Interview: Paul White talks bringing The Beatles to Canada, and 1960’s Toronto

The Beatles at a press conference in the Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on August 17, 1966. (Photo: Boris Spremo)

The 1960’s was the golden age of mainstream rock and roll, and with the rise of legendary bands like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, retired Capitol Records executive Paul White was at the centre of a cultural revolution. August 17th marked the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ final Toronto concert, which took place at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966. A band that took the world by storm, The Beatles made Toronto the only Canadian city where they performed three years in a row and is the North American city where they performed the most concerts, six in total.

Beatlemania will take over Toronto once again this summer with an exhibit, concerts, walking tours, a fashion show and a film screening – all celebrating the Beatles enduring impact on the city – under the banner BEATLES 50 T.O.

The exhibit explores Toronto during the postwar, baby boom era when a vibrant music scene on Yonge Street and in Yorkville was emerging at the same time the Beatles were exploding on the hit parade. The exhibit includes a stylized recreation room from Don Mills and follow a map identifying the clubs and coffee houses of Yonge Street and Yorkville. Visitors will experience the Beatles through a presentation of rarely seen images by ground-breaking Toronto photographers, as well as displays of memorabilia and media coverage of their whirlwind visits. Tickets are on-sale here.

In our new interview, White talks about bringing The Beatles to Canada for the first time, what Toronto was like in the 1960s, and more!

August 17th marks 50 years since the last time The Beatles played in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. After all this time, what are some things that still stick out in your memory from that day?

Well I’m looking forward to this concert, because I’ve never heard this band that’s doing it. Apparently they do the Beatles stuff note for note, which is pretty amazing. Jane French from the Toronto museum has seen them and she says that we’re all going to be very surprised. They’re doing the actual last concert repertoire.

They announced two weeks later that they were splitting up, doing no more tours. So that was the last time you got to see them. That concert was not sold out by the way. 1964 and ’65 were massive sell outs, but they did two concerts in ’66. The fans were still cheering and you could actually hear what they were singing for a change, (laughs) because when I had seen them before I couldn’t hear anything but the screaming.

Those were the days. The girls fell in love with the individual guys and wry for each other to see which one was going to marry Paul McCartney. (laughs)

Being the only Canadian stop on their final tour, both of those shows must have been absolutely insane even though they weren’t sold out. 

I forget what Maple Leaf Gardens used to hold, 20,000 I guess. So let’s say there were 15,000 there, which is still good. Some of the other groups that I had were very big sellers, but they couldn’t sell out Maple Leaf Gardens at all. The only group that I had on Capitol that was massive like that was the Beach Boys, but none of them could touch the Beatles and their records were still selling. So I think it was a bit of a cooling off period for the guys and the fans by that time had sort of [gotten] used to them, where as in 1964 it was really something new. Before the Beatles came along it was really white pop stars… well Elvis was the big star, all the rest sort of all looked the same. Along came the Beatles, of course, followed by the Rolling Stones and the massive British invasion.

I can imagine that you developed enough of a relationship with the band over the years.

I got to know John more because he was in Toronto more. He was in Montreal for the Give Peace A Chance Sleep In, then he was here for the Peace Festival. I kept in touch with Paul a little bit and George sort of faded away because he got into films as a producer. Ringo, I saw Ringo’s latest concert just a couple of months ago and he’s still fantastic, still in great shape too.

Yeah, it’s crazy to see the difference over the years. You look at the black and white pictures of Paul from when they started and see the ones from now, it’s amazing the progression.

When you see the originals, there were such innocent faces. (laughs) Especially Paul with those dreamy eyes. I was just watching the interview that he did with an absolute idiot guy at the Maple Leaf Gardens who kept asking him stupid questions. You could see that they were really getting pissed off. (laughs) Those were the days, there will never be anything like the Beatles again for sure. The Monkees tried it, but it wasn’t the same.

The Beatles at a press conference in the Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on August 17, 1965. (Photo: John Rowlands)

You can’t really top that, no matter how hard you try.

The main thing was that they could write so well. They wrote about their own experiences from Liverpool, they put that into a lot of their songs. I don’t think they realized when they started out… “Love Me Do” was not a classic song, but they progressed to “Yesterday”, “Paperback Writer”, “Day Tripper”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Hey Jude”, those songs you just can’t do anymore. I don’t know anybody who’s ever written anything close to that. Brian Wilson maybe.

I was actually sorry they split up, because individually, they didn’t quite have it. Although Ringo is still a great drummer.

Imagine was amazing as well of course.

Which Beatle would be your favourite?

Between Ringo and John probably.

