MONTICELLO -- I once interviewed a man who had spent a week in the home of Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century.
I have written stories about folks who marched with Gen. Patton, dined with Queen Elizabeth and a woman whose mother once fixed grits and red-eye gravy at the request of a baseball player by the name of Babe Ruth.
But the late Hugh West was the only person I ever met who saw The Beatles in the flesh and could tell stories about rubbing elbows with John and George and mingling with Paul and Ringo.
Hugh and his wife, Carol, introduced themselves one night at Monticello Presbyterian Church, and I later visited with them in their century-old home on Hillsboro Street.
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Like just about everything else in their lives, it was music that brought them to the hometown of country music star Trisha Yearwood. Looking to flee the sprawl of the big city of Atlanta, they landed in Monticello (“Mayberry” as Carol puts it) because Hugh was friends with some members of a local bluegrass band.
Hugh died of esophageal cancer Jan. 8, 2009, which was Elvis Presley’s birthday. And with all the recent attention on Sunday’s 50th anniversary of American debut of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” I went back to catch up with Carol and all of those strawberry fields forever.
“He always loved to tell stories about The Beatles,” she said. “We would go to dinner parties, and everybody wanted to hear about it. He died five years ago, and some people are still talking about it.”
Hugh grew up in Hawkinsville before his family moved to Swainsboro. His first big moment in the music business came as a 17-year-old high school student. He was filling in at a local radio station on New Year’s Day in 1953 when a story came over the wire that Hank Williams Sr. had died, so he announced it on the air.
After serving in the Army during the Korean War (he was stationed in Alaska), he landed a job in 1958 with Bill Lowery Studios and National Recording Corp. In Atlanta, he found himself surrounded by musicians such as Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed and Joe South. At the company’s office in New Orleans, he was around Fats Domino and Macon’s own Little Richard.
His career was put on a path to intersect with The Beatles after he was hired by Capitol Records in 1963. The company, which was co-founded by the famous Georgia songwriter John Mercer (“Moon River”), signed two of the biggest musical acts of the 1960s -- The Beach Boys and The Beatles.
He was 29 years old and had been with Capitol less than a year when he huddled in front of his black-and-white television on the night of Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. He watched four shaggy-haired, young men from Liverpool, England, yeah-yeah-yeah their way into history.
An estimated 73 million viewers saw “The Ed Sullivan Show” that night. Time magazine later listed it among the “80 Days That Changed the World.”
“Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had already given us rock ‘n’ roll, but The Beatles would take everything to another level,” Hugh said when I interviewed him in 2007. “They defined and redefined music. They were revolutionary.”
After the group made its splashdown in the U.S., Hugh accompanied The Beatles on a leg of the band’s first American tour. He had been assigned to handle several large record accounts when they played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in August 1965.
He continued with the tour to Dallas and Chicago. He remembered Ringo being the comedian of the Fab Four. They all asked him for Buck Owens records. That was dear to his heart, since he was a country music fan.
Carol’s home turf was in New York, where The Beatles arrived a half-century ago to a throng of screaming fans. She wasn’t among them, though. By then, she was living in Florida.
But her love of music as a young woman had been fostered by attending many of the music stage shows in Manhattan, where she saw and heard musical legends Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
She was in charge of the records department at Bush Distributing Co. in Jacksonville, Fla., a branch of Wurlitzer’s Miami-based jukebox division. In early 1964, a shipment of 300 “I Want To Hold Your Hand” records arrived. The song went on to become group’s first No. 1 hit in the U.S.
Carol didn’t exactly give the 45-rpm record a “thumbs up” the first time she heard it. With time, it grew on her.
“It didn’t take us long to go through those 300 records,” she said.
She eventually moved to Atlanta, where she met and married Hugh. They combined their passion for music by opening the One-Stop Record House, a record distributorship.
Even their grandchildren developed an appreciation for The Beatles over the years, proving the British group’s staying power and ability to transcend generations.
On Sunday night at 8, CBS will televise the special “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles.”
Hugh won’t be there with her, but Carol will be taking a sentimental journey.
“It’s a part of my life,” she said.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.