July 14--In the nearly 30 years that the band 1964-The Tribute has been on the road, two things have remained constant.
One is the band's dedication to re-creating, down to the most seemingly trivial detail, the experience of seeing and hearing the Beatles perform live.
The other constant is that every summer, the band would be playing a gig in Tulsa.
"Tulsa is the only -- I repeat, the ONLY -- place in the world that we've played every year," said Mark Benson, one of 1964's founding members, who plays the role of John Lennon.
"And that's due entirely to Larry Payton," Benson said. Payton, whose Celebrity Attractions has brought 1964-The Tribute to Tulsa for the past three decades, died earlier this year.
"We were one of the first acts that Larry worked with when he started his company; from the very first minute, we all had such a great rapport with each other," he said.
Benson said that, even as Celebrity Attractions began to grow, becoming a major presenter of Broadway touring shows, Payton also made sure to "fit us into his schedule."
"He said, 'You guys never taper off,' " Benson said. "Which meant that, even after all this time, we still have a pretty loyal fan base there in Tulsa."
Benson may wish to take all the credit for that loyalty, but he knows that the reason for the longevity of 1964-The Tribute is due entirely to the music that four lads from Liverpool created in the early 1960s.
"The fascination with the Beatles and their music is something unique," he said. "Every year, there's a new book coming out -- about the equipment they used, about certain recording sessions, you name it. You don't see any other band generating that kind of interest. I mean, where are all the books about the Dave Clark Five? Or even the Rolling Stones?
"And you also can't put it down entirely to nostalgia," Benson said. "The video game Rock Band has introduced millions of people to the Beatles' music. It's not at all unusual to see three generations of a family in our audience, and every one of them is singing along with every song."
Benson founded the group in 1984 with Tom Work, who portrays George Harrison, and Gary Grimes, who was the group's Paul McCartney until he was forced to leave the band because of health issues (Grimes died in 2010).
The idea from the start was to re-create the look and sound of the Beatles when the group was still touring -- roughly up until 1966, when the Beatles' sonic experiments on such albums as "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" created songs that would be too challenging for a self-contained four-piece band to re-create on stage.
To that end, Benson and band mates would scour second-hand shops and other potential markets for instruments and equipment. Benson, a trained guitar technician and luthier, would often re-create some of the equipment they could not find.
"Both the black Rickenbacher guitars I play with 1964 I built," he said. "Down to carving the wood for the body. You have to remember that, when we started this, you couldn't find 'Beatles re-issue' instruments anywhere. Nowadays, you can find replicas and re-issues of practically everything the Beatles used."
Grimes even went so far as to teach himself -- a natural right-hander -- to play the Hofner bass left-handed, so that the distinctive look of the Beatles in performance would be maintained.
"We're working with Mac Ruffing now as Paul, and he's done the same thing -- taught himself to play the bass left-handed," Benson said. "And you would never know by watching him that Mac was anything but left-handed. He does a great job."
This year, 1964-The Tribute will perform about 100 concerts around the country. The song list the band performs is by the nature of the enterprise limited, but Benson said performing these songs never gets old.
"I'm sure that musicians in orchestras never feel limited by playing Beethoven and Mahler again and again," he said. "Well, that's how I feel about the Beatles' music -- I'm playing the classical music of the rock and pop world.
"And the audiences' response to it is what really keeps us going," Benson said. "This is music that transcends age and race and gender. It's everyone's favorite music."
Next year will be the official 30th anniversary of 1964-The Tribute, and Benson said the band has made plans to perform concerts in many of the places the Beatles performed.
"The thing is," he said, laughing, "none of us had any plans for this to become a full-time thing. I've done music all my life, and I remember always having people say to me, 'Shouldn't you have a real job to fall back on, if this music thing doesn't work out?'
"I know what's happened with 1964 is not typical by any means," Benson said, "but there's a part of me that wants to tell people, 'Hey, if you're wanting a steady job, go join a band.' "
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
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