41 years ago, John Lennon, with his wife Yoko Ono, headlined the first “One To One” benefit concerts for the children with intellectual disabilities at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York.
The shows took place at New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 30, 1972. This was the only time John Lennon played complete, fully rehearsed, concerts since the Beatles stopped touring in 1966. It would also be the last.
Bob Gruen is a legendary photographer, and was a friend of the Lennons. He took the iconic pictures of Lennon wearing Gruen’s “New York City” t-shirt, and posing in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Gruen agreed to speak with me over the phone earlier this week about his memories of the “One To One” concerts. He was there, not only for the shows, but for the rehearsals. “I was there pretty much every day. John and Yoko had rented a garage in a building on 10th Street, which was about four blocks form their apartment on Bank Street in the West Village,” Gruen told me. “It was just a very short walk. The original intent, I think, was to build a recording studio in there, but it hadn’t been done yet. It was basically just an open, loft-like space on the ground floor. I think there was a garage in front and a big loft-like space in the back. They rehearsed in there for the first couple of weeks.”
Throughout 1972, local “Eyewitness News” investigative television reporter Geraldo Rivera had been covering the John Lennon’s deportation case, and uncovered the deplorable and inhumane conditions of the overcrowded Willowbrook School. On the program one evening, Rivera announcedthere would be a benefit concert, dubbed “One To One,” to take place at Madison Square Garden, featuring John and Yoko. They would be backed by Elephant’s Memory, a New York band that had just accompanied the couple on various television appearances, and their most recent album, “Some Time In New York City.” Session drummer Jim Keltner was added as the second drummer.
Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, and Sha Na Na, were also on the bill, and Allen Ginsberg and Melanie Safka came out and sang, unannounced, during the “Give Peace A Chance” finale.
I was fortunate enough to attend the evening show, and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Seeing any ex-Beatle at the time seemed like a miracle. The Beatles did not do concerts, nor appear in public. You either watched them on TV, or listened to their records. Those were your choices.
Sadly, over the years, Lennon’s 1972 appearances have mostly been forgotten except for those in attendance, and not received the recognition they deserve.
The idea of “One To One” was to raise funds so that each child could have an individual caretaker. “From what I recall, Geraldo had asked (Lennon) if they would appear in a benefit for the Willowbrook school,” Gruen said. “There was so much demand, they added a show in the afternoon. I was at both of them, yeah. I wasn’t involved with the other acts. I was concentrating on John and Yoko and the Elephants.”
At the rehearsals, Gruen watched and documented how things progressed. “It was very exciting because they had been recording for about a year, or at least half a year anyway, first doing the ‘Some Time In New York City’ album, then working on an Elephant’s Memory album (for Apple Records), and for me, going to rehearsals and hearing John actually singing songs he had recorded with the Beatles, and early solo material, was a real step up. It wasn’t just all the new songs, but all of a sudden I was hearing ‘Imagine’ and ‘Come Together’ and ‘Cold Turkey’ and things like that, where I recognized the voice and it was like listening to a Beatle, so all of a sudden, it was much more exciting and real!”
During the actual show, Lennon called for an audible at the end of the regular set. “A funny aside about that was they rehearsed all sort of Chuck Berry-Bo Diddley songs, kind of the favorites of the band and John. Not only rehearsing, but warming up. But at the concert, when John called for an extra encore, and he called for ‘Hound Dog,’ and the band just swings into it!
“It was funny because that was a song I had never heard them play in rehearsal. But the way the rehearsals were, they all knew those songs, they all knew Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Elvis by heart so he could basically call up any song and they could play it. It was a testament to how loose the concert was. They were having a lot of fun, they were really enjoying playing.”
One of the things I remembered vividly from the show were these bright, yellow spotlights beaming from behind up to these mirrors above the stage. It turns out that it was a special set up, as Gruen explained.
“An interesting aspect of the show is that the stage that they used was the one that the Rolling Stones had used (on their 1972 tour, which concluded at Madison Square Garden a month before). John and Yoko rented it from the Rolling Stones, and it had, I think, eight Super Trooper spotlights at the back of the stage, and giant mirror running across the front of the stage at a 45 degree angle.
“Super Troopers are extremely bright spotlights that are generally in the back of an arena or a stadium. They are very, very bright lights that can carry all the way across the arena to light up the stage pretty brightly, and in this case, they were just right on the back of the stage, reflecting onto the mirror in front of the stage, and right back down. It was some of the brightest light ever on a rock and roll stage. You could see the tracks of the lights coming up from the back of the stage, then down to the front, and it would light up the smoke in the room, or whatever. Those lights were designed to shine hundreds of feet, hundreds of yards, across an arena – a stadium, even – and in this case they were only going dozens of yards. You’ve never seen a concert with lights as bright as that since.”
Phil Spector, who was producing records with John & Yoko at the time, was on hand to record the shows. I told Gruen that what I thought was interesting about the recent HBO documentary starring Al Pacino was how it attempted to explain some of the humor behind Spector eccentric behavior, and Gruen agreed.
“He’s kind of known as a ‘mad genius.’ What I liked about the documentary was it did show the human side of him, and that he was very human, with a good sense of humor. A bit eccentric, yeah, but in the midst of a roomful of eccentrics, you know? He was just the one that got more publicity for it. Not that John Lennon didn’t get a lot of publicity for being kind of eccentric, too.
“I didn’t really have a lot of contact with Phil at that point. I do know that at one point, during the day (of the concerts) … We were all drunk, that whole summer. I don’t want to single Phil out. It wasn’t some thing that people drank at the concert. People just never stopped drinking all summer. It was just the way that we lived, basically, drinking all night, then sleeping late, then again and again.
“But at one point, some of the guards thought Phil was some drunk running around, a couple of guards were trying to throw him out, and a couple of the guys in Sha Na Na had to actually get into a fight with the guards to save Phil, because he was producing the concert. He ran back into the trailer with the sound equipment, and stayed there, so he wouldn’t get thrown out.”
(In part two, Bob Gruen discusses Yoko’s performance, the critics, the tour that never was, and … discovering reggae. To be continued.)
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