In February of 2020, before worldwide acknowledgement of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a nine-hour show day at the Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah, Georgia, with the members of the Emmy Award-winning Beatles tribute band, ‘The Fab Four’, along with their tiny, multifunctional touring crew.
I was assigned the piece with no previous knowledge of tribute bands or the culture surrounding them. Through their sharp-witted comments and little antics, I learned what it meant to each member to be in a tribute act honouring the world’s most popular band, and gained insight into the niche community and fanatical fanbase they’d formed through years of performing.
But when walking into the venue on that day, I was entirely unprepared for the scene that was about to unfold.
A day in the life of a Beatles tribute band:
2:00 PM: The Arrival
The Fab Four is standing in line at craft services, compiling a stack of cold cuts and white cheeses onto sandwich bread. I’ve just been guided from the desolate lobby of the Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah, Georgia, to the backstage area by a yellow-vested security guard, and then passed over to Michael Amador, a founding member of The Fab Four Corporation, former George Harrison impersonator, and current manager of the band. The four men standing in the lunch-line were average looking; they wore dark sweaters, black tees, faded jeans, sneakers, and had heads of dishevelled, greying hair to accompany their sleep-deprived expressions. I shook hands with each of them, not knowing who I was introducing myself to. Was this supposed to be John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr? Yes and no. It was Adam Hastings, Ardy Sarraf, Gavin Pring, and Joe Bologna. They had arrived five minutes ago and were just beginning their show-day routine, first step—food. This was the start of a day in the life of a Beatles tribute band.
Yes. Tribute band. Not cover band. The Fab Four’s publicist clarifies in an email: “Cover bands have a lot more freedom to bring their own interpretation to the music, whereas The Fab Four strive to present the most authentic and exacting depiction of the Beatles and their music that they can possibly create — and they do it exceedingly well!”
Before I could mistakenly call them a cover band to their faces, a small, bright-eyed man sporting a 3rd Infantry Division baseball cap walked up grinning. This was the band’s driver, backstage man, and whatever else you needed him to be, Timmy Stamper. Stamper was from Kentucky, but lived in Myrtle Beach, and inherited a sort of southern, unabashed close-talking instinct; he got real close and personal, like we were old friends. How many miles to the water? Seven? Eight? And when was that big bridge built, y’know, the real big one that crosses over the river from South Carolina?
Stamper’s day in the life started in the early morning hours, driving on the dark Highway 17 from Charleston to Savannah in their blacked-out Mercedes-Benz van. They usually flew to the shows but decided to tough it out for the weekend. Stamper was behind the wheel the whole time, even through tornado level winds that nearly blew them off the road. But they survived. Now they sat down at the circular table backstage, sandwiches on paper plates.
“The way to a man’s heart— soft bread,” says Gavin Pring (George Harrison) in his native Scouse tongue.
The word Scouser comes from scouse, which was a stew made from a ship’s biscuits and fish, eaten by sailors in the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England; now natives were called Scousers. Pring had just become a U.S. citizen a few months ago, so, technically, he’s a half-Scouser now. Regardless, any percentage of his dialect would be of use to the Americans who had to fake their Liverpudlian accents.
They ate, joking and making noises in-between sandwich bites like schoolboys in the lunchroom. Much like the original four lads, they were inherently quick-witted within their little antics. Adam Hastings (John Lennon) had a special noise he made that sounded like a mix between a California surfer wiping out, and some sort of Seth MacFarlane creation. HehWoahhhh. Joe Bologna (Ringo Starr) recorded Adam on his phone doing the noise, and now it echoed through the room every time Bologna received a text.
“We’re all a bit delirious at this point,” says Pring.
Tonight was their fourth show in a row. They’d been to Durham-Atlanta-Charleston, and now they were in Savannah, staying the night in Pooler, then flying into Jersey, where they’ll drive to Connecticut for the next string of shows. But this hectic schedule wasn’t anything new. They’ve toured for as long as they can remember, been all around the world from China to Brazil to right here in deep southern America.
At the table, I was sitting with a circus calibre cast of impersonators; everyone in the room had been someone else. Stamper and George Trullinger, who played Ed Sullivan in the show, went way back. They played the Blues Brothers on cruise ships that travelled all over the world. Other impersonations in the mix included Buddy Holly and enough McCartneys and Harrisons to fill a Yellow Submarine.
In fact, The Fab Four was cast to do the motion-capture performance footage for director Robert Zemeckis’ 3-D remake of The Beatles classic animated film, Yellow Submarine, but it got cut when the director’s previous movie was a box office flop.
“The Yellow Submarine sank,” says Pring.
But it was only a minor setback. The live shows performed so well, the band just kept going and going with their tours and appearances. It looked as though they had no plans of stopping, and if they did, tonight wasn’t the night.
3:00 PM: The Set Up
In The Fab Four, you have to be more than a Beatle, more than a tribute band member, more than yourself; everyone in crew and band is required to carry that weight a long, long time. They are the costume department, makeup artists, musicians, actors, and unpackers of their own equipment, which they’re now doing on stage at the theatre.
