, I think fandom has moved past that point. If anything, I hear from people who hate this or that album (“McCartney III,” for example) and can’t understand why we didn’t hate it as well. Fan opinions vary much more widely these days than they did back when we first got started.

Speaking of journalism, one thing that I’ve always been pleased by is the way professional journalists have embraced Beatlefan. We’ve had quite a few of them as regular contributors through the years, including Brad Hundt, Allan Kozinn and Rip Rense.

As we’ve discussed before, Beatlefan is a print publication. How do you answer queries about why there isn’t a digital edition?

I tell people honestly that we’re creatures of the print world, and we just don’t have the time or inclination to deal with a digital edition as well. We looked into that possibility briefly a few years ago, but the logistics involved were a lot more complicated than we wanted to take on. Maybe if we ever stop printing an ink-on-paper magazine, we’ll think about going digital.

A latterday shot of Bill and Leslie.

Finally, where do you see Beatlefan and the Beatles world in general in five years — 50 years after the magazine’s inception?

Well, Paul and Ringo are older now than Leslie and I will be then, and they’re still recording and touring. We’ll just have to see.

You can read Bill King’s reminiscence about how Beatlefan was born by clicking here.

And you can read the 35th-anniversary conversation with Bill and Leslie from 2013 by clicking here.