Ringo seems to get most of the votes when I do them, for the girls. I always do the girls, because the girls outnumber the guys at the concerts. He was once called I think, the cute Beatle, which is laughable.

It’s funny because they had so many women infatuated with them and it’s cool to see how the music can bring that out, because when you look at them you don’t exactly think that they’d grow that much of a female following without the music.

(laughs) Yeah, they had one good song about meeting girls. I Saw Her Standing There, which is about picking up girls, underaged too. (laughs)

What was it about these four guys from Liverpool that stuck out enough for you to keep fighting for them, even when “Love Me Do”, which is now one of the most memorable Beatles songs, got next to no response from the public?

I used to get the records from our company in England and I used to stay behind after everybody had gone home and listen to this stack of 45’s. I had a no, a maybe, and a yes file. So when I got to “Love Me Do”, I thought “it’s catchy, not bad” and I put it in the maybe file. I listened to some more stuff and went back to that one. Pure gut instinct, I said okay let’s go with it. Which is lucky, because once I’d released that I had all the rights to all of their material for Canada, so I could release everything else that came along. It was as I said, pure luck. That’s what being and A&R guy is, sometimes you just go with your gut instinct and (laughs) it paid off this time. I had some losers along the way.

You’re responsible for the band being played in Canada six months before the States. The Beatles are one of the most iconic bands in music history and you gave that to Canada. What’s it like being credited with something like that?

I’m one of the idiots that didn’t collect a lot of Beatles memorabilia, which is worth a fortune these days. At the time it was just fun to be doing what I was doing, so I would just get the music out, get as much out as I could and the fame came later. People start saying “oh he did that?” and I said “oh, did I do that?” (laughs) One thing the Beatles did and being in the music business, it keeps you young.

It was fun, not only with them, it was fun doing the whole British invasion stuff. What they did was they changed the whole music business, the type of songs that were being written before they came along influenced other bands later on, like The Yardbirds, even the Stones. Who I guess are the only closest relic to them. I use the word relic nicely when it comes to the Stones (laughs) because I think there will be wheels on the stage when they come out for their next concert.

You worked your way up from unknowingly taking a position as a shipper from Capitol Records shortly after arriving to Canada from England. It must’ve been quite a surreal thing to experience. Do you think that’s still possible in today’s industry? 

Well as people have said to me, you now need a degree to be a shipper, so (laughs) things have changed. That was just pure luck, because when I arrived I was a newspaper man and I went to the three Toronto papers and they all politely told me to go to Sudbury, or Sault St. Marie and learn something about Canada. I realized I didn’t have much… I think I brought about 50 pounds, which is about 150 dollars with me. I figured, hell I better get a job, because I was doing room and board at the time.

I applied for this shippers job at Capitol, there were two jobs open and there were 50 of us there for the job. I got the job solely on the fact that the guy interviewing me couldn’t stop laughing because I had references and he’d never seen anybody come for a shippers job with references. (laughs) Then the very next day I forgot where the company was. I got there late and I thought I was going to be fired.

I worked in the shipping department, which was interesting because you really found out what was selling. Then I moved to the order desk, then I got into the promotion department promoting the singles and I went from there. I was with Capitol for 21 years actually, I only left when I went to work with Anne Murray at her company.

The Beatles perform a sold out show at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on September 7, 1964. (Photo: Boris Spremo)

What was the initial thing that caught you with Anne Murray?

I first saw Anne Murray on Singalong Jubilee, a TV show. I just completely fell in love with her voice, I can still see her with the guitar strapped to her chest and no shoes on. I went to our promotion guy in the maritimes to see if I could get an interview to talk to her and he reminded me that she’d already had a record deal on a tiny record label called Arc. I said I still want to talk to her anyways, so I said talk to Brian, her producer. He arranged to come see us and when I found out what happened, he then decided they would make a day of it. So they went to see RCA, Victory, [and] Warner Brothers before they got to me. I was just in love with her voice.

How it happened was she said well I’ve still got this contract with Arc, but they only paid 3,000 dollars to record her album and her option with them was that they’d have to increase the budget. So right there, off the cuff, I said I’ll give you 20,000 dollars to do an album if you sign with Capitol and they went away and thought about it, Brian called me the next day and said you’re on. I recorded her first album knowing that her album on ARC was selling for $1.98, which was a lower priced label and at that time our albums in Canada were selling for five bucks at the shop and our sales guys told me I was nuts to release an album for five dollars. When the album came out, it died for about a month. It sold 3,000 copies and that was all in the maritimes.

