When We Was Fab 

Nashvillians remember Paul McCartney and Wings’ working vacation here in 1974

Nashvillians remember Paul McCartney and Wings’ working vacation here in 1974

When Paul McCartney arrived at the Nashville Municipal Airport on the evening of June 6, 1974, there were only a few reporters and about 40 fans waiting. Hardly Beatlemania. Accompanied by his wife Linda, their three daughters, the members of Wings and the band’s road manager, McCartney was here to rehearse for a world tour and take in some of the sights and sounds of our city. “I rather fancy the place,” McCartney told a Nashville Banner reporter. “It’s a musical center. I’ve just heard so much about it that I wanted to see for myself.”

The low-key reception was no measure of McCartney’s popularity. After all, “Band on the Run” had just nudged out “The Streak” to become the No. 1 song in the country, his fourth Top 10 single in less than a year. What kept the arrival from being a rock ’n’ roll mob scene was some clandestine maneuvering by Buddy Killen, who was Macca’s main man during his stay in Nashville. “I’m terribly protective of the artists I work with,” Killen says today, “and I kept Paul’s arrival very hush-hush.”

A month before, the Tree Publishing honcho got a call from his lawyer, Lee Eastman, who was also McCartney’s father-in-law. “What would you think about Paul coming to Nashville, and would you be his host?” Eastman asked.

Killen’s first job was finding suitable digs for his guests. “They wanted a place in the country—a farm,” he says. “But when you start calling farms and places like that where you want to rent something for seven weeks, they don’t know who it is, but they know it’s somebody big. One guy said, 'Yeah, I’ll let you lease my farm for seven weeks for $200,000, and then I can pay it off.’ I said, 'I’m sure you could.’ ”

Running out of options, Killen turned to one of his staff writers, Curly Putman. Best known for penning hits such as “The Green, Green Grass of Home” and later, with Bobby Braddock, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Putman owned a 133-acre farm in Lebanon. Killen suggested that Curly and his wife use the money they’d get from renting it and take a vacation to Hawaii. The songwriter liked the idea.

Paul, Linda and the girls—Heather, 11; Stella, 4; and Mary, 2—moved into the main house. The band—Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch, Geoff Britton—and road manager Alan Crowder were put in a little farmhouse near the road. “It didn’t work,” Killen says. “Paul was having problems with the players. Finally, he moved all of them up into the main house, then he started getting more results.”

After a week and a half of settling in and rehearsals, the McCartneys were ready to see some Nashville sights. Their first big day out would be a memorable one. It began with the Third Annual Grand Masters Fiddling Contest at Opryland.

Killen: “Instead of calling someone at Opryland and saying, 'I want to bring Paul McCartney and his entourage out,’ I stupidly pulled up out there and bought tickets. Porter and Dolly were playing a set [during intermission]. We’re walking toward the theater, and I look up and I see lips moving, forming the words 'Paul McCartney.’ Then the crowd started moving in on us. Suddenly it’s, 'I want your autograph.’ Paul was very nice. He said 'OK,’ and he’d sign them as we walked along. Now security starts moving in, and they get us to a roped-off area where Porter and Dolly are going to perform. I don’t know what I was thinking. This was Paul McCartney. It just didn’t dawn on me what an icon he was.”

McCartney’s expert handling of crowds during his stay really impressed Killen. “Paul said, 'When I was a Beatle, I found out that if you stay calm, you’re OK. But if you bolt and run, they’ll tear you apart.’ ”

The McCartneys’ backstage visit with Wagoner and Parton probably helped lighten a somber mood, as the Opry’s royal duo had just sung together for the last time. After niceties were exchanged and photos snapped, security guards snuck the band on the run out a back entrance.

They picked up a few buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, then went to Killen’s house. The month before, he’d had the place redecorated—white crushed velvet couches, new carpet, fresh paint. He tried to guide his guests out to the pool, but they never got that far. “In the den, they just started chowing down,” he says. “Then Mary and Stella started jumping up and down on the couch like it was a trampoline. Paul and Linda were very lenient parents. The kids had gravy on their hands and faces, and every time they’d come down, there were fingerprints on the wall—just grease all over the place. So I said, 'Hey, how about if I drive you around and show you Nashville?’ ”

Everyone waited outside while Killen turned on the security system. “All of a sudden, 'Bam! Crash!’ I hear glass shattering, and I hear a little girl crying and all this commotion. Linda comes running in, grabbing all the towels that she can get. I look out, and there’s Stella, lying on the walkway, bleeding. She had forgotten her shoes inside, and she ran right through the glass and broke out the bottom half of the door. The top half slid down and gashed her arms and legs. We took her into emergency at the hospital out in Donelson. They fixed her up. But word gets out that Paul McCartney is at the hospital. All the doctors and nurses are peeking around doors and corners. Later on, I said, 'Paul, a couple dozen people died at the hospital that night.’ He said, 'Why?’ and I said, 'All the doctors were watching you.’ ”

Thankfully, the drama of that day was an exception. Visits to the homes of Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins went more smoothly, as did their breakfast jaunts to The Loveless Motel— “They fell in love with that place and went back a bunch of times,” says Killen—and late-night excursions to the area’s drive-in movie theaters. McCartney told The Tennessean, “We’ve been to the drive-in a couple of times—that’s about our level. We’re very drive-in-type people.” It’s amusing to think of Paul at the old Bel-Air on Charlotte Pike or the Lebanon Road Drive-In on Donelson Pike, watching the fare of the day—Superfly TNT or a double feature of Young Nurses and Candy Stripe Nurses.

