Today, Paul McCartney turns 70. To celebrate the legendary rocker, TIME looks back at that fateful day when McCartney, then a cherub-faced 15-year-old, asked John Lennon if he could borrow a guitar…
An incised sandstone plaque on the wall of St. Peter’s Church Hall in Woolton, a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Liverpool, commemorates the event as if it had religious significance—as indeed it very nearly does:
In This Hall On
6th July 1957
John & Paul
No need to ask about last names.
The afternoon was oppressively hot and humid. The occasion was a church fete, a few -summer hours of festivities in the yard next to St. Peter’s cemetery: lemonade and ice cream and cakes and musical acts and performing horses and police dogs. Lots of kids. One of the acts was a group of local boys called the Quarrymen, named after the public high school they attended, Quarry Bank (itself named after Woolton Quarry, where sandstone was mined). The band played skiffle—kind of an English variety of jug-band music popular in the ’50s, thumped out on guitar, banjo, drums and tea-chest bass—along with a little rock ’n’ roll. Its singer and lead guitarist, a sideburned, eagle-nosed 16-year-old in a checked cowboy shirt with the collar turned up, preferred rock ’n’ roll. John Lennon could barely play his guitar—it had only four strings, and he used banjo chords—but with his hoarse yet tuneful voice and cheeky attitude, he was spellbinding. Among the band’s rock repertory was the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go with Me.” Lennon, not really knowing the words, simply made up his own: “Come go with me/ Down to the penitentiary . . .” Somehow he made it work.
After the fete, there was to be a grand dance in the Village Hall across the road. George Edge’s Orchestra would play for the adults; the Quarrymen would entertain the kids. As the long summer twilight faded, thunder rumbled portentously; the heat wave would break that night. As the skiffle group took its instruments into the hall, a close friend of Lennon’s named Ivan Vaughan approached him with a request: Did he have any interest in meeting another friend of his, a boy who could sing and play guitar? The boy was good, Vaughan said.
In a few minutes, Lennon found out how good. The boy, a cherub-faced 15-year-old with big hazel eyes, pouty lips and his dark hair slicked back rock-’n’-roll style, was ceremoniously dressed in a white sports jacket backed with silver threads: a showy touch that Lennon, in his tight teddy-boy jeans and cowboy shirt, would have found disconcerting.
Then Paul McCartney asked to borrow a guitar.
The Quarrymen’s instruments were strung for right-handers; McCartney was a lefty. No matter. He’d dealt with this problem before: you simply played upside-down. And that’s what he did, performing a near letter-perfect cover of Eddie Cochran’s fast-moving mouthful -“Twenty Flight Rock,” to the astonishment of Lennon and his bandmates. “I knew a lot of the words,” McCartney later recalled. “That was very good currency in those days.”
Then the young natural showman decided to top that.
McCartney sat down at the hall’s upright piano and blazed through Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “It was uncanny,” Quarrymen guitarist Eric Griffiths told Bob Spitz, author of The Beatles, many years later. “He could play and sing in a way that none of us could, including John. He had such confidence; he gave a performance. It was so natural. We couldn’t get enough of it. It was a real eye opener.”
For his part, Lennon recalled (to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies), “I half thought to myself, ‘He’s as good as me.’ Now I thought, if I take him on, what will happen? It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join [the band]. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis. I dug him.”
That was an understatement. From that day forward, the two would be inextricably bound, in each other’s minds as well as the world’s.
The doe-eyed phenom who rocked John Lennon’s world that hot July afternoon was, underneath the white sports jacket and the bravado, far more vulnerable than he let on. Paul McCartney’s adored mother, Mary, a midwife and visiting nurse, had died of breast cancer, at age 47, only nine months earlier, leaving Paul, his younger brother, Mike, and their father, Jim, an amateur musician who worked as a salesman for a Liverpool cotton firm, to try to muddle through without her.
For several months, they barely made it: Jim was reeling with grief. “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry,” Paul remembered. “You expect to see women crying or kids in the playground or even yourself . . . But when it’s your dad, then you know something’s really wrong, and it shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learned to put a shell around me at that age.”