Then of course, “Snowbird” hit and everything went berserk, million seller right there. I still love that woman, she’s got a great voice. Of course she’s retired now and playing golf. (laughs)

Those are the good days though. You can sit and calm down, remember it all, take it all in a little bit more than you can at the time, because I’m sure it’s absolute craziness when it’s all happening.

Well, it’s funny because when we did the sessions for her first album This Way Is My Way, we were down to four songs to figure out for her first single. Brian and Anne looked at me and said “you’re the bigshot, you pick the single.” So I picked one that was a complete dud (laughs) and I don’t think we sold more than 1,000 copies. Then when we released Snowbird, we released that as the B side of the next record. There was a guy working for the publishing company in the states who got the radio stations to turn the record over and play “Snowbird”. So that’s how that happened. You can’t always pick ‘em, but as long as you hang around long enough, you’re going to get a hit. (laughs)

It’s the same with Larry Evoy of Edward Bear, when I signed them, we had a meeting in my office going over material and none of it was what we thought… I mean everybody looked for single hits and I said is that it Larry? He said “well I did write one song last night and it’s a bit scratchy, but it’s on my tape.” That turned out to be You Me and Mexico, which was his first hit and he didn’t really think too much of it.

Anne Murray was a big paving stone for Canada, you were pushing for more Canadian artists to be pushed forward. Do you think the Canadian music industry learnt to pay more mind to the local talent over the years?

The Canadian industry is now as you know, record sales are very poor these days compared to the old days, but that’s because you can get everything online. What happened with the Canadian industry was… well it was just Anne and Gordon Lightfoot to start with and then the industry grew because the talent themselves went out on the road. Once you start performing outside and people see you, that’s different. A lot of people realize that look at Canada now, most of the hits around the world, the top ten charts, about four of them are Canadians. So that’s really changed.

The only thing that I must say I don’t like is that the industry doesn’t really remember a lot of the past. The late Bobby Curtola should have been in the Hall of Fame, or in the Juno Hall of Fame. Now that he’s just passed, they’ll probably put him in, but he was Canada’s first pioneer. Bobby Curtola was it. He had so many hits, the only guy to have his own record label, his own producers, his own writers, his own manager. (laughs)

It’s crazy how much they focus on indie music now and there were just as many people that weren’t recognized that actually did do it like that.

The indie industry came out for bands because the record labels were turning down acts, so the only thing to do was go out on your own. Eventually some of them would be picked up by the big guys, but the industry has changed. When I was an A&R guy, nobody bugged me to do anything. I could make my own mistakes, now it’s a committee. You’ve got to have a meeting about this and a meeting about that. The record companies don’t take a chance like we used to. It’s become big management. Universal I think are tough, because they do have creative people they let loose, but it’s just changed.

The indie business was necessary, but I don’t know how many records you have to sell to break even, because you can now record in a small studio and get away with your overhead. Sometimes I wish I was Simon Cowell, because if you watch Britain’s Got Talent or America’s Got Talent, he’s got the record label, so he can sign the talent right there.

I think that’s the trouble with the board, because back then you had individuals with creativity. When you have that individuality you can find things that may be overlooked on a board.

Remember, the Beatles were turned down by Decca in England. They were probably treated to more beers than they were money. (laughs) It’s lucky that Brian Epstein fell in love with them and became their manager. Completely quiet guy, always in the background.

The Beatles at a press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on August 17, 1965.

You’ve seen a crazy amount of progression over the years, how would you describe watching the music industry go from what it was when the British invasion began, to what it is now with Justin Bieber and all that stuff?

Justin Bieber is just a projection of, well, life actually. I think he’s a silly ass sometimes, but then again most of the people in the industry are. (laughs) The biggest progression to me is Canadian talent, because I grew up here in the ’60’s, when we had the Ugly Ducklings. I signed Jack London and The Sparrows and The Sparrows eventually became Steppenwolf, but when they were with me they were still experimenting. When you think of the groups that came around… The Guess Who, marvellous, and they progressed to today. I mean look at the Tragically Hip for god’s sakes. Back in the ’60’s I don’t think they would’ve had a chance because it wasn’t that type of music then, but I think what progressed is recording studios got bigger and they got more into the technical side.

The groups themselves got interested in their recordings, where as in the old days you’d go in for a three hour session and you’d come out after three hours and come back another day. The groups started to get their own studios and spent many hours perfecting their music. So you’ve got guys like Jimmy Webb for instance, who came up with “MacArthur Park”, which to me is a classic Rock N’ Roll song. It’s an interesting experience being in the music industry really. You meet a lot of people who want to be stars, but they don’t know what that means, because to be a star you have to put in a hell of a lot of work. It’s not just looking pretty. You’ve got to treat your fans like real people, which I think is something Mr.Bieber has to learn.

