John Lennon heralds Beatles’ demise with Live Peace in Toronto: ‘Jesus, did I do that?’

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John Lennon took the stage 45 years ago this weekend for what would become the initial concert recording by a Beatle, Live Peace in Toronto. He was joined on September 13, 1969, at Varsity Stadium, by a quickly assembled group that included Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and a very surprised Alan White.

“I was cooking breakfast, living with bunch of musicians in a house in west London,” White tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I got a call from Apple studios, where I knew a few people. But I didn’t expect it be John Lennon. I thought it was a friend of mine, joking around. I said: ‘I’ve got to get back to breakfast; call me back later.’ And I put the phone down. It rang again about 10 minutes later. He said: ‘No, this is John Lennon.’ That’s when I forgot about breakfast. I left everything on the stove!”

Promoters John Brower and Kenny Walker had initially organized the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival around the idea of bringing a series of early-era rockers on stage — with Lennon as the emcee. But when Lennon said he wanted to perform, the soon-to-be-ex-Beatles star quickly became the centerpiece of the program.

White, of course, would later become a go-to sideman for the Beatles in their earliest 1970s-era solo efforts, appearing on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Lennon’s “Instant Karma” and his Imagine album before joining Yes for their tour in support of 1972’s Close to the Edge. He’s been a member of the prog group ever since. But in September of 1969, the pre-Yes White was largely unknown outside of local muso circles. Morover, there would be little time to prepare. If White wanted to work with a Beatle, he’d have to wing it — quite literally. They rehearsed on the plane ride over.

“He’d seen me play, and John said ‘we’ve got this gig,’” White says. “I went to Heathrow and walked into the VIP lounge — and there was John and Yoko and Klaus Voormann. I was feeling very young and naive, to be in the company of those people. Then Eric Clapton walked through! John said: ‘I forgot to tell you, Clapton’s playing guitar.’ That was another shock right there.”

Lennon and his newly dubbed Plastic Ono Band performed eight songs, in front of a crowd of some 25,000 people, including the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” from the White Album, as well as a pair of cover songs from the early Fab era, “Money” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” Lennon also did two solo songs, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey,” and backed Yoko on the “Cold Turkey” b-side “Don’t Worry Kyoko” as well as “John John (Let’s Hope for Peace)” from their Wedding Album.

Lennon then rushed back to Abbey Road and mixed the album himself on September 25, 1969. The gold-selling Live Peace in Toronto promptly zoomed to No. 10 on the Billboard charts. It was both the clearest indication yet of the Beatles’ eventual demise, but also the beginning of White’s dizzying rise to fame.

“Naturally, it was a huge step up in my career,” White tells us. “I was taking it all in my stride, but only because I was so young. I didn’t realize how much it really meant until many years later. I thought: ‘Jesus, did I do that? I was only 20 years old!'”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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