In 1996, Jim Owen devised a tribute band that highlighted the orchestral elements naturally represented in Beatles music. His idea was to find four musicians to impersonate The Beatles, yet tour cities with symphony orchestras who would back up the core group in playing over 30 hits. With Owen as John Lennon on rhythm guitar, piano, and vocals, Tony Kishman as Paul McCartney on bass guitar, piano, and vocals, David John as George Harrison on lead guitar and vocals, and Chris Camilleri as Ringo Starr on drums and vocals, they’ve played with over 100 orchestras— from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to Philadelphia, L.A., Cleveland, and beyond. This weekend, Saturday, March 19, they will play with the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra at CFCC’s Cape Fear Stage. We interviewed Owen about Beatlemania 2.0 and what we can expect.
encore (e): So, I am writing this upon hearing news of producer George Martin’s passing. Often known as “the 5th Beatle,” what has his imprint on this music meant to rock history in your opinion?
Jim Owen (JO): Sir George Martin’s classical music training blended perfectly with the ideas presented by The Beatles as they brought new songs to be recorded in the studio. Starting with “Yesterday’s” string quartet, followed by the double quartet on “Eleanor Rigby” and on from there. When John Lennon played for George Martin his initial version of “I Am the Walrus,” George asked, “What am I supposed to do with that [monotonous melody]?” The result is a true testament to Martin’s ability.
e: When did your love for them begin?
JO: I heard “Meet The Beatles” album in 1973 or so and asked my aunt, who played it for me, “Who are those guys?!” I was about 7 years old, and decided at that moment I wanted to learn guitar and play their music exactly as they did.
e: What was the first Beatles song you heard and how did it impact you? Do you play the song in the show?
JO: We do play “I Saw Her Standing There” from “Meet The Beatles.” It’s just a fun nod to the early years since there is no orchestra.
e: How did you fellas begin your journey into this tribute concert with orchestras? Where did it all start?
JO: It started as being Beatles fans as kids in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We all—along with thousands of others—wanted to learn their music, and the way to do it was by listening to their records over and over and picking out the parts by ear.
The Broadway show, “Beatlemania,” debuted in the late ‘70s and gave professioanlism to The Beatles tribute or simulation concept. In the 1990s I wanted to bring it together with an orchestra so we could play live as closely to what we know from their original recordings as possible.
e: How did you decide who was gonna “play” which Beatle? Was thumb-wrestling involved?
JO: Interestingly, we all resemble our particular characters seemingly by chance. It appears like it was meant to be somehow. There were probably subtle encouragements along the way by people noticing resemblances.
e: The songs have been transformed to include orchestral elements—like “Penny Lane” includes a trumpet section in your show. Did you restructure or elevate the music?
JO: There is no rearranging of the original versions of the songs. We have recreated all vocals, including the harmonies, band parts—drums, bass, guitars, keys—along with exact transcriptions of the orchestral parts from the original recordings. That work was done by [our conductor,] who painstakingly did it over a period of months. Imagine him listening to these recordings time and again to write out each part for each instrument in the orchestra.
e: Have Ringo or Paul heard of you/seen you? Any feedback from their camp?
JO: No idea if Ringo or Paul are aware of us. Although, with the Internet I’m sure somebody must have shown them a clip or something and said, “Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this!”