I don’t think fans have actually changed. In fact I can assure you that while we’re talking, some kid has just discovered the Beatles records and he or she is going to fall in love with the Beatles. That’s why they’ll never die, because each generation comes along and somebody says “oh what’s that?” “That’s the Beatles.” Before you know it, they’ve got to go get another album, go back and find the catalogue.

Quite beautiful how timeless it really is.

Yeah, that’s like Elvis. They could bring out Elvis compilations until the earth is gone. I worked for BMG before I retired and we used to release Elvis projects about three times a year. The estate is very rich because he’s as much the same as the Beatles, another generation will discover Elvis. It’s a pity that he let himself go, because he had a really great voice.

There’s a lot of people that let themselves go like that. Like Kurt Cobain, his voice is something else, but he got lost in the drugs and the fame.

A guy who I’ve always liked is Chet Baker, the jazz guy. “My Funny Valentine” is one of his songs and he’s got the most marvellous voice, but he got done in by drugs. In fact he had a tragic life. There’s quite a few of them. I knew Joe Cocker quite well and there was a guy who was really trying to get rid of himself early. A great voice again, but a lot of them just didn’t know what to do with themselves. But that goes way back into the 20’s and 30’s, Billy Holiday, another tragic figure.

Yeah, I think that’ll always happen.

Yeah, it’s a bit like the movie business. Movie stars burn out because making a movie is one of the dullest jobs in the world. You sit around half the time waiting for somebody to adjust the camera and that’s why a lot of them start drinking or doing other things. They do themselves in that way. I guess show business, there’s nothing like it, but it can be tough.

Toronto is a massive Canadian hub for music, and that all really began when you were working with Capitol Records in the 60’s. How would you best describe what it was like walking around downtown Toronto during that era? 

The best thing here of course was Yorkville and Yonge Street. You’d walk down Yonge street and see Ronnie Hawkins and the future band of course, Levon and the Hawks. Yorkville you could see not only Canadian acts, the Riverboat brought everybody in. It was just the place to be was Yonge down through Queen and Yorkville. Another thing was when you were out on the street, everybody sort of liked each other, there was no… like if I was in Yorkville today I think the tension would be terrible with the way that life’s gone. Back in those days they were called hippies, but they were nice people.

Toronto didn’t grow up I don’t think until after Expo. A lot of people went to Expo and realized how much fun Montreal was and how much fun people from around the world were and I think a lot of people came back and thought we need to get a bit more hip here. Toronto was dull, one side was quite with it and the other side was quite dull. It was like watching the hippies on one side of the street and the Lawrence Welk show on the other. (laughs)

I’ve noticed that too with the difference between Toronto and Montreal. The people in Toronto are so dead set on what they have to do, everybody is going somewhere. I wonder about a time where you could walk down the streets and people actually stopped to smile.

I’ve always loved Montreal. There’s an atmosphere in Montreal that although Toronto is called the number one city I think now, or one of the biggest in the world, it doesn’t have the flavour that Montreal does to me. Back in the ’60’s and even the ’70’s I think Toronto got its problem by everyone trying to better themselves, so they all got so into their work that they didn’t know how to relax. Now they do, Toronto is very cosmopolitan now. That’s changed, but I think that’s changed because of the immigrants that came in that changed the whole atmosphere of the city. We have people from every country in the world living here now and they’re all Torontonians now, the young people certainly know how to enjoy themselves.

Queen Street is still pretty lively, I doubt in the same way, but it’s definitely still quite a spot to be.

Yeah, when I worked at BMG we were around the corner from City TV, so I was in that hub. It was marvellous, but the only trouble was that the assistants would get their paycheques and rush off to Queen West to get clothes. (laughs) They would be gone out the door at noon on Friday come back at two with loads of clothes. It’s still the fashion hub down there.

Oh for sure, that’s one thing I really noticed about Toronto. You don’t get that as much in other cities, everybody goes to Toronto or Montreal to get clothes like that.

Montreal used to always be ahead of everybody, they’d get the styles over from Europe. I assume they still do. I have to say Toronto is pretty hip. I still love Montreal, I do love Vancouver, and funnily enough, I love Halifax. I don’t know why, if it’s because it’s by the sea, maritimers know how to have a good time. 

What do you think The Beatles, specifically, meant to the Canadian music scene, and furthermore, the Toronto music scene?

Well, as far as the Beatles, unfortunately they didn’t get to see anything of Toronto in all the times they were here. But let’s say that a lot of girls lost their virginity without trying to lose it, (laughs) by watching them. They did change the industry for Rock N’ Roll. (laughs)

This interview can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.

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