When Shea Stadium Was Invaded By Cannibal And The Headhunters

When The Beatles played Shea Stadium August 15th, 1965, most people don’t realize there were quite a few opening acts, specifically, Killer Joe Piro and His Discothèque Dancers, Motown star Brenda Holloway, King Curtis and Sounds Incorporated. These groups all got some face time in “The Beatles Play Shea Stadium” documentary.

However, there was another opening act that did not make the film’s final cut – Cannibal & the Headhunters. Instead of this gig being the band’s breakthrough to the big time, sadly the Headhunters were lost in the jungles of history.

This is particularly surprising for two notable reasons. Firstly, the band made a small but critical contribution to rock & roll history with their recording of “Land of 1,000 Dances.” You know, that song that goes “Na. Na Na Na Na. Na Na Na Na Na-na-na na-na-na.” Legend has it that Cannibal forgot the words when they cut their version and started na-na-ing. The producer loved the improv and made it part of the song. Later on, Wilson Pickett cut his version, which most folks recognize as the definitive version. But Pickett used the Na-Na opening as well, stolen directly from Cannibal’s faulty memory. Here is the band doing their thing:

Secondly, Paul McCartney specifically asked manager Brian Epstein for the “Na Na boys” to open for The Beatles on their tour. One wonders if the Beatles and the Headhunters ever talked shop backstage at Shea or anywhere on that tour. And did Paul steal Cannibal’s lyrics for the ending of Hey Jude? Is the band entitled to any royalties?

Thirdly, Cannibal & the Headhunters are part of a rich yet little appreciated part of music history – latin rock bands. The North Hollywood arts blog just published a fascinating history of Chicano rock, from which Kingman just learned of C & the H’s contribution to Shea and rock & roll history. Please take a moment to read the entire article. Meanwhile, here is the excerpt about my new favorite band, at least for today:

On August 15, 1965, while their hometown, Los Angeles, was in the midst of its worst-ever race riot, four Mexican-American performers in their late teens prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium in New York. Outside their makeshift dressing room, some 55,000 fans were arriving to the biggest stadium concert in the 10-year history of rock and roll. They bought tickets not to see this band, Cannibal and the Headhunters, but the Beatles, who would perform later.

The story is that Paul McCartney had told the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein, he wanted the “Na Na boys” to open for the British group on the August portion of its 1965 American tour. Earlier that year, Cannibal and the Headhunters had released a cover of a song originally recorded in 1961 by Chris Kenner, a black performer from New Orleans, entitled “Land of a Thousand Dances” that featured the lead singer, Frankie Garcia (Cannibal), chanting “na, na, na, na, na” in a slow, sexy sequence for the opening 15-20 seconds. “Land of a Thousand Dances” became a national hit, partly because listeners were intrigued by that unusual opening, which legend has it occurred when Garcia forget the actual lyrics. Rather than have the band start over, producer Billy Cardenas has said he signaled from the recording booth for them to keep going, hearing in that spontaneous introduction a brilliant hook.

Perhaps McCartney had the song in his head a few years later, when he wrote “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da,” with its inclusion of the nonsensical sounds “bra,” “la” and “da.” A year after Cannibal and the Headhunters released “Land of a Thousand Dances,” the great soul singer Wilson Pickett recorded his own version that included the same opening. As a consequence of the Pickett recording, which reached # 6 on the Billboard Top 40, black civil rights marchers in the late summer of 1966 chanted “na na na na…” as they walked across dusty southern back roads, probably unaware that the phrase had originated with a charismatic Mexican-American singer from East Los Angeles.

For Cannibal and the Headhunters and their manager, a white man in his 30s named Eddie Davis, who loved watching young Mexican-American groups perform rhythm and blues songs in their unique style, the offer to open for the Beatles on a tour that included a stop at the Hollywood Bowl was both exhilarating and daunting. The opportunity couldn’t be surpassed — an audience of 50,000+, national media coverage, the possibility of trading on a connection to the most popular rock and roll band in the world — but delirious Beatle fans, especially girls between the ages of 12 and 17, were not known for their patience and understanding.

Ever since the Beatles first came to the United States, in February 1964, their concerts had included fans – most of them female — who behaved with rudeness and disdain toward the hapless opening acts, which the kids regarded as useless diversions preventing them from hearing and seeing the kings of rock and roll. Since many of these performers looked like the Beatles, what chance did four brown-skin youths who played black-based r’n’b have in keeping the audience engaged?

But the Beatles and especially their manager Brian Epstein made a wise choice. Cannibal and the Headhunters had already endured the pressure of performing on stage for black audiences who until the rising of the curtain assumed the group looked like them. They had been fooled by “Land of a Thousand Dances,” specifically its hard, bass-driven funk sound and one-chord structure, ideal for an extended soul jam at a live performance. Further circumstantial evidence of the group’s blackness could be gleaned from the calm confidence of the lead singer that he has mastered all the latest dances steps, and its name, suggestive of Africa, though hardly in a flattering way. Members of the group in subsequent interviews recounted with amusement the puzzled looks on the faces of black patrons at East Coast urban venues when they discovered the true identity of Cannibal and the Headhunters. But when the song started, propelled by the familiar beat, and the group performed their tight, self-choreographed dance routines, including the rowboat, which involved them sitting on the stage, a few feet apart, moving their hips in unison, black audiences went wild. Forgotten was the curious ethnic makeup of the group; all that mattered was that they sounded and looked as genuine as anything in the Motown stable of stars.

After that experience, what did the guys have to fear from suburban teens in a state of hysteria counting down the seconds before the announcer proclaimed “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles”!!? Looking back decades later, the members of Cannibal and the Headhunters recalled the surreal quality of the performances, including Shea Stadium; massive audiences, many of whom appeared to be miles from the stage, alternately bored, indifferent or excited while the group tore into “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Some residents of Ramona Gardens, the housing projects east of downtown LA where the four were raised, and surrounding Mexican-American neighborhoods managed to score tickets to the Beatles concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which took place two weeks after the Shea Stadium performance. For these concertgoers, a minority in more ways than one, the British group was great, but the opening act was special. Around Ramona, the headline in late August of ’65 was not “Beatles come to Los Angeles,” but “local boys make good.”

End Article:

“The Beatles did record a song by the replacement to Richie Valens from the Delphi record label after Valens died. Chan Romero wrote and performed “The Hippy Hippy Shake” showing that the Beatles valued what was coming out of the west coast Barrios..” Frank M. Miranda

Chicano Radio Network (CRNLive.com) Exclusive with Chan Romero:

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