Music Preview: Pete Bennett recalls his time in the trenches of the British Invasion
October 9, 2008 4:00 AM
When the Beatles split, Pete Bennett, left, worked on their various solo careers. He helped George Harrison, right, with his 1972 "Concert for Bangladesh."
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Rolling Stones, always colorful with the lyrics, had a little problem with "Honky Tonk Women," specifically the salacious line about what Mick Jagger did with the divorcee in New York City.
Promotions man Pete Bennett saw the whole thing coming in the summer of '69.
"I said 'Look fellas, I don't know if this record is gonna go. I like the record, it's a great record, but we have to change a lyric here.' They're like, 'Ahhh no, we're going to keep the same thing'."
Sure enough, when Bennett went to pitch the song to the first big radio station, he was shot down by programmers and lawyers. Rather than walk out without a hit, Bennett insisted the lyric was actually "played a divorcee." When the lawyers told him "you must have marbles in your ears" he went to the extent of returning with a piece of sheet music he doctored to make his case.
Pete Bennett's British Invasion
Where: Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, Midland
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 and $20
More information: 724-643-9004
"It became the pick of the week and became No. 1 all over the country," Bennett says. "The band said, 'I told you so.' I said, 'No, you don't know what I had to do get them to play this record.' "
It was all in day's work for Bennett, one of the foot soldiers of the British Invasion and an industry insider who once graced the cover of Performance magazine with the headline "The World's No. 1 Promotions Man." In his heyday, Bennett worked records by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, The Kinks, Michael Jackson and many more, and managed to get his picture taken with all of them.
In later years, he would work promotion for Tony Bennett's comeback, Julio Iglesias and such television shows as "Laverne and Shirley."
Bennett, like a rock 'n' roll answer to Zelig, will spin tales of five decades in the business as part of Pete Bennett's British Invasion at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, Beaver County, along with a performance by singer-guitarist Denny Laine, the former Moody Blues and Wings member best known for "Go Now."
Bennett, who gives his age as 63 (despite an old Rolling Stone story that says he was 17 in 1952), grew up in the Bronx, where he went from shining shoes and making pizzas for Frank Sinatra to playing drums behind him in Tommy Dorsey's band. After getting on "American Bandstand" with his own Pete Bennett and the Embers, and the instrumental song "Fever," he took a job with a fledgling label called Motown, pitching records by the Miracles and the Supremes.
"Getting a record on radio was always very hard, but in my case," he says, "I had friends all over: Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, L.A. A lot of musicians I played with around the country became big personalities on radio and station managers. They got married and needed a paycheck. It was easy for me to walk into a radio station. I became the biggest promotions star in the industry."
He briefly managed Nat King Cole and then, when the British Invasion groups were breaking, he says, "they wanted the No. 1 man in America."
Bennett became a pitchman for the Stones, helping to break their first No. 1 hit, "Satisfaction." One of his favorite Stones stories involves their famous dugout encounter with the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1964.
"We were on a yacht called the Princess," he says. "I said 'Listen, The Beatles are at Shea Stadium, let's go see them.' So we were in the dugout, and we only lasted about 25 minutes because the crowd was going crazy, throwing stuff, and the Beatles were in there and were getting nervous. George and Ringo were in there saying, 'I hope it's safe, I hope it's safe.' They were more concerned about that than anything else. Then the crowd started yelling, 'The Stones! The Stones! The Stones!' After Ed Sullivan introduced [the Beatles], after the third song, we just had to split. The building was shaking. You couldn't hear the Beatles anyway. But in the dugout I said, 'Let's go.' Mick said, 'Let's get out fast,' and thank God we did."
Along with the Stones, Bennett pitched Beatles records and claims to have been on hand for the "Let it Be" sessions.
In his book "Many Years from Now," Paul McCartney wrote, "In one of the outer offices lurked Pete Bennett, a vast bulk of a man with a round Italian face, looking more like a bodyguard for Sinatra than the promo man responsible for getting the Beatles on the radio."
When the Beatles split, Bennett worked on their various solo careers, including Harrison's 1972 "Concert for Bangladesh." He says Harrison warned organizers against filming the concert, in part because Dylan was anxious around the cameras. Bennett says it was done on the sly and "the next day when [Harrison] said, 'We should have filmed the concert,' I said, 'It's done.' " It went on to become one of the classic rock concert films.
Later in the '70s, Bennett says he was part of an effort to reunite the Beatles at Woodstock for a multimillion dollar gig, possibly, upon Lennon's suggestion, with Elton John stepping in for McCartney.
"We have all the lawyers there and I can't find Ringo," Bennetts says. "All of a sudden I get a knock on the door and Ringo's so mad. He's starting a fight with George Harrison. Evidently George had been going out with his wife. That upset negotiations the whole day. ... John still wanted to do it and said Ringo would come around. To make a long story, John went back to Yoko and proceeded to have a baby, and everything split up on that."
Bennett says Lennon's death "was a stab in my heart. I told John many, many times, 'John, we cannot go to places without anyone around us.' He said, 'We don't need these clowns,' talking about security guards. I told him, 'There's a lot jealous people. You could get hurt.' "
Bennett's dealings with another rock 'n' roll tragedy -- Elvis Presley -- overlapped with the Beatles. Bennett promoted "Suspicious Minds" during The King's late '60s comeback.
"When I told Elvis he should do concerts and play arenas, he said, 'Do you think I'd be as big as the Beatles?'," Bennett says laughing. "So when Elvis came to New York and played Madison Square Garden in 1972, I took George Harrison backstage with me, and said, 'Elvis, this is George Harrison.' He said, 'How you doin', sir? Pleasure to meet you, sir.' "
Among the Pittsburgh stars Bennett promoted were Perry Como and Bobby Vinton. He also remembers encountering deejays here like Porky Chedwick and bringing Nat King Cole to the newly opened Civic Arena.
Bringing him to Midland for this event are Joey and David Granati (of Pittsburgh band the Granati Brothers), who teach a "School of Rock"-type music class at the Lincoln Park center and have a longtime connection with Bennett: He played drums for their uncle, Enrico Chiappetta, a cabaret singer in the early '60s. Bennett says he's inclined to help the Granatis, either as a unit or individually.
"It's never too late," he says, "for the world to hear the Granati Brothers."