Meet Gus Russo: a musician and producer who never considered a career as a writer/editor…until he became one. “I love to read, but I never thought I’d be a writer,” says Russo, co-editor of Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination (Lyons Press), a collection of poignant and incredibly powerful remembrances of that fateful November day, and author of several other books, as well. “But when you think about it, writing is very much like music: it’s all about the rhythm, the dynamics, the feeling—it’s all about the flow. I spent my whole life as a musician. I guess that translates.”
A lifelong musician and producer born and raised in Baltimore during the city’s mid-1950s/early 1960s heyday, Gus Russo was bitten by the music bug at an early age—and he never recovered. “I remember seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was six or seven years old, and being knocked out,” says Russo. About a year later, Russo got his first guitar. “It was a $15 guitar that hung in the window of the local record store. I played that guitar every night until my fingers were raw. I wasn’t a natural, but I was determined.”
Fast forward to February 9, 1964, when Russo, along with an estimated 73 million other Americans, saw the Beatles in their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. What does Russo remember about that night, besides the music? “I remember thinking, ‘They must be really small,’ because John was playing a three-quarter-sized Rickenbacker, and George was dwarfed by his Gretsch guitar!” (In fact “the boys” came in at between 140 and 150 pounds.)
Russo turned his love of music into a career as a musician and producer—a career that has definitely come with some perks, including the opportunity to meet and even play with many of his musical heroes: John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys (Russo’s idol: the great Brian Wilson), and the Kingston Trio, the group Russo credits with igniting his musical passions as a kid. Russo tells these and many more stories in his self-published autobiography, Boomer Days. But since we’re celebrating fifty years of Beatlemania in the U.S., it’s time for Gus Russo to share my very favorite kind of Gus Russo stories: the ones in which he meets (three out of four of) the Beatles.
Meeting Paul McCartney: A&R Studios, New York City, early 1970s
Beatle #1: Sir Paul McCartney, soon after the Beatles’ breakup.
It was around 1970 when a friend invited Russo to meet him at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studio on West 48th Street (later relocated to 52nd Street, where Billy Joel recorded—you guessed it—52nd Street). Why the invitation? Paul McCartney was in the studio. “We sat in the corner, quietly, for about an hour, while Paul lay down piano tracks for Ram, his second solo album,” says Russo. “For most of the time he was in the engineer’s room, doing tracks without vocals. I’m pretty sure the song he was working on that day was Monkberry Moon Delight.”
“Paul was polite,” continues Russo, “But you could tell he was like, ‘Who are these kids, and why are they here?”
What stuck with Russo about that afternoon? “The only time Paul got upset is when someone was smoking cigarettes in the studio. He was very serious about his music—and took the session very seriously. I remember him saying, ‘This isn’t a hobby, this is my job. The smoke closes up my throat.’ I was impressed with how serious he was about his music.”
Meeting John Lennon: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, New York City, mid-1970s
Beatle #2: John Lennon on a malt run.
John Lennon often talked about how much he loved New York, because the city afforded him anonymity—he could go out and live his life, without the hoopla that surrounded him in London or Los Angeles. Russo remembers the same.
“It really wasn’t that odd to see John and Yoko around at the time, going out to dinner and everything. John loved New York—because people treated him like a normal person. They’d say hello, but they’d let him go about his business without bothering him. It wasn’t like it is today.”
“When a friend told me John liked to eat at Nathan’s [the famous hot dog chain] in Times Square, just a few blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater, I started hanging out there, hoping to meet him,” said Russo. And what did Russo say when he finally met his idol?
“Sure enough, one day John showed up—picking up malted milkshakes to go. I shook his hand and asked him how he got his voice to sound so great on Twist and Shout. He laughed and said singing it ruined his throat for a week!”
Like others of his generation, Russo remembers where he was when he heard the news Lennon had been shot, on December 8, 1980. “For my generation, the question ‘where were you’ wasn’t about JFK—it was about John Lennon.”