Music was the main component of the shell. It came naturally: the whole extended McCartney family was musical. As a young man in the 1920s, Jim had fronted a dance band, and he still played a mean piano by ear (“His left one,” Paul McCartney liked to joke).
The McCartneys made music whenever they got together, and at first, trumpet was Paul’s instrument. But he was also beginning to listen to American rock ’n’ roll late at night on Radio Luxembourg—there was no rock on English radio in those days—and to grow intoxicated by its rhythms. Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t about trumpets. And then there was the fact that you couldn’t sing while you played a horn.
(MORE: McCartney Comes Back)
Rock was hitting England like a slow-moving tsunami in the mid-’50s. Prior to 1950, as Liver-pool local historian Joan Murray explains, “there were no teenagers.” Especially in that rough-hewn, northern port city along the River Mersey, where working-class and middle-class kids mostly just got out of school and got on with life. But Liverpool, so red brick dingy and looked down upon by London, was also peculiarly receptive to rock ’n’ roll—in part, because of the steady inflow of American culture through the docks. Now, suddenly, amid the postwar recovery, Liverpool kids had a couple of shillings to rub together, and with the records they were buying—records by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and, especially, Elvis—came new dreams.
Shortly after his 14th birthday, Paul went to a downtown music shop and traded his trumpet for a Zenith acoustic guitar. He practiced obsessively, struggling to teach himself chords, but everything felt backward to the left-hander, until he hit on the idea of restringing the instrument—with the bass and treble strings reversed.
In the wake of his mother’s death, his obsession with the instrument redoubled. He would lock himself in the bathroom and practice for hours at a time. Initially a promising student—English literature and languages (Spanish and German) were his best subjects—at the prestigious public Liverpool Institute, he began to neglect his studies for the one thing that could take him away from all his troubles. When John Lennon sent a message (through a bandmate named Pete Shotton) asking him to join the Quarrymen, Paul McCartney didn’t have to think twice.
Skiffle stayed in the group’s repertoire for a while, but Lennon had little patience for it. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” had electrified him (as it had McCartney). That—the sound, the look, the attitude—was what he was after. Meanwhile, the band started to break apart, as Lennon and his original mates graduated from Quarry Bank in 1958, and all but John, the dreamer and misfit, drifted off toward real life. But McCartney had introduced Lennon to a younger schoolmate from the Institute, a tiny, cocky 14-year-old, with jug ears and big hair. His name was George Harrison. “George was my little friend,” McCartney recalled many years later, with fond condescension. “But he could play guitar.” And George liked rock ’n’ roll.
McCartney helped Lennon advance on the instrument, and with the big-eared little guy playing lead, all at once they were a rock-’n’-roll trio. On Sept. 18, 1959, a front-page story in the West Derby Reporter covered the recent opening of the Casbah, a new club for teenagers in the Liverpool suburb. The club was in the windowless basement of a huge, rambling old house in a residential neighborhood—the performance space, such as it was, the size of a coal bin. The account went on to mention “a guitar group which entertains the club members on Saturday nights . . . [T]he group, who call themselves ‘The Quarrymen,’ travel from the south end of the city to play. They are: John Lennon, Menlove Avenue, Woolton; Paul McCartney, Forthlin Road, Allerton; and George Harrison, Upton Green, Speke.”
A photo with the story shows McCartney, soulful in dark shirt and light tie, -confidently strumming his guitar and singing into a mike while Lennon, seemingly a little less sure of his playing, stares down at his instrument, carefully fingering a chord. Two girls and a boy sit on a bench to the right, paying careful attention. The caption reads: “Three ‘cool cats’ listen to ‘The Quarrymen.’ ” The polite-looking, well-dressed young English people resemble anything but cool cats. The girl on the left, smiling at McCartney, is Cynthia Powell, who will later marry Lennon.
TIME’s new book, Paul McCartney: The legend rocks on, by James Kaplan, includes rarely seen images and interviews with relatives, ex-bandmate Ringo Starr and pal Billy Joel. You can buy a copy here.