It was 6 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1964 when the phone rang in the Los Angeles apartment of Ivor Davis, the young West Coast correspondent for London’s Daily Express.
On the other end was the paper’s foreign editor, who told Davis to drive to the airport and catch the 11 a.m. flight to San Francisco. His assignment was to cover that evening’s gig at the Cow Palace by a hot British pop group called the Beatles.
For Davis and the band, it would be the start of a 34-day, 24-city tour across the United States and Canada.
“I had unfettered access to the boys . . . I lived and ate with them, played cards and Monopoly until the early hours of the morning,” Davis recalled. “I was there when they popped pills, talked candidly about their passions … and how they coped with the revolving door of women that was the inevitable result of their perch as global sex symbols.”
It has taken 50 years, but Davis, now 76, otherwise a quick and prolific journalist and author, has finally put together the highs and lows of the memorable tour in a lively new book, “The Beatles and Me on Tour.” In it, he writes of the pressure, adulation, booze, drugs and women in the lives of the group.
Davis, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in East London, devotes considerable space to the influence of the “fifth Beatle,” Brian Samuel Epstein, manager of the Fab Four and a frequent target of the stereotypical Jewish cracks of that time and environment by some of “the boys.”
Asked why he delayed writing the book for such a long time, Davis said, “I never expected their fame and legacy would last this long.”
Neither did the Beatles themselves. In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Ringo Starr said that John Lennon expected the group’s style and music to endure for about four years, that Paul McCartney planned on a writing career and George Harrison wanted to open a garage. Ringo’s ambition: to run a hair salon.
Davis attributed the instant success and enduring mythology of the Beatles in part to timing.
“For one, the Beatles came and lifted American spirits depressed by the assassination of President Kennedy,” he said. “For another, Lennon and McCartney proved to be really talented composers. It seems unlikely that Beyonce or Justin Bieber will be remembered this way 50 years from now.”
Epstein was born in Liverpool on Yom Kippur into a well-to-do merchant family. Without any managerial experience, he more or less appointed himself as manager of the largely unknown band after hearing the foursome play at a local cellar club.
The Beatles took on Epstein partially in the conviction that “Jews are good with money,” as McCartney reportedly put it.
Despite his lack of managerial acumen, Epstein, called “Eppy,” successfully transformed the stage presence of his charges. The rough working-class lads wearing black leather and performing in the basement of a converted warehouse became nice middle-class chaps clad in neat, dark business suits.
“Epstein changed the boys into clean-cut lads whom he could take home and introduce to his Yiddishe mamma,” Davis explained in an interview. “If he were to try the same with the Rolling Stones, they would have burned down the house.”
Under the outward appearance of a perfectly groomed, well-spoken and somewhat aloof Englishman, Epstein wrestled with the burden of being closeted as a gay Jew at a time when engaging in a homosexual act was a criminal offense in Britain.
Of course, the boys knew all about the skeletons in Epstein’s closet, as illustrated by an exchange during a late-night drink.
Epstein mentioned that he and a ghost writer had just finished his autobiography. Lennon, who enjoyed getting under Epstein’s skin, asked for the book’s title.
“A Cellarful of Noise,” Epstein replied.
“How about ‘A Cellarful of Boys,’” Lennon countered.
Getting into the spirit, Epstein offered “A Cellarful of Goys,” though he wasn’t sure the Beatles knew the meaning of the term.
“No, no,” said Lennon, “I’ve got the perfect title — ‘Queer Jew.’”
When Lennon was recording “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” he occasionally switched the lyrics to “Baby, You’re a Rich Jew,” to the anguish of the group’s producer. At his most provocative, Lennon often addressed Epstein to his face as a “rich fag Jew.”
Despite such provocations, Davis does not believe that Lennon was an outright anti-Semite.
“John was extraordinarily bright and had a nasty, warped sense of humor,” Davis said. “He knew how to get a rise out of people.”
Epstein rarely talked to the press and had hardly exchanged a word with Davis during the first four weeks of the national tour. So when the group arrived in New Orleans and checked into a hotel before the performance, Davis was startled when he was summoned to Epstein’s suite.
“It’s Yom Kippur tomorrow,” Epstein informed Davis. “I wonder if you know anyone who could arrange for me to pop in at the local synagogue,” adding quickly, “I won’t be able to stay all day, of course.”
Davis called a local synagogue, and without mentioning Epstein’s name or who he was scored two free tickets. The noble offer was in vain, since in the end neither Epstein nor Davis showed up for services.
The Beatles popularity would outlive Epstein; he died in 1967 at 32. The coroner listed the death as accidental — probably caused by prolonged overuse of the sedative carbitrol.
“The Beatles and Me on Tour” cites a few other Jewish aspects of the 1964 tour:
• When the band performed in Montreal, a caller to the hotel threatened to “kill the Jew Ringo.” (Starr was not Jewish, although his father-in-law was.)
• At a news conference, a reporter asked the Beatles if they thought Jews played too influential a role in show business. Sensing an obvious provocation, the foursome skipped on to the next question.
• McCartney had an affinity for Jewish wives. His second spouse, Linda Eastman, was Jewish; she died in 1998. His current wife, Nancy Shevell, also is Jewish.
Throughout a wide-ranging writing career, Davis, in collaboration with his late wife, Sally Ogle Davis, reported on Hollywood stars, headline trials, natural disasters and politics for the Times of London, Daily Express, New York Times Syndicate and American magazines. Now he’s living out his golden years in the California beachfront community of Ventura, where his current projects include two new books — one about movies, the other a true crime story.
“The Beatles and Me on Tour” by Igor Davis (338 pages, Cockney Kid Publishing, $15.99)