BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — With the release of the three-part documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back,” one of the most popular and influential bands in history is now back in the news. However, the “Fab Four” were not always as well-liked, especially in Alabama.
In fact, two radio hosts in Birmingham are credited with an early movement to boycott and burn albums from the group in 1966 following comments singer/songwriter John Lennon.
Earlier that March, Lennon was interviewed in The Evening Standard in London, where among other things, he talked about Christianity and his opinion of its dwindling influence in the world.
“Christianity will go,” Lennon was quoted as saying. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The comments received little attention at the time until they were reprinted that July in “Datebook,” a teen magazine in America. On July 30, 1966, Tommy Charles and Doug Layton of WAQY in Birmingham announced that they were no longer playing Beatles albums, asking listeners to send in Beatles albums and merchandise to burn in a special promotion.
Alvin Benn, a longtime Alabama reporter who was a reporter for United Press International at the time, heard Charles and Layton’s show that day on the way to work and knew there was a story there.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked, soon after I got to my office and called (Tommy) Charles, who enjoyed racing stock car, running for mayor of Birmingham and doing televised commercial pitches,” Benn wrote in his memoir, “Reporter: Covering Civil Rights… And Wrongs in Dixie.” “‘We’re upset with Lennon and are going to show him just what we think of his comments,’ Tommy told me. The more he talked, the more I knew it would be something our Atlanta and New York desks would love to get.”
Benn’s story, “Burn, Beatles, Burn!” would soon be printed in newspapers across the Southeast and country. Within a week, six radio stations across Alabama had announced that they would no longer be playing Beatles music.
“If it is a joke by the Beatles, then it’ll still have to be changed,” said Bob McKinnon, manager of WETU in Wetumpka in an interview with the Alabama Journal published on August 4, 1966. “Until then, they’re all out with us. We’re not playing them.”
It would not be long before other stations nationwide would take to burning Beatles albums. One station, WAKY in Louisville, Kentucky, spent one day playing 10 seconds of silence each hour for prayer instead of Beatles music. In Memphis, Mayor William Ingram encouraged the city council to cancel the group’s upcoming concert in town.
“The Beatles will be dead and forgotten, literally and figuratively, in a relatively short time,” Ingram told UPI. “I’m sure more Bibles than Beatles records are sold.”
The reaction was strong enough that Beatles manager Brian Epstein held a news conference prior to the group’s North American tour to clarify Lennon’s comments.
“What Lennon said and meant was that he was astonished that, in the last 50 years, the Church of England, and therefore Christ, had suffered a decline in interest,” Epstein told UPI in an interview published August 7, 1966. “He did not mean to boast about the Beatles’ fame. He meant to point out that the Beatles effect appeared to be a more immediate one upon certainly the younger generation. It was not anticipated that the article would be displayed out of context and in such a manner as it did in the magazine.”
However, despite all the burnings happening in different parts of the country, the planned bonfire Charles and Layton had planned ultimately never happened. At the time, Birmingham had a city ordinance banning public bonfires, but Charles said that Lennon’s apology during a concert in Chicago on August 12, 1966, played a part in them deciding not to go through with the campaign.
“We have called off our planned destruction of the Beatle records and other things we have collected,” Charles told the Associated Press on August 13, 1966. “We don’t consider it fitting to continue the campaign. We have to take him at his word that he is sorry.”
Charles died in 1996 and Layton died in 2015. Layton’s widow, Villeta, said that despite his long career, which included being a color analyst for Alabama football radio broadcasts from 1969 too 2001, the Beatles ban continued to follow him.
“He would rather not talk about it,” Villeta told AL.com following her husband’s death. “He would roll his eyes (when he was asked about it). It was something that was said at the time, and it just ballooned.”