He was a smart kid, one of only three out of the 90 students who took an exam to get into high school at age 11. Still, he was more interested in music than academics. His father was a trumpet player, and they had a piano in the house. His father offered to hire a piano teacher; but the boy insisted on learning how to play on his own. When he was 14, his dad gave him a trumpet. But he soon traded it in for an acoustic guitar, since he wanted to sing as well as play music.
It's almost a cliche that many also-ran musicians are more popular in Europe or England than they are in the United States. In this case, later in his career, he did have a song that barely registered in the U.S, but ran up the charts to hit number one in England. It's a song called the Mull of Kintyre, which he co-wrote with a member of his band and sang with his first wife and a crowd of children. The song also featured bagpipes -- which may explain why it was popular in the U.K. but did not strike much of a chord here in the U.S.
In 1969 he married his first wife, a photographer from New York, and although she was not a professional musician, she joined his band, sang with him, toured with him. Tragically, she died of breast cancer in 1998, at age 56. He went on to marry again in 2002, but he and his new wife were not nearly so compatible, and they separated in 2006. Then in 2011 he took his third wife, the daughter of a New York transportation magnate. He has four kids with his first wife, and one with his second.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back in 1954, when he went to high school, he met a boy on the bus named George, and they became fast friends, even though, as he later admitted, "I tended to talk down to him because he was a year younger."
When he was 15 he met another fellow named John, who was playing with a band in a church hall. Soon after, John asked him to join his band as a rhythm guitar player. The band, called The Quarrymen, played a mix of rock and roll, skiffle and other popular music. Skiffle is a style of music that came out of the American black tradition, and featured instruments such as washboards, jugs and kazoos -- like an old jug band. The style experienced a wave of popularity in post-war England, where it was estimated there were as many as 50,000 skiffle bands.
His friend George joined the band a year later, as the group was casting about for a catchy name. They tried Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beetles, and finally settled simply on The Beatles. They hired Pete Best on drums, and our man Paul switched to bass guitar when John's art-school friend, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, left the band. Ringo Starr replaced Best as the drummer in 1962, as the band was writing bigger hits and gaining popularity.
And of course, by now you know we are talking about Paul McCartney, who gained fame and fortune with The Beatles, the most popular band in history. Fifty years ago, in 1964, they had six number one hits in the U.S.:
I Want to Hold Your Hand
She Loves You
Can't Buy Me Love
Love Me Do
A Hard Day's Night
I Feel Fine
The rest, as they say, is history. McCartney's 1965 song "Yesterday" is credited as the most covered popular song in music history. And "Hey Jude", a song McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon's son Julian during his parents' divorce, is according to Billboard the longest-running No. 1 record ever -- and has many times been voted best song in the history of popular music. Even their album cover art was iconic.
|The most famous album cover ever?|
|Or is it this?|
In any case, McCartney left the Beatles in 1970, later formed a new band called Wings, with Denny Laine and his wife Linda, and still tours and records to this day. He sold out two concerts in Yankee Stadium in 2011, and was recently on tour in Asia (which he had to cut short due to a virus). His latest venture is a campaign calling for a moratorium on fracking.
So here's his Number One British hit from 1977:
But for most of us, we still remember McCartney as singer and bass player for The Beatles.
The proof? I was at a dance last weekend, held at a local golf club, with perhaps 300 other people, mostly older couples, but plenty of middle-age singles and a few families dancing with their three-year-old daughters. The band covered the usual hits from the 1960s, '70s and '80s. There was a dance floor, and people were sprinkled around dancing to one song and another.
Then a familiar tune broke out. Immediately, everyone crowded onto the dance floor. The energy level in the hall went up several notches. And the song that still gets people going, more than 50 years later: