A fan of New Orleans and its music, Paul McCartney has visited and performed in the city numerous times. On May 23 at the sold-out Smoothie King Center, the solo star and former Beatle will play his fifth New Orleans concert. It’s the first stop on the United States leg of McCartney’s Freshen Up world tour. He previously appeared at Smoothie King Center in 2014 and 2002, and at the Superdome in 1993.
On September 16, 1964, during Beatlemania’s high tide in America, McCartney made his New Orleans debut with the Beatles in City Park Stadium. About fifteen minutes into the half-hour show, a tidal wave of hundreds of girls spilled from the stadium stands onto the field. Florence Hughes, an LSU journalism student freelancing for The State-Times, reported that “the girls broke into hysterics when Ringo began singing ‘Boys,’ and the football field was swarming with fans.”
New Orleans singer Clarence “Frogman” Henry, one of the Beatles’ opening acts, recalled seeing policemen tackling girls as they dashed across the field. Before the Beatles’ final song, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” McCartney announced, “I want to thank everybody for coming, including the football players.”
Earlier that day, Hughes had covered the Beatles’ chaotic press conference at The Congress Inn motel on Chef Menteur Highway. “You can’t realize how they are pushed about, mobbed and questioned,” she wrote. “They have no lives to call their own. … By 11:30 the Beatles had left New Orleans, and all they had seen were a motel room and City Park Stadium.”
The highlight of McCartney’s 1964 visit to New Orleans likely was Fats Domino’s backstage visit with the Beatles. They serenaded Domino, one of their American R&B inspirations, with his 1956 hit, “I’m in Love Again.”
The day after the Beatles’ City Park concert was scheduled to be a day off in New Orleans. They wanted to visit the local music clubs. But a $150,000 guarantee to play in Kansas City, Missouri, lured them away a day early.
In January and February 1975, McCartney finally realized his wish to experience New Orleans.
With his wife, Linda, their children, and members of McCartney’s post-Beatles band, Wings, McCartney decamped to the city to record the Venus and Mars album. Sessions took place at Allen Toussaint’s and Marshall Sehorn’s Sea-Saint Recording Studio in Gentilly. During an extended stay in New Orleans, Paul and Linda McCartney dressed as clowns and joined Mardi Gras revelry on St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street.
“It was just great to visit the city and be part of that Louisiana culture,” McCartney recently told his official website. “Because when we were making the album, we stayed there for quite a while. It was over a month, so we really got into it. During that time, it was also Mardi Gras and we got immersed in the local culture. New Orleans music, Creole music is very unique. It’s a unique style we’d hear at clubs and things. And that’s where I heard Professor Longhair.”
Longhair was one of the local acts McCartney and his crew saw perform during the Venus and Mars sessions. McCartney also invited Longhair to Sea-Saint. In a 1979 interview, Longhair recalled, “Somebody steered him up to wherever we were working, and he came and listened and he enjoyed it. So, he said, ‘Now that I’ve come listen to you, why don’t you come listen to me?’ And I said, ‘Well, where are you?’ And he was making a recording down by Sea-Saint.”
Some local musicians, including Toussaint, participated in the Sea-Saint sessions. But McCartney wanted to use local flavors sparingly. “Mainly we’re coming here to make our own album,” he said at the time. “I don’t like to come to a place and use too much of the local talent, because you get people saying, ‘Oh, they’re taking our style.’ … So, generally we keep pretty much to ourselves—unless there’s another special thing we’d like, and we’d ask someone to help us on.”
McCartney’s apprehension about committing cultural appropriation, however, stopped with “My Carnival,” his homage to Professor Longhair. Wings recorded the song at Sea-Saint the day after Mardi Gras with Meters bassist George Porter Jr. adding percussion and Benny Spellman (“Fortune Teller”) singing backup. “I just loved the style so much that I composed something called ‘My Carnival,’” McCartney said recently. “It’s got the same riff, basically, that he [Longhair] plays.”
McCartney subsequently hired Longhair and the Meters to perform at the Venus and Mars wrap party on the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. His production company recorded the performance, released in 1978 as Live on the Queen Mary. Linda McCartney shot a striking portrait of Longhair for the album, which was re-released in April.
An avid Longhair fan, McCartney especially loves the rippling arpeggios the pianist played with his left hand. “And in his right hand is rolling blues stuff,” McCartney said. “You hear it, and its like, ‘Wow, that’s New Orleans!’”