By John W. Whitehead
"I was very influenced by him."
-- Paul McCartney, on his father
Despite their harmless façade, The Beatles symbolized the generational revolt—even an estrangement from parents—that marked the 1960s. "My mother hates them, my father hates them, my teacher hates them," said one young fan. "Can you think of three better reasons why I love them?"
However, this was not the intent of John, Paul, George and Ringo. With the exception of John Lennon, The Beatles grew up in loving, stable homes. And they generally respected and revered their parents, which came through in their music—especially Paul McCartney's.
"My parents aspired for us. That is one of the great things you can find in ordinary people. My mum wanted me to be a doctor," McCartney said. "And my dad, who left school at fourteen, would have loved me to be a great scientist, a great university graduate. I always feel grateful for that."
The happiness and security of Paul's life were brutally shattered when his mother, Mary, died in 1956, leaving his father James with the task of guiding his two teenage sons through the difficult period of adolescence. Paul later preserved his mother's memory in the beautiful ballad "Let It Be," based on a dream he had about her a decade after her death. Paul's younger brother Michael commented on how their father was there for them after their mother died. "We both owe him a lot. He stayed home and looked after us." But it would be the musical influence of Paul's father that would last.
James McCartney, born in 1902, had his own band in the late 1920s. Jim Mac's Jazz Band, which included his brother and cousin, played the dance halls around Liverpool during the time of vaudeville.
Music had always been a focus of McCartney family life. They had an old upright piano at home, and one of Paul's early memories is lying on the floor, listening to his father play. "My dad was an original," Paul remembers. "To us kids he was a pretty good player, he could play a lot of tunes on the piano. I was very influenced by him." Paul still, in fact, has his father's old upright piano.
James arranged for 11-year-old Paul to be auditioned for junior choir at Liverpool Cathedral, but he was not accepted. This did not stop him from encouraging Paul's clear interest in music. "My Dad was the big influence because he was playing the piano all the time by ear," Paul recalls. "I tried to get him to teach me, but he said no, you've got to get lessons."
James was not only a musician but also an amateur composer. "He wrote some stuff," Paul has said of his dad. "I actually did a song of his with Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer called 'Walking in the Park with Eloise.' I said to my dad: 'Do you know you wrote that song?' He said: 'I didn't write it. I made it up.' I said: 'I know what you mean, but we call that writing these days, Dad!'"
It wasn't surprising when Paul began writing songs. "Something was making me make it up, whether I knew how to do it or not," Paul said. "I'd already written the tune of 'When I'm Sixty-four' when I was sixteen." Not surprisingly, there is a strong vaudevillian flavor to this song.
The musical influence of his father also pervaded Paul's work with The Beatles. "He had a lot of music in him, my dad. He taught me and my brother harmony. I learned very early how to sing harmony, which was one of my big roles in The Beatles. Whenever John sang, I automatically sang in harmony with him, and that's due to my dad's teaching."
Paul even credits his father for his now-legendary status as The Beatles' bass player. "My dad would point out the bass on the radio."
As The Beatles were trying to break through, Paul's father encouraged them. He allowed the Quarry Men—Paul and John's pre-Beatles group—to rehearse in the McCartney home on Forthlin Road. And as the budding Beatles, Lennon and McCartney wrote some of their classics, such as "I'll Follow the Sun," there. "I remember writing that in our front living room at Forthlin Road," says Paul.
When James turned 64 in 1966, Paul revived and rewrote "When I'm Sixty-four" as a tribute to his father. The Beatles recorded the song on December 6, 1966 at Abbey Road Studios in London between sessions for Lennon's classic, surreal "Strawberry Fields Forever." And it was the first cut completed for their masterpiece album, the legendary Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Paul's father lived to see The Beatles become the most influential entertainment act in history, with Paul half of the greatest pop songwriting duo of all time. James must have been proud when he heard those great piano riffs on such Beatle songs as "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude"—both written and played by Paul.
James McCartney died in 1976. Just before he passed away, he said, "I'll be with Mary soon." But the bond between father and son has lasted over the years, even as Paul celebrates his 68th birthday this month.
This affectionate bond is reflected in a song Paul wrote about a phrase his father used to resolve family disputes. Here are some lyrics from "Put it There" on Paul's 1989 album, Flowers in the Dirt: "Give me your hand, I'd like to shake it. Put it there, If it weighs a ton, That's what a father says to his young son."