Happy Birthday to the Great Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE – June 18, 1942
Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE (born 18 June 1942) is an English singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. With John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, he gained worldwide fame with the rock band the Beatles, largely considered the most popular and influential group in the history of pop music. His songwriting partnership with Lennon is the most celebrated of the post-war era. After the band’s break-up, he pursued a solo career and formed the band Wings with his first wife, Linda, and Denny Laine.
McCartney has been recognized as one of the most successful composers and performers of all time. More than 2,200 artists have covered his Beatles song “Yesterday”, more than any other copyrighted song in history. Wings’ 1977 release “Mull of Kintyre” is one of the all-time best-selling singles in the UK. A two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of the Beatles in 1988, and as a solo artist in 1999), and a 21-time Grammy Award winner, McCartney has written, or co-written, 32 songs that have reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and as of 2009 he has 25.5 million RIAA-certified units in the United States. McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr all received The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1965, and in 1997, McCartney was knighted for services to music.
McCartney has released an extensive catalogue of songs as a solo artist and has composed classical and electronic music. He has taken part in projects to promote international charities related to such subjects as animal rights, seal hunting, land mines, vegetarianism, poverty, and music education. He has married three times and is the father of five children.
McCartney attended Stockton Wood Road Primary School in Speke from 1947 until 1949, when he transferred to Joseph Williams Junior School in Belle Vale because of overcrowding at Stockton. In 1953, with only three others out of ninety examine-es, he passed the 11-Plus exam, meaning he could attend the Liverpool Institute, a grammar school rather than a secondary modern school. In 1954, he met schoolmate George Harrison on the bus from his suburban home in Speke. The two quickly became friends; McCartney later admitted: “I tended to talk down to him because he was a year younger.”
“The type of people that I came from, I never saw better! In the whole of the world! I mean, the Presidents, the Prime Minister, I never met anyone half as nice as some of the people I know from Liverpool who are nothing, who do nothing. They’re not important or famous. But they are smart, like my dad was smart. I mean, people who can just cut through problems like a hot knife through butter. The kind of people you need in life. Salt of the earth.”
McCartney’s mother Mary was a midwife and the family’s primary wage earner; her earnings enabled them to move into 20 Forthlin Road in Allerton, where they lived until 1964. She rode a bicycle to her patients; McCartney described an early memory of her leaving at “about three in the morning [the] streets … thick with snow”. On 31 October 1956, when McCartney was fourteen, his mother died of an embolism. McCartney’s loss later became a point of connection with John Lennon, whose mother, Julia, had died when he was seventeen.
McCartney’s father was a trumpet player and pianist, who had led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band in the 1920s. He kept an upright piano in the front room, encouraged his sons to be musical and advised Paul to take piano lessons, but Paul preferred to learn by ear. He gave Paul a nickel-plated trumpet for his fourteenth birthday, but when rock and roll became popular on Radio Luxembourg, McCartney traded it for a £15 Framus Zenith (model 17) acoustic guitar, since he wanted to be able to sing while playing. He found it difficult to play guitar right-handed, but after noticing a poster advertising a Slim Whitman concert and realizing that Whitman played left-handed, he reversed the order of the strings. McCartney wrote his first song, “I Lost My Little Girl”, on the Zenith, and composed another early tune that would become “When I’m Sixty-Four” on the piano. American rhythm and blues influenced him, and Little Richard was his schoolboy idol; “Long Tall Sally” was the first song McCartney performed in public, at a Butlins holiday camp talent competition.
1957–1960: The Quarrymen
At the age of fifteen, McCartney met Lennon and his band, the Quarrymen, at the St Peter’s Church Hall fête in Woolton on 6 July 1957. The Quarrymen played a mix of rock and roll and skiffle, a type of popular music with jazz, blues and folk influences. The band invited McCartney to join soon afterwards as a rhythm guitarist, and he formed a close working relationship with Lennon. Harrison joined in 1958 as lead guitarist, followed by Lennon’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe on bass, in 1960. By May 1960 the band had tried several names, including Beatals, Johnny and the Moondogs and the Silver Beetles. They adopted the name the Beatles in August 1960 and recruited drummer Pete Best shortly before a five-engagement residency in Hamburg.
1960–1970: The Beatles
In August 1965, the Beatles released the McCartney composition “Yesterday”, featuring a string quartet. Included on the Help! LP, the song was the group’s first recorded use of classical music elements and their first recording that involved only a single band member. “Yesterday” became the most covered song in popular music history. Later that year, during recording sessions for the album Rubber Soul, McCartney began to supplant Lennon as the dominant musical force in the band. Musicologist Ian MacDonald wrote, “from  … [McCartney] would be in the ascendant not only as a songwriter, but also as instrumentalist, arranger, producer, and de facto musical director of the Beatles.” Critics described Rubber Soul as a significant advance in the refinement and profundity of the band’s music and lyrics. Considered a high point in the Beatles catalogue, both Lennon and McCartney said they had written the music for the song “In My Life”. McCartney said of the album, “we’d had our cute period, and now it was time to expand.” Recording engineer Norman Smith stated that the Rubber Soul sessions exposed indications of increasing contention within the band: “the clash between John and Paul was becoming obvious … [and] as far as Paul was concerned, George [Harrison] could do no right—Paul was absolutely finicky.”
In 1966, the Beatles released the album Revolver. Featuring sophisticated lyrics, studio experimentation, and an expanded repertoire of musical genres ranging from innovative string arrangements to psychedelic rock, the album marked an artistic leap for the Beatles. The first of three consecutive McCartney A-sides, the single “Paperback Writer” preceded the LP’s release. The Beatles produced a short promotional film for the song, and another for its B-side, “Rain”. The films, described by Harrison as “the forerunner of videos”, aired on The Ed Sullivan Show and Top of the Pops in June 1966. Revolver also included McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”, which featured a string octet. According to Gould, the song is “a neoclassical tour de force … a true hybrid, conforming to no recognizable style or genre of song”. Except for some backing vocals, the song included only McCartney’s lead vocal and the strings arranged by producer George Martin.
