Gary James' Interview With Eric Michaels Of
The Beatles Tribute
They been voted the number one Beatles Tribute at conventions like Beatlefest for three consecutive years. They've won Illinois Entertainer Of The Year Award. They've been voted Best Tribute Band three of the last four years by their fans in the Chicago area. They are American English. Eric Michaels, who portrays Paul McCartney, spoke with us about the band.
Q - Eric, I've never known of any Beatle tribute acts where the bass player is endorsed by Hofner. How did that come about?
A - (Laughs). The guy that endorses us is Rob Hofner. He used to work at the LA place and he was going to do a full-page article on a new Hofner release. He was going to do it in Bass Player magazine. He found out that we were hooked up with Sam Leach, who was the original Beatles promoter, which we are hooked up with him. They got a hold of us and it was between us and 1964 doing the full-page ad. They said they wanted a picture of the bass player, which would be me and Sam Leach and they were going to be pushing their release of the original Cavern bass that Paul used to use in the very beginning, before he got his newer model 500-1. We took photos and had the band take a picture with him and with my Cavern bass because I owned one. Sam Leach booked the Beatles like 49 times and had the biggest performances before their records hit. And there we are, a full-page ad in Bass Player magazine. (Laughs). And to this day, we retain our relationship with Hofner. Those guys do things for me all the time. Whenever I need something, they are just one phone call away. They have changed their new place to be near Chicago. So, I'm within an hour and a half from their spot, which I can't give away. (Laughs). Rob stopped over at my house once because I was having trouble with a Hofner. He was going to send it back to Germany and get it fixed for me. He said it could take up to a year. He gave me the number of Jackson Browne and all those guys who use these particular people to fix the neck of a bass or a guitar. I talked to the guy and he said, "I got 150 people before you. You'll have to come to California to give it to me. Sign for it that I got it and when it's done, before you take it back you'll have to test it that it's perfect. Then you'll have to take the plane back to Chicago." So, I was going to donate it to charity as a memento for somebody to hang on the wall. I found a guy in Detroit and he fixed it for me. I didn't want to wait that long for it to go back to Germany. So, that's the story. The guy does a lot for me. I really appreciate the Hofner. We got picked because of that. I don't know because of what, (laughs) but they liked us. They like that we had Sam Leach with us. He actually has done some promotion for us and was responsible for us playing the U.S. Navy Performing Arts Center in Japan while we were in Japan. We were in Tokyo at the time. He actually gets us gigs too.
Q - You recorded this CD called "What If", songs the Beatles might have recorded had they stayed together into 1971. What kind of songs are we talking about?
A - Well, I should at least explain how the thing came about. We were playing in England. Sam Leach had hired us to play places the Beatles had played that no other Beatles impersonator groups had played, like Grover's Ballroom and out-of-the-way kind of places. Then we had an Art Center that we played, which was really good. Then the last thing we did was The Cavern, which this guy I met, Bill Heckle, who owned it and he was the guy who did the biggest Beatles Fest in the world every year. It's in Liverpool. They have like 100,000 people there through the week and every band imaginable. They don't have to be impersonators but they just play the music. It was just huge. Absolutely huge. When he saw us play that, it was a Sunday night. It was pretty cold in November; I think it was 2001, he just grabbed me and took me to a pub and said, "We have to sit down and talk about an idea I've had forever." (Laughs). I go, "Really?" He goes, "Yeah. I've always had this idea and I've finally found a group that could do this. Everybody comes in and plays Beatles songs. What I'm going to ask you to do is, I'm going to give you a list of songs and you could pick out what you are going to do. You need to do at least an hour's worth of this type of material, What if the Beatles had stayed together for one more year in 1971 and did another album. What would have been on there? The songs would be the songs they released personally, the four of them, but it would be done as the Beatles." We talked a little bit. We wanted to get the price right. I said, "There is one other thing because we're going to have to put a lot of time in this, our Beatles repertoire is huge, but if we're going to learn this stuff and learn right, we'll need a full day at Abbey Road Studios at E.M.I. in London. And, we are going to need a good engineer from here." He kind of looked at me and said, "Everything we do here in Liverpool, we do on a handshake. If I give you my handshake it's as good as done. You can ask Sam Leach." So he said, "Okay, we'll do it." And he did. That was the cement that made it happen for me. There was going to be 12 groups on the last day, playing every CD the Beatles ever did, every album. And they did 12. The 13th one would be "What If". And we would end the whole concert series. There was a few thousand people there on Victoria Street. So, it was a big deal. We had Sam up there introducing us. But, we did learn the songs. We did "Uncle Albert" by McCartney, "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Instant Karma" by Lennon, "Behind That Locked Door" by George Harrison, "Maybe I'm Amazed" I McCartney, "It Don't Come Easy" by Ringo, "Cold Turkey" by Lennon, "Everynight" by McCartney, "Love" by Lennon, "Monkberry Moon Delight" by McCartney, "Give Me Some Truth" by Lennon, "I'd Have You Any Time" by Harrison and Dylan, and "Mother" by Lennon. That was our 13 song CD that we did. We had Will Schillinger, who was the producer for Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono at the time. He was the producer that day. So, we worked pretty hard. Some of the guys are no longer in the band, so we don't sell them anymore. But that's how it came about. It was pretty exciting.
Q - How long has American English been together?
A - We've been around for over 20 years, I have. I've made some changes now and then because people sometimes want to move on. They are writing songs and if you're going to be an original artist that's got to be your job. You have to really concentrate on that for your job. It's best that family not interfere. You just have to concentrate on that, because that's the hardest thing in the world to do. It's like a one in 10 million shot.
Q - You are telling me American English has been around since 1993?
A - Oh, easily. (Laughs).
Q - What were you doing before American English?
A - I was doing my own material. It's tough work trying to get into the Pop business, songwriters. There were just so many hard doors, especially in Chicago. It would've been a lot easier if I had lived in LA or New York to get through to people. Here in Chicago, you have people who do it for you. And who do you trust in the music business? I don't trust many people, I tell you. I've learned an awful lot in my years. Before that episode I was an organist. I was a Jazz, Blues Chicago musician. That's what I did. I got this gig out of pure happenstance. My brother played guitar with this guy, acoustic guitar. I went to go see the both of them play and they asked me to sing a song, so I sang "Yesterday" and it went over huge. The guy who was playing with my brother, he told my brother "Your younger brother could do the McCartney stuff for my band. I kicked this guy out because he was horrible. He looked like shit and couldn't sing. Your brother would be great for this." And he goes, "I don't know, man. My brother plays B-3." (Laughs). He said, "Give me his number." He said, "I can't do that. I'll call for you." My brother called me and I said, "Tell him I'm not interested. I'd love the Beatles. I don't want to wreck the Beatles by doing the Beatles." (Laughs". I never heard a tribute. What's that? I heard of one group that did a tribute:
Rain. We were playing a club once and there was a set list on the floor from the band before and I think they were doing a routing date at a club in Chicago downtown. That set list was on the floor and it said Rain. And then all Beatles songs on it. I said, "Wow! This group does all Beatles songs. How weird!" That was my mind set. I would do a Beatles song or two. I'd do "Back In The U.S.S.R. or "Helter Skelter". I get to play guitar in one song. So, to make a long story short, my brother bugged me a couple of times. Finally, he called me a third time and said, "Listen, if you don't call this guy I'm going to come down there and beat the shit out of you like I did when we were younger." So I said, "Okay. No problem. I'll give him a call." Brothers fight all the time. So I said, "Okay. I'll do it." So I called the guy and he was really nice. He said, "Just learn some songs." I knew a few songs from when I was a kid. So I knew how to play the bass on them and I knew the McCartney vocal. I said, "Yeah, okay." I knew like 15 songs. He said, "You don't have to bring anything. We've got everything for you, bass guitar, amplifier, real piano. Just play!" So I went down there and played and it was amazing. Right away I was hooked. The George Harrison guy had that George Harrison look. He sounded just like him. The John Lennon guy for the most part sounded like John Lennon. We harmonized and it sounded like the Beatles. The drummer had a steady beat. That's all he needed. (Laughs). And that was the beginning. When he left the band he was the leader, he gave it to me. He said, "You are like the voice of the band. I don't think we could have done without you. I'm leaving to do my own music. I need to concentrate on it. So, I am going to train you on how to be a leader of the band." First job I got from him was, "Okay, go get the money." (Laughs). That's the hardest job a band leader has to do. Go get the money. You're there half the night looking for the money.
Q - No manager? No agent?
A - No agent. No anybody. First thing I did was trademarked the name. Other than that, we just kept getting better players and better players. We got uniforms like the real things instead of putting on a black suit and playing in a bar on a Saturday night. We started getting more and more gigs because we were better. I saw these girls walking around with Pepper suits on. I stopped them on break at a festival and ask them, "Could you make us suits like that?" "Yeah, we could do it, but it will take a long time." And they did. We paid them for it and that's how it started. We painted my Rickenbacker bass psychedelic. We're doing more things that made it historically accurate. Now we have a big white baby grand piano just like John Lennon had. It's just morphed itself into something really big.
Q - You're telling me that you go on the road with a piano like that?
A - A lot of times we do. We have about 8,000 pounds of equipment with that. What's another little bit of weight?
Q - What band were you in that you were playing a B3 organ?
A - My brother and I had a Hard Rock / Blues type group like in the '70s. We opened for all kinds of acts. I could go down the list of a million names, from Jeff Beck to Eric Clapton to Stevie Winwood And Traffic. The whole nine yards. I was that kind of a musician.
Q - Do audiences ever pick up on the things that you do or don't do that the Beatles did?
A - I remember playing the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita. Some guy came up when we were signing stuff at the meet and greet and he goes, "When you started to play "Yesterday", you didn't down stroke it. You upstroke with two fingers." I said, "Well, yeah. That's the way Paul does it." (Laughs). He goes, "I was waiting for that." (Laughs). Then I had another person, we were playing a theater in Crystal Lake, Illinois and we did the whole Abbey Road album, from beginning to end. When I did "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" there is a stop in the middle of the song where Paul laughs. The guy said, "I was waiting to see if you would do the laugh and you did it!" (Laughs). So, these people are pretty cognizant of what's going on.
Q - They are diehard with a capital D.
A - They know what they are talking about. So when Beatle fans come to see a Beatle band and you can stay alive and in the fight as long as this band has been in it, well, you gotta be doing something right. Just to have Sam Leach as a friend of mine, the fact that he lets me call him "Leachy", just like they did, is pretty cool. (Laughs)