“I was living in New York at the time—and was getting out of my car when a friend came out and asked if we had heard the news. We turned on the car radio and just listened. We couldn’t believe it. He and Yoko had just released Double Fantasy; he was enjoying being a father to his 5-year-old son. We all remembered when JFK and RFK and Martin Luther King were killed—but they were politicians. Why would someone shoot a musician?”
Meeting George Harrison: Shave ice stand, Hawaii, late 1980s
Beatle #3: George Harrison, on the Hana Road to Maui.
Russo’s third Beatle encounter took place in the late 1980s, when Russo was working in Hawaii. “I was on a weekend trip to Maui, traveling near Wailua on the Hana Road,” says Russo. “We stopped at a little shave ice stand along the way, and who’s in line in front of me? George.”
Was Russo surprised to see a Beatle on the island? “I knew George had a house out that way, so it wasn’t a complete surprise,” says Gus. “We sat on a picnic bench, and I told him about how when I was younger, I had struggled to learn his guitar riff on Help. (“Won’t you please, please help me!”) He said he thought he got the lick from an old rockabilly record—and thought it was funny that we all wanted to sound like the Beatles and they wanted to sound like Elvis. We talked about Maui and he talked about his love for the ukulele—then he said ‘Aloha,’ and went on his way.”
Russo’s memory of the meeting: “George was reserved at first—maybe because of what had happened to John—but then he opened up.”
John, Paul, George…
While each Beatle meeting was different, there is one common thread that runs through all three chance encounters for Russo: “What really struck me is that they were all so tiny,” says Russo. “Maybe it was from growing up during World War II in Liverpool—a lack of proper nutrition—but each time I was surprised at how slight they were. I mean, they were the Beatles—they were so much larger than life, but so much smaller in person.”
Does Russo think he’ll ever have the chance to meet Ringo Starr, to complete the Fab Four chapter of his life? “I have friends who see Ringo and Paul when they’re in town. And if my timing is right, maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to meet Ringo, too. We’ll see.” ♥
Three More (Fab) Facts about Gus Russo
Fab Fact #1: If It’s Baltimore, It Must be Madison Time
Gus Russo grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in a place and time immortalized in Hairspray, the film by Russo’s contemporary and fellow Baltimore native, John Waters. While Russo and Waters didn’t run in the same circles—Russo was in music; Waters, in film—Russo attended some of Waters’ church basement premieres with Waters and his eclectic group of friends, and both Baltimoreons were influenced by the sights and sounds of the city, as seen in Hairspray’s The Corny Collins Show, Waters’ homage to Baltimore’s influential local dance show, The Buddy Deane Show.
Fab Fact #2: Russo’s Horror-ble Claim to Fame
While Russo has met and worked with some of the biggest names in music and film over the years—from songwriter John Phillips to filmmaker Oliver Stone—and has written several books, he admits he’s best known for writing the score for the horror cult classic Basket Case, a movie that ran midnights at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village for two straight years in the early 1980s, even longer that the run of its predecessor at the Waverly, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“With all the calls and responses, it was just like Rocky Horror,” says Russo. The first call and response? Russo laughs. “It’s a dark night and there’s a rustling in the bushes and one of the characters says, ‘Who’s there?’ and everyone yells ‘Gus Russo!’ as my name appears in the credits!” Today, the film is considered a B-movie horror classic. Little-known fact: Billy Joel, whose guitarist was dating one of the movie’s investors, is said to be a fan of the flick.
Fab Fact #3: A Trio Tribute
These days, Russo spends his time writing, playing with a swing band, and working on the Kingston Trio Legacy Project, a California non-profit he founded to promote an understanding of the musical and cultural history of the U.S. through an exploration of the history and contributions of the group that influenced his own career. “I was influenced by Elvis, of course, and the Beach Boys, and the Beatles” says Russo. “But it was hearing that dynamic folk music—those guitars—that made me think: I can do that, too.” Russo isn’t alone in his admiration: He’s currently in the process of putting together a Kingston Trio tribute album that will hopefully feature contributions from Brian Wilson and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys, Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, and many others.