One night, Killen took the McCartneys to Printers Alley. “We had dinner at The Captain’s Table,” he says, “and then we went over to the Hugh X. Lewis nightclub and sat around. On the way home, in the car, they wrote 'Sally G.’ ”

There’s an opposing story about the creation of this sunny, mid-tempo country song. The late David “Skull” Schulman, one of the Alley’s colorful characters, claimed that a well-oiled McCartney wrote the song in his club The Rainbow Room, after hearing a few songs—particularly one called “A Tangled Mind”—by singer Diane Gaffney. Schulman said it was originally titled “Diane G.”

Years later, McCartney said, “I didn’t see anyone named Sally G. when I was in Printers Alley, nor did I see anyone who ran her eyes over me when she was singing 'A Tangled Mind.’ That was my imagination, adding something to the reality of it.”

“Sally G.” would become the B-side to another new song McCartney wrote while here, the summertime rocker “Junior’s Farm.” Though the title was surely inspired by their temporary home—Curly Putman’s nickname was “Junior”—the whimsical lyric, with references to Eskimos, sea lions and Ollie Hardy, gave no overt clues to anything local. It was what McCartney once described as “just a good flow of words.”

With this creative burst, it seemed only natural that Paul would want to hustle the band into the nearest studio. Killen, who owned the Sound Shop, says, “He wasn’t supposed to be recording, because he didn’t have a green card. But it just worked out because I had that studio there. They weren’t trying to break the law. They just did it.”

Ernie Winfrey, who as head engineer at the Sound Shop had worked with Johnny Rivers, Joe Tex, Millie Jackson and others, recalls the thrill of recording a Beatle. “As a vocalist, he was a true artist. His instrument was so well-tuned it was amazing. Seeing him standing out there over the microphone, like you recall seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Show, I thought, 'Am I really sitting here doing this?’

“And his bass was absolutely one of the most even basses I’ve ever heard. I’m sure it’s his playing technique and the way he had the bass set up, but every note was crystal clear. I didn’t have to do anything to it at all. Straight into the console.”

Winfrey also remembers Paul and Linda as very lovey-dovey. “They were just all over each other,” he says with a smile. “They would come in to listen to a playback, and one would sit in the other’s lap. I think Paul’s attitude toward Linda showed a lot about him. He was willing to accept any criticism or derision that was handed out over him having her in the band. Based on my observations, he was very patient with her. But she was also a quick learner. He would sing her a harmony part, and she’d jump right on it.”

The band was joined in the studio by Nashville session players Lloyd Green, Johnny Gimble, Bobby Thompson, the Cate Sisters and horn arranger Tony Dorsey, best known for his work with Joe Tex. (Dorsey would later become Wings’ musical director.) Winfrey says, “Paul was very easygoing, and consequently, all the Nashville players who came in felt at ease. Everybody threw their ideas in.”

The only hitch in the two weeks of recording was 19-year-old Wings lead guitarist McCulloch, who in Winfrey’s estimation was a “great player, but a jerk of the first magnitude.” McCulloch, who had a drug problem, stormed out of a few sessions, threw a Coke bottle at the control room window, and even got himself arrested for reckless driving late one night. Killen pulled some strings to get him out of jail, but the incident would almost prevent the band from returning to the States for the Wings Over America tour.

Songs cut at the Sound Shop were “Sally G.,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Bridge Over the River Suite,” “Hey Diddle,” “Wide Prairie,” “Send Me the Heart” (written by Laine) and “Walking in the Park With Eloise.” This last one, a Dixieland-style instrumental, was written by Paul’s father, Jim McCartney. Chet Atkins, when he heard the nostalgic tune, convinced Paul to record it as a gift to the elder McCartney, who was ailing at the time.

With guests Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Vassar Clements—and McCartney playing a washboard he’d bought at a Nashville flea market—Wings would release “Eloise” under the pseudonym The Country Hams.

In a 1984 Playboy interview, McCartney said, “I told my dad, 'You’re going to get all the royalties. You wrote it and we’re going to publish it for you and record it, so you’ll get the checks. And he said, 'I didn’t write it, son.’ I thought, 'Oh God, what?’ He said, 'I made it up, but I didn’t write it.’ He meant he couldn’t notate; he couldn’t actually write the tune down. And of course, that’s like me. I can’t write music. I just make ’em up too.”

Of the songs that McCartney made up in Nashville, the sublime “Junior’s Farm” became a No. 3 hit in November 1974. The single’s B-side, “Sally G.,” also skimmed into the upper reaches of the country charts, a first for the former Beatle.

On July 18, 1974, after six weeks in town, McCartney & Co. flew back to England. Drummer Geoff Britton left the band shortly after. Jimmy McCulloch left in ’77, then died of an overdose in ’79. Denny Laine would remain the only constant in the revolving door lineup of Wings over the next five years.

Though Killen and Winfrey have had only intermittent contact with their legendary guest in the years since—a few Christmas cards, the occasional phone call—they both have fond memories. “Paul was the most unassuming guy I’ve ever been around,” Killen says. “You felt no star complex with him. He was just a regular guy who talked to you about regular things, and he was one of the nicest guys in the business I’ve ever met.”

Winfrey says, “The whole experience was kind of like a fairy tale, a dream come true.”

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