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First person: John Lennon's Jesus comments 50 years ago sparked blaze

Lennon's comments first appeared in a British magazine on March 4, 1966, and he wasn't bothered when it touched a nerve in the United States five months later.
By Alvin Benn, Special to UPI   |   Updated March 4, 2016 at 12:25 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., March 4 (UPI) -- Editor's note: Fifty years ago today, John Lennon made waves when his comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus were published in a British magazine. The musician's remarks prompted condemnation and protests, like a boycott by an Alabama radio station covered by then-UPI reporter Alvin Benn.

It was called the "Beatle Boycott" or "Beatle Ban," and for a few weeks in the summer of 1966 I found myself in the middle of an international flap over a controversial comment by singer-songwriter John Lennon.

A ride around Birmingham, Ala., on a muggy morning 50 years ago this August led to an exclusive story for UPI, one that captivated America and teeny boppers who loved the Lord and, for a while, three of the four Beatles.

Disc jockeys Doug Layton and Tommy Charles were known for their abrasive skits at times, but when they urged listeners to bring their Beatles albums to the station so they could be burned or smashed, I knew it was a story in the making.

The pair had me turning up the volume and taking mental notes about the reason for the unusual request.

Turns out the two weren't kidding, or, so it seemed. Their dander was up and festering because of a statement made by Lennon that, in his opinion, the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Beatlemania had eased two years after "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" ruled the music charts, but the hits kept coming when Lennon's incendiary comment in a teen-oriented magazine in Britain stirred up anger throughout America's Bible Belt region of the South.

Lennon's comments first appeared in the magazine on March 4, 1966, and he wasn't bothered when it touched a nerve in the United States five months later.

He soon learned however that it might have an adverse impact when the Beatles arrived in America at performance venues that included Memphis -- the town where Elvis was still king of rock 'n' roll, but they were quickly climbing toward his Top 40 throne.

Charles, once a singer who had a minor hit years before becoming a DJ, and Layton, who would become color commentator for the University of Alabama's football team, seemed to be serious about their "boycott" idea.

I knew both men, and when I asked them if it was just another of their whacky radio pranks on WAQY-AM they assured me it was on the up-and-up.

It didn't take long for me to write a story that went out on our "A" wire and soon was being read by editors in Atlanta. They quickly forwarded it to New York and on it went across the Atlantic.

The windup was a front page story about the "Beatle Boycott" in The New York Times on Aug. 5, 1966.

The Associated Press' Birmingham reporters apparently didn't listen to Layton and Charles or failed to pick up vibes that were far from Alabama. In any event, we had registered a major scoop on the competition. "Rox" either was asleep at the switch or didn't think much of it at first.

Taking it all in were Doug and Tommy, who knew they had a ratings tiger by the tail and weren't about to let go just yet. Their little AM radio station with a weak coverage area was suddenly deluged with requests for interviews from around the world. They were happy to oblige, too.

What seemed at first to be a routine story about a talented musician's from-the-hip comment and a Southern radio station's angry response had caught on in a hurry and rapidly spread across the world. When I first heard them and their unusual request it made me think of Nazi book burnings in Germany in the late 1930s. I told them that, and they emphatically denied anything like that. I could almost hear two tongues rattling firmly in their cheeks.

They predicted a big bonfire and said a date would be announced soon, but it never happened. Some small protests in the South did occur but didn't produce much public support.

A few other Southern radio stations had joined Layton and Charles in their "boycott" announcement, calling Lennon's comments blasphemous and vowing to stop playing their music.

Alarmed by what might happen if the controversy increased and hurt the bottom line, Beatles manager Brian Epstein flew to New York in an attempt to soothe hurt feelings.

By that time, Lennon had issued a half-hearted "apology" that he was sorry if he had offended his fans. He also indicated he was only being critical of organized religion, especially Christianity.

Listen to Lennon's apology here:

The Memphis concert was held as scheduled, and while the turnout at an early show was lower than anticipated, it didn't lead to any cancellations.

I stayed on top of the story in addition to everything else we had to cover throughout Alabama, which remained the center of civil rights activities in the United States.

August of 1966 may have produced the "Beatle Boycott" fallout, but it competed with a far more historic event that eclipsed it -- President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act.

It was an important piece of federal legislation propelled by a violent incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the subsequent 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March of that year.

It had been an exciting time for me. Fresh out of the Marine Corps, I reported to Birmingham to work under UPI Bureau Manager Tony Heffernan, who gave me my big break.

Grant Dillman, who was UPI's vice president in 1964, asked me where I wanted to work if hired. I immediately said: "Where the action is." "Okay," he said, "You'll be going to Birmingham."

I was to have had a wire service orientation session in Atlanta, but it never happened because it was the day the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers were found under an earthen dam in Mississippi.

Thus began a 2 1/2-year career with the world's best news organization. One of my jobs was to accompany the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. wherever he might be in Birmingham. The town was also known as BOMBingham in those days.

It was a great time to learn. In addition to covering civil rights events, I also reported on America's space program in Huntsville, where the Saturn moon rocket was being tested at the Marshall Space flight Center.

On Saturdays, I covered the University of Alabama's outstanding football team. The Crimson Tide won national championships in 1964 and 1965 and should have won it again in 1966 but voters who decided titles took a dim view of a team that wasn't integrated.

As things turned out, 1966 would be my last year with UPI and I moved on to newspapers around the South, but not before another exclusive came my way. It involved the fifth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba.

I learned that the widows of American pilots killed in the aborted invasion were being paid by an unnamed source, presumably a three-letter federal agency beginning with the letter "C."

The widows were told they would continue receiving funds to sustain them, for a long as they did not remarry. The story got great play around the country.

Taking into consideration all of the stories I wrote during my brief UPI employment, I'd have to say the "Beatle Boycott" outranked them all.

On Aug. 9, 1966, one of many newspapers ran my story about the British singers. The headline was: "DJs Start 'Beatle Ban'" with the following lead paragraph:

"'It's been a hard day's night' for John, Paul, George and Ringo since the 'brainy Beatle' suggested the British rock 'n' rollers were more popular than Jesus."

My byline was above the dateline and (UPI) was just below it.

The newspaper was the Okinawa Morning Star. Somebody sent me a copy, and I still have it.

It was proof from Asia that my casual ride through Birmingham on a muggy day in August of 1966 produced an exclusive story that traveled around the world.

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