Gary James' Interview With A Photographer Who Captured
The Beatles First American Concert In 1964
Mike Mitchell was only 18 when The Beatles arrived in America on February 7th, 1964. Like so many Americans who watched the group on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, February 7th, 1964, Mike Mitchell became a Beatles fan. So when The Beatles performed their first concert in the U.S. at Washington D.C. Coliseum, Mike Mitchell was there photographing the event. Mike forgot about those photos for years. Then in July of 2011, his photos of The Beatles at that concert sold for a whopping $362,000!
Q - Mike, I think The Beatles actually wrote a song about you, "Baby, You're A Rich Man".
A - (laughs)
Q - I knew you'd get a laugh out of that one. When we're talking photos of The Beatles, are we talking negatives? Is that what was sold?
A - No. It was a selection of 46 different prints sold at one time. Each print was what they call "a lot" in the auction business. That doesn't mean that I cannot sell subsequent prints of the same negatives, but the prints that I made for Christie's (the auction house) are certainly unique because for that edition because I only made one of each. Each one of those, we called it a Jelly Bean Suite. Each one of those has a secret moniker on it, meaning a little mark that is only on each one of those prints and won't ever be on any other prints. That little moniker is a little piece of magic. There's kind of a good story to it. When I was restoring the prints with Photoshop, the negatives were filthy. They needed a lot of work. There was a lot of dust and crud all over them. Anyway, on one of the shots they zoomed in to get rid of what I thought was a great big boulder of dust. It turned out not to be a boulder of dust. It turned out to be a reflection. It turned out to be light, which is something I'm profoundly attuned to. That little shape of light was in fact the shape of a perfect little heart, which kind of fits with the love theme, the love strain, the love motif that goes throughout most of The Beatles work. I thought, God, that would be a really cool thing to uniquify each one of those prints. I hid it in a place where you can find it if you look for it, if you know it's there you can find it, but it distinguishes that set of prints.
Q - When a person bought one of those prints, what are they going to do with it? Would they hang it up in their house? Did a museum curator purchase one of those prints? Do you know?
A - Well, I'm only aware of one of the people who purchased a print at Christie's. They don't tell you who bought them. I suspect a lot of them were private collectors. As I'm sure you know, there are a lot of people who collect Beatles stuff. But I don't think there were any museum sales, but I just don't know.
Q - You didn't need permission from The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, to take your photos, did you?
A - No. It was really early then. The reins were held a lot more lightly then than they are today. The first concert that I shot, I did acquire a press pass, which was a little piece of cardboard that allowed me access that any other member of the press would have. No constraints came with that.
Q - How did you get that press pass?
A - Even though I was 18, I was a burgeoning professional. I had a client that was a magazine. When I saw The Beatles were coming to Washington, I said, "God, I gotta be there. I wanna be part of that." I called the magazine and asked if they could get me a press pass and they knew the guy who was the P.R. guy for the venue for Washington Coliseum. They called him and he said, "Sure."
Q - When you're taking the pictures, were you able to hear The Beatles music at all?
A - What I like to say about that experience is I'm probably one of the few people who did hear them in that auditorium because from other accounts that I've heard, if you were ten rows back you couldn't hear anything at all except the rhythm and the screaming. But I was next to the stage through the whole concert and I could hear everything.
Q - Because you had that press pass, you could get close?
A - That's right.
Q - How long did The Beatles perform for?
A - I think it was 32 minutes.
Q - Were you able to go backstage after the show and meet The Beatles.
A - No, not at Washington. The way the show ended was pretty abrupt. They just ran off the stage and were gone, period. But when I photographed them the following September in Baltimore, I was with a guy named Carroll James, who was a disc jockey and he had played the first Beatles song in the country, or at least it was thought so at the time. He had arranged for an interview with them and I went along with him and a reporter from the newspaper I was assigned to cover that concert for. Carroll had an interview with them outside the door of their hotel suite and shook their hands at that time.
Q - Carroll was interviewing one of The Beatles or all four?
A - They were all just lined up, side by side, outside their hotel room doors and he asked questions and pointed the microphone at them. It was very quick.
Q - Do you remember what kind of questions he was asking?
A - I have no memory of that at all.
Q - What was their attitude during the interview? Were they upbeat? Were they tired?
A - They were pretty relaxed.
Q - Outside of The Beatles, did you ever photograph another Rock group?
A - I photographed The Beach Boys and a couple of other ones I think.
Q - Once you photographed The Beatles, you could probably have photographed anybody.
A - It was kind of the reverse of that. Once I photographed The Beatles I didn't have any interest in photographing anybody else because my take on it was they were 'IT', capitol I, capitol T.
Q - I know exactly what you mean, but there were other interesting bands around as well at that time. It was, after all, the height of The British Invasion.
A - That's true more so in retrospect. I so identified with The Beatles because I was there. It was an enormous event in my life. Everything else at that time, all the rest of it seemed like imitation to me. I know that is not the case. There was a real flowering of music that went on then, but in my 18, to 19, to 20 year old head, I just didn't have any interest in anything else.
Q - Did you ever pick up a guitar?
A - No. Not at all. I had a camera. That was fine. I never wanted to do anything but be a photographer.
Q - Is that what you pursued as a career?
A - Yeah.
Q - Would you ever put out a photo book of the pictures you took of The Beatles?
A - In fact, I'm working on a book that will be anchored by that collection of photographs, but also contain a lot of the quirky ways that my life stayed attuned to that music and those guys and kind of intersected with what they were doing for all this time. It was a big deal to me.
Q - If you were a Beatles fan, would their Baltimore concert have been a better place to see and hear them than Washington D.C.?
A - That's a hard thing to evaluate. My memory was it was as noisy in Baltimore as it was in Washington. I don't know that the audience could hear them any better in Baltimore. I didn't really pay much attention to that.
Q - You could probably have an exhibition of your photos at a museum, couldn't you?
A - I have works in two different galleries. I think probably the foremost gallery in the world for The Beatles' pictures is San Francisco Art Exchange. They handle my work.
Q - They place you in galleries or they are a gallery?
A - They are a gallery.
Q - You can put a book out of your Beatles photos, but you could never merchandise your pictures on say a t-shirt, could you?
A - I don not have that kind of freedom with those pictures.
Q - If you wanted to pursue it, could you?
A - No. It's a real violation of copyright law. It's something called the Right Of Privacy, which controls using their likeness for merchandising purposes without their permission.
Q - Which would probably be quite an involved process.
A - That's like trying to storm The White House. (laughs)