NORTH TONAWANDA — Don Dannemann was one of only a handful of people on this planet who knew ahead of time what no one else did 54 years ago today — that Aug. 29, 1966 was going to be the last time the Beatles would perform a scheduled live concert.
It was the end of an era in popular music, just after the major social breakthrough made possible a few years earlier by the British superstar band, elevating a good musician's workplace from pubs, concert halls and theaters to indoor sports arenas and finally, outdoor stadiums.
It was about to end at San Francisco's Candlestick Park and no one outside of the Beatles' close inner circle of friends and associates knew the well-kept secret, especially the three main media sources at that time on this planet — print, radio and television.
Dannemann, co-founder and harmonic lead singer of a still popular all-American folk-rock “frat band,” the Cyrkle, had an inkling that the gig was up for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo (Richard Starkey) Starr because he shared the stage that day with the world's most famous musical group as an opening act.
Having toured with the Beatles for weeks, riding in the same planes and eventually hanging out and playing cards as tour-mates, Dannemann saw the affects that touring was having on the Beatles and that afternoon, out of the blue, Harrison blurted it out.
“We had a clue that this would be their final show because George — I'm not exactly sure how he said it to me — but there he was taking a lot of personal pictures and he indicated to me just in chit-chatting, basically, ‘Well, this is in case we don't play live any more and it would be nice to have these memories,’ ” said Dannemann in an exclusive interview with GNN Newspapers earlier this year following the Cyrkle's performance at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, in a 2016 article by Jordan Runtagh, “Touring was killing the Beatles by 1966. Perhaps not literally, but that seemed like less of a guarantee with each passing day. A trip to Asia that July ended with a frightening incident in the Philippines, when an inadvertent snub of the dictatorial first family provoked a nationwide turn against the foursome. Following the harrowing ordeal, no one was particularly thrilled about having to hit the road again for a U.S. tour the following month. “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans,” George Harrison had stated with more than a touch of resentment.
“It was obvious to me that ending touring was a subject that had been previously discussed by the Beatles,” Dannemann said.
The Candlestick Park concert was the final of 18 concerts by the Beatles in 13 U.S. cities (plus two shows in Toronto) over a two-week time period in 1966. The day after the Candlestick Park concert, the tour groups took a plane together to Los Angeles and it was there that they parted ways for the last time.
Now 76, but still performing with the ever-popular Cyrkle, Dannemann, said his biggest regret is losing all of his potentially valuable memorabilia from that era, even the business card he once got handed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein that featured the “suggested” new name of his band, “The Cyrkle,” written on the back by Lennon.
“When we met the Beatles for the first time on the ’66 tour, John said to us with a little wink, ‘Oh, have you guys learned to spell it yet?,’ ” Dannemann said.
“They were all very nice, but when we first met all of them, I got into a conversation with George and he was just a wonderful, warm gentleman. It was just like two regular guys talking. George was very complimentary of us and our new-found success,” Dannemann said.
While the Beatles' “Paperback Writer” was the number one song in the United States at the time, the Cyrkle's new single, “Red Rubber Ball,” was number two on the charts.
“George was very complimentary of our success and very humble about theirs at the same time. He would say things like, ‘It's been amazing. I still can't believe it myself, sometimes.’ ” Dannemann said. “I will always remember my warm conversations with George, but the Beatles, they were all very unique individuals.”
And so was the Lennon-christened “Cyrkle,” with touring members Dannemann on guitar and lead vocals, along with Lafayette College classmates Tom Dawes on bass and backing vocals and Marty Fried on drums. They were produced by John Simon on Columbia Records. Past members included Earl Pickens and Jim Maiella. Current members include keyboardist Michael Losekamp — who appears as a teenager on the Youtube video clip of the Cyrkle playing “Turn-Down Day” from the late 1960s.
THE CYRKLE CYCLE BEGINS
Dannemann met fellow freshman Dawes while standing in line for their entry physical at Lafayette College in the early 1960s.
“We must have been in the same grouping, alphabetically, and they were lining us up by height. Tommy and I were almost the exact same height and it seemed really important to him to be taller than me (laughing), so we were stretching up to see who was taller. That's how we met and first became friends.”
“The Cyrkle's story really began at a freshman mixer in fall of 1961 where they hired a band and when the band took a break, a couple of fellow freshmen quickly grabbed instruments and started playing. A college friend of mine knew I played guitar and said, ‘Look, Don! You gotta go up and play with them,’ so we ran up to my room and he helped me drag my guitar and amp down and we hit it off immediately,” Dannemann said.
“We are able to play stuff of the day. We all knew Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and I knew the solo lead guitar part to ‘Walk, Don't Run’ by the Ventures, so it was really good and then they said they wanted to form a band. We were a frat rock band called the Rhondells. It was Tom, Earl and Jim on drums. Later on, during our college years, Jim's girlfriend said, ‘No, you're not going to be a rocker,’ so we already knew of Marty, who was a year behind us in school, and we auditioned him. He turned out to be a good drummer and singer my junior and senior year at Lafayette.”
“Funny enough, in part, the most exciting times in my career were with the Rhondells at Lafayette College, before the Cyrkle,” Dannemann said.
“Being a fraternity band and playing Beatles, Four Seasons, Beach Boys and other songs of the day and just being THE band to get at Lafayette and then playing clubs. It was a real magical time, when everything was new and fresh and that was really cool. Of course, how much cooler can it be than to tour with the Beatles?”
AN IMPROBABLE COLLABORATION
The unlikely, improbable Beatles-Cyrkle partnership began the evening that Nat Weiss walked into the Alibi Bar in Atlantic City in the summer of 1965. Weiss, who died in 2013, was a music-business lawyer who ran the Beatles' affairs in the United States.
The timing could not have been better, because Dannemann said the Rhondells were essentially parting ways.
“I was an industrial engineering major and I had always planned to go into my dad's business — a small manufacturing company that made products of sheet metal. And I always loved music, but when the group was essentially breaking up, after Lafayette College, it was touch and go — what to do with your life — and then we got discovered at a time we had essentially broken up and gone our separate ways.”
Weiss introduced himself to the band as a fraternity alumni who was forming a management company with Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.
“He told us, ‘Brian and I are friends and you guys are really good, so get in touch with me,’ ” Dannemann said. “He knew I was coming back to New York City to work with my dad at the sheet metal company, so he gave me his business card and said, ‘Why don't you come down on such and such a date to the city and I'll introduce you to Brian Epstein.’ We thought, ‘Eh, baloney.’ We had a lot of people approach us at the time and most of it was (minor expletive).”
But Weiss proved to be the real deal and soon Dannemann found himself on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a party was taking place on the second floor.
“I went with a buddy and both of us were kind of shy, standing off to the corner. Nat walks in and says, ‘Follow me,’ and there, parked outside is a limo. He beckoned me to the limo with a hand gesture and I crawled in. Nat introduces me, saying, ‘Brian Epstein, I want you to meet Don Dannemann, one of he finest musicians I know (laughs).’ The gist of the conversation was that we were real big Beatles' fans and we'd like to get something going with you.
“Brian was very nice and said (imitating Epstein's proper British accent) ‘Oh yes, Don. Very nice to meet you. Perhaps I'll be in touch with Nat and we'll see if we can get something happening.’ Nat then beckons me out of the car with the same hand gesture, so I obediently crawled out and the limo slowly pulls off and disappears into the darkness, leaving me standing there with my mouth open. It was like a video. I immediately called the guys back at Lafayette and I said, ‘You'll never guess what just happened ...’ ”
Meeting the manager of the world's biggest entertainment act was more than a little inspiring to the popular frat rock band and they promptly set up their own recording studio using amps and tape recorders in the basement of Dannemann's parents' Eastchester home.
Weiss ultimately loved the demo tape made by the Rhondells, especially since Dannemann brought headphones (rare at the time) for Weiss to use while listening.
“That tape inspired him to get something happening and soon, he got us some dates at New York clubs — the three of us at the time, myself, Tom and Marty — and some auditions for record companies,” Dannemann said. “And that's where we got our record contract with Columbia, with John Simon as our young producer.”
Dannemann said the Rhondells and their new management team felt it was important for the band to change their name, because the Rhondells sounded 50ish.
“There we were in this studio and one day Brian Epstein comes up to me and hands me his business card. I turned it over and scribbled on this card is a C and a — ‘I can't make out what this says,’ ” I said.
“Brian, always very gentlemanly, says, ‘(in British accent) Oh Don, this is your new name and it's the Cyrkle and notice the funny spelling,’ ” Dannemann said.
“Epstein said, ‘I asked the boys back in Britain. I told them we have a new American group and we need a new name and it was John who came up with the Cyrkle with the funny spelling.’ It would have been so awesome if I had framed it, but of course, the card went into the trash the next day — that's the sad part about that.”
In 1966, Simon arranged and produced the song (and album) "Red Rubber Ball" for the Cyrkle. The song was co-written by Paul Simon (no relation) of Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Woodley of the Seekers.
Dawes, who toured briefly with Paul Simon as a bass player, liked Simon's demo tape of Red Rubber Ball and the Cyrkle decided to record it.
“So here we were, the group sitting around with John Simon and we just started to play it, thinking, ‘Okay, let's see what comes out,’ ” Dannemann said.
“So I started the song out just like on the record (singing), ‘I should have known you'd bid me farewell.’ And today — until this Cyrkle revival thing we're going through now — whenever I hear the song, I'm really pleased with how we just worked with each other so beautifully on the harmonies. There was no auto-tune. The harmony of the two parts was dead on. Tom and I blend wonderfully with each other. Red Rubber Ball has a really unique sound. No other group from that whole time period really sounds like that. It's clearly us.”
And who came up with Red Rubber Ball's catchy, signature keyboard riff at the beginning and end of the song?
“John Simon came up with that, as well as the keyboard part on Turn-Down Day,” Dannemann said “Just like George Martin was known as ‘the fifth Beatle,’ you could call John Simon, ‘the fifth Cyrkle,’ ” Dannemann said.
Youtube videos exist of the Cyrkle's two hits songs from the 1960s — albeit lip-singing. Turn-Down Day reached no. 16 in the U.S. charts, while the more memorable Red Rubber Ball — still played frequently on some radio stations — went as high as no. 2.
Touring with the Beatles was unforgettable, Dannemann said.
“One of the only downfalls was they didn't have monitors back in those days, so here we are playing huge outdoor stadiums and basically we were playing out of the PA systems that the guy who announces the batter for baseball games uses, so that took getting used to,” Dannemann said.
“On the Beatles tour, we played for about 20 minutes. I can't tell you how many songs we did. Obviously, we did Red Rubber Ball and Turn-Down Day, some Beach Boys and then we did a few other songs that were our favorites,” Dannemann said.
Dannemann was also afforded the best seats in the house for each Beatles performance that closed the shows, standing backstage or right in front of the stage for each act, much closer than the thousands of screaming fans who wished they were in his shoes.
“Oh yeah, we could watch them from anywhere in the place,” Dannemann said. “My main impression of them was you couldn't really tell how good they were (laughing) because everything was just so loud.”
Dannemann said another of his big regrets in life from this period was not having the band's picture taken with the Beatles, which was an offer made by the Fab Four when the tour concluded after the San Francisco show.
“The last plane run was San Francisco to Los Angeles and everyone who was part of the tour on the plane took pictures with the Beatles,” Dannemann said.
“We took the position that we didn't want to be silly fans. We wanted to be respected as musicians so we never took pictures with them and that's one of he sorriest things I can think of,” Dannemann said
SWANSON & ALKA SELTZER
When the Cyrkle broke up for good in the 1970s, Dannemann and Dawes went on to highly-successful careers as jingle writers.
Dawes wrote the famous, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is,” jingle for Alka-Selter, while Dannemann wrote jingles for Continental Airlines and the now-famous Swanson's jingle, “It's the next best thing to your good cook'n. Swanson makes it good.”
Today, the Cyrkle incorporates those and other jingles you've probably heard of as part of their act, including a show they did earlier this year at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, along with the Grass Roots.
“No, the Cyrkle never made a great deal of money,” Dannemann said.
“Our thinking is that basically we have two big hits and six top 100s and we had a couple albums, so there's a lot of Cyrkle stuff we could play today, but most people in audience won't know any other Cyrkle songs other than Red Rubber Ball and Turn-Down Day, so we've incorporated the jingles as part of our act.”
The formula for writing jingles seems relatively simple, but the competition is fierce.
“You're given a set of facts by the ad agency and you try to put it to music and make it memorable,” Dannemann said.
“For example, on the Swanson jingle, other music houses were given the same assignment and we just happened to win that one. We've won our share. You only get a nominal demo fee if you don't win.”
Dannemann said he hopes to continue touring, while enjoying the Cyrkle's new-found success.
“It makes me so happy talking to people who have a genuine interest in the Cyrkle and my career,” Dannemann said.