The band gave their final commercial concert at the end of their 1966 US tour. Later that year, McCartney completed his first musical project apart from the group—a film score for the UK production The Family Way. The score was a collaboration with Martin, who used two McCartney themes to write thirteen variations. The soundtrack failed to chart, but it won McCartney an Ivor Novello Award for Best Instrumental Theme.
Upon the end of the Beatles’ performing career, McCartney sensed unease in the band and wanted them to maintain creative productivity. He pressed them to start a new project, which became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, widely regarded as rock’s first concept album. Inspired to create a new persona for the group, to serve as a vehicle for experimentation and to demonstrate to their fans that they had musically matured, McCartney invented the fictional band of the album’s title track. As McCartney explained, “We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys we were men … and [we] thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”
Starting in November 1966, the band adopted an experimental attitude during recording sessions for the album. According to engineer Geoff Emerick, “the Beatles were looking to go out on a limb, both musically and sonically … we were utilising a lot of tape varispeeding and other manipulation techniques … limiters and … effects like flanging and ADT.” Their recording of “A Day in the Life” required a forty-piece orchestra, which Martin and McCartney took turns conducting. The sessions produced the double A-side single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” in February 1967, and the LP followed in June. McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” was an orchestral pop song. MacDonald described the track as “[among] the finest work on Sgt. Pepper—imperishable popular art of its time”. Based on an ink drawing by McCartney, the LP’s cover included a collage designed by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, featuring the Beatles in costume as the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing with a host of celebrities. The heavy moustaches worn by the Beatles reflected the growing influence of hippie style trends on the band, while their clothing “spoofed the vogue in Britain for military fashions”, wrote Gould. Scholar David Scott Kastan described Sgt. Pepper as “the most important and influential rock-and-roll album ever recorded”.
“After Brian died … Paul took over and supposedly led us you know … we went round in circles … We broke up then. That was the disintegration. I thought, ‘we’ve fuckin’ had it.’”
—John Lennon, Rolling Stone magazine, 1970
Epstein’s death in August 1967 created a void, which left the Beatles perplexed and concerned about their future. McCartney, stepping in to fill that void, gradually became the de facto leader and business manager of the group Lennon had once led. His first creative suggestion after this change of leadership was to propose that the band move forward on their plans to produce a film for television, which was to become Magical Mystery Tour. The project was “an administrative nightmare throughout”, according to Beatles’ historian Mark Lewisohn. McCartney largely directed the film, which brought the group their first unfavourable critical response. However, the film’s soundtrack was more successful. It was released in the UK as a six-track double extended play disc (EP), and as an identically titled LP in the US, filled out with five songs from the band’s recent singles. The only Capitol compilation later included in the group’s official canon of studio albums, the Magical Mystery Tour LP achieved $8 million in sales within three weeks of its release, higher initial sales than any other Capitol LP up to that point.
In January 1968, EMI filmed the Beatles for a promotional trailer intended to advertise the animated film Yellow Submarine, loosely based on the imaginary world evoked by McCartney’s 1966 composition. Though critics admired the film for its visual style, humour and music, the soundtrack album issued seven months later received a less enthusiastic response. By late 1968, relations within the band were deteriorating. The tension grew during the recording of their self-titled double album, also known as the “White Album”. Matters worsened the following year during the Let It Be sessions, when a camera crew filmed McCartney lecturing the group: “We’ve been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away … we were always fighting [his] discipline a bit, but it’s silly to fight that discipline if it’s our own”.
In March 1969, McCartney married Linda Eastman, and in August, the couple had their first child, Mary, named after his late mother. For Abbey Road, the band’s last recorded album, Martin suggested “a continuously moving piece of music”, urging the group to think symphonically. McCartney agreed, but Lennon did not. They eventually compromised, agreeing to McCartney’s suggestion: an LP featuring individual songs on side one, and a long medley on side two. In October 1969, a rumour surfaced that McCartney had died in a car crash in 1966 and been replaced by a lookalike, but this was quickly refuted when a November Life magazine cover featured him and his family, accompanied by the caption “Paul is still with us”.
On 10 April 1970, in the midst of business disagreements with his bandmates, McCartney announced his departure from the group. He filed suit for the band’s formal dissolution on 31 December 1970. More legal disputes followed as McCartney’s attorneys, his in-laws John and Lee Eastman, fought Lennon’s, Harrison’s, and Starr’s business manager, Allen Klein, over royalties and creative control. An English court legally dissolved the Beatles on 9 January 1975, though sporadic lawsuits against their record company EMI, Klein, and each other persisted until 1989. They are widely regarded as one of the most popular and influential acts in the history of rock music.
Prior to, and for a while after leaving the group, McCartney suffered from a deep depression as a result of the band’s break-up. He spent days in bed and drank excessively: “I nearly had a breakdown,” he said. “I was going crazy.” Biographer Howard Sounes writes that “McCartney sank into whisky-soaked oblivion, [and] only Linda knew how to save him.” She helped him pull out of that emotional crisis by praising his work as a songwriter and convincing him to continue writing and recording. In her honor, he later wrote “Maybe I’m Amazed”, explaining that with the Beatles breaking up, “that was my feeling: Maybe I’m amazed at what’s going on… Maybe I’m a man and maybe you’re the only woman who could ever help me; Baby won’t you help me understand… Maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of time, hung me on the line, Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.” He added that “every love song I write is for Linda.”