By Eric J. Greenberg
It was a day of surprises and celebrations at Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts in Astoria, Queens, as Paul McCartney thrilled hundreds of lucky students and teachers with an unannounced 90-minute performance Wednesday night to promote his latest album.
Backed by his tight longtime band, McCartney, wearing a tailored dark suit and light blue shirt, charmed and delighted the 400 member audience with songs from his past (the Beatles, solo work and Wings) and his future (a collection of his latest tunes simply titled NEW, scheduled for release October 15).
See also: LIVE REVIEW: Paul McCartney at Barclays Center, 6/10/13
He also answered a dozen interesting professional and personal questions posed by Sinatra students and veteran New York morning classic rock radio personality Jim Kerr, who hosted the event, which was sponsored by iHeartRadio.
McCartney’s appeal clearly spanned the generations–from 14-year-old freshmen spontaneously waving their arms to “Hey Jude,” and their 50-year-old teachers nodding their heads, to the 87-year-old legendary singer Tony Bennett, who watched from the wings at the school he founded 12 years ago.
“To have a Beatle perform at my school is amazing, it’s such an honor,” said 16-year-old Sinatra senior vocal major Lily Kaufman. “He’s an inspiration. People look up to him. A lot of people who go to my school want to be in his position someday.”
“I can’t believe our school got this opportunity,” said 17-year-old senior Deva Brown. “He’s a legend. I know all the songs because my dad played a lot of Beatles when I was growing up.”
While the event had been in the works for nearly eight months, sponsor Clear Channel Media executive Tom Poleman said school officials had kept McCartney’s name a closely guarded secret and would not divulge the Beatle was the special artist until after the show began at 2 p.m. Perhaps that contributed to the calm and orderly atmosphere inside and outside the school before the show.
It was a far cry from the mass hysteria and screaming of thousands of teenage girls that accompanied McCartney’s first visit to Queens nearly 50 years ago, when he, John, George, and Ringo landed at Kennedy Airport a few miles away and proceeded to transform the music and culture of Western civilization.
Besides promoting a new album, there were other celebrations to commemorate. Unveiling NEW‘s title track, McCartney announced that it was his wedding anniversary and dedicated the bouncy tune to his wife of two years, New Yorker Nancy Shevell. “Happy anniversary, baby!” he shouted from the stage to Shevell, who sat in the audience in a yellow dress and could be seen bopping in her chair to Beatles classics as “Eight Days a Week” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
It was also the birthday of McCartney’s late friend and songwriting partner John Lennon, who would have turned 73.
So it was appropriate that during the several question-and-answer sessions interspersed between musical sets, McCartney shared tidbits about how he and Lennon used to write songs together. The two were the same age as the Sinatra students when they first met.
A slightly embarrassed teenage Paul had already written some songs but didn’t know anyone else who had and was made fun of when he told peers. When Lennon acknowledged he also wrote songs, it launched the birth of one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time.
“Then we got the hang of it, and fame gave us the freedom to do more,” Paul said. “We didn’t want to do the same thing twice.”
McCartney later played “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” a quirky tune he wrote with Lennon for 1967’s groundbreaking Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul confided that the duo took the lyrics from a circus poster hanging in Lennon’s home. “We were really lucky, because we pretty much wrote down what was on the poster.”
The students wanted to know what makes McCartney tick and asked several incisive questions: about how his fame has affected his art (it gave him the freedom to explore new musical ideas); why he continues to perform at 71 (he loves it and the energy from the audience); his musical influences (standards sung by his father, and then later Elvis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent); what he would change if he could go back in time (prevent the loss of loved ones), and when he knew the Beatles had made it (when he heard “Love Me Do” playing on the radio driving to London in1962. “I rolled down the windows and said, ‘That’s me.'”
Bennett, who calls Paul a dear friend (the two sang a duet on Bennett’s 2009 Duets album), said he shares with McCartney a love of performing, and at 87, has no intentions of giving it up.
He proudly noted to Sound of the City that, in 1965, “I was the first to give the Beatles an award.
“it was at Wembley Stadium,” Bennett told us. “When I looked at the four of them, I looked at Paul and said to myself: This guy’s got it.”
Now, 48 years later, Bennett smiled: “I think he’s going to survive.”
As for McCartney, while he keeps making new music and exploring his freedom to try new things, he also continues to mine the golden treasure trove of Fab Four material.
“Beatle music is going stronger than ever. It’s crazy,” McCartney said.
The iHeartRadio Album Release Party with Paul McCartney: A Q&A and Performance, which celebrates the release of his new album, NEW, scheduled for release October 15, will be aired across Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Classic Rock, Classic Hits, Oldies and AC stations across the country and on iHeartRadio.com/pm and will stream on Yahoo! Monday October 14, at 9 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. PT.