Four large, black, hard cases are unclipped, and inside are stacked speciality guitars in soft cases, each valuing over $2,000. The band has 11 guitars on stage at all times, and 44 in total inventory, which are constantly circulating in different regions of the US. They have a western set, a northern set, an eastern set, and today, they were unloading the southern set under flashes of purple and blue lighting that was being tested from the back of the theatre by Amador and crew member, Robert Guzman. This stacking method smashed one of Ardy Sarraf’s (Paul McCartney) guitars a few months ago, but that was the risk with having such a small, multifunctional touring crew who loaded their own equipment. It’s surely a commendable act, but not everyone reciprocates the respect, even within their community.
“Sometimes they give us attitude,” says Sarraf about venue crew members they’ve encountered. “They don’t know what to expect.”
“Yeah. ’They don’t have a big rig, so they mustn’t be good,’” says Pring, repeating what he once overheard a resident venue tech guy say before one of their shows, as the four band members were setting up. Pretending not to be in the band, Pring replied, “Yeah, well, you know, the guys try hard.” So, The Fab Four set up that night, played the gig, and after the show, the resident techie returned and said, “You just reminded me, you don’t need that much to do a great show.”
Sarraf unloads the guitars with seeming ease, all 11 of them, and lines them like Dominoes along the stage on their respective stands. The set’s slowly coming to life, and with that, the band disperses. Hastings disappears to his dressing room, a smiling Bologna is testing the cymbal on his drum set, Sarraf needs coffee, and Pring is pacing around, holding his hand-painted Fender Stratocaster, identical to Harrison’s beloved ’61 Stratocaster named “Rocky.”
Gavin Pring had been playing since he was 21. Born and raised in Liverpool, he felt the presence of the Beatles growing up, but not enough to follow their lead early on. But at 21, he lay immovable in a hospital bed, recovering from a broken leg after cliff jumping into what he thought was deep, cool water, but soon revealed a layer of bone-crushing rock two feet below the surface. One day, his mother brought him the decorative guitar that had hung on his wall for as long as he remembered, the one he use to get girls with (kiss me first, then I’ll play) and learned his first song— it was a Beatles song, of course.
From there, he began playing in Beatles tribute bands as George Harrison. One, for his intricate guitar skills, two, for his eerie resemblance to Harrison in full costume; they share the same intense brown eyes, same slim build, and with a wig to cover Pring’s short grey hair, it was like looking at ’69 George in the flesh. His first memorable band experience was playing gigs around various Hyundai buildings in South Korea, where he’d arrived two days before the rest of the band and became completely transcended by the new culture. In 2002, after many years of impersonating Harrison, he performed on the same stage as Paul McCartney at a George Harrison tribute show. He met the man himself backstage, where McCartney told him, “You look a little bit like George,” to which Pring replied, “You look a little bit like Paul.”
In 2004, Pring met The Fab Four, and two years later, joined their residency in Las Vegas. Now, he was an indispensable member of the band.
Pring’s still picking at his guitar when Sarraf comes back, coffee in hand.
“You need anything?” asks Trullinger as he appears from backstage.
“She needs a better band to cover,” says Sarraf.
If anyone can suitably shit on The Fab Four, it’s Ardy Sarraf. You have to have a sense of humor about things to survive the long days, and being one of the founding members of the tribute band, Sarraf knows this better than most. He’s been at this for a long time.
Saraff was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he still lives with his family when he’s not on the road. He started playing in bands out of high school, and when he was 21, had the opportunity to go to Japan with a Beatles band. Much like Pring, experiencing a new culture was an eye-opener; it gave him a taste of what was possible with a little hard work and initiative. In 1997, Sarraf, Amador, Ron McNeil, and Rolo Sandoval met at a Beatles convention in L.A, and with a shared vision of creating the Beatles tribute band they wanted to see, The Fab Four was born.
“The four of us were pulling our weight. If one of us wasn’t, we never would’ve made it,” says Sarraf.
Now the band is nationally adored, Emmy-decorated for their PBS special, and recognized by a living Beatle. But every show is still a learning experience.
“We’re the first guys to admit that we don’t know everything,” says Sarraf. “We’re not the Beatles, and we’re never gonna be.”
All this constant Beatles talk can be suffocating, and they do get sick of the songs, at least Bologna does. He never listens to them on his days off. One thing they love— talking about other musicians for a change. In fact, Sarraf is wearing a Queen shirt underneath his jacket. After I mention that Bob Dylan performed in this theatre last year, Sarraf plays “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from his phone while everyone is writing down their post-performance food orders. Bologna sings along, spouting out Dylan impressions to accompany the track, nailing his nasal tones.
Sarraf calls the band, “The Flab Four” after finishing his order, and Pring chimes in, “I prefer The Mother Fakers.”
5:00 PM: Soundcheck
As Sarraf, Pring, and Hastings tune their guitars, yelling back and forth to Guzman about sound levels in their earpieces, Bologna holds his drumsticks between his fingers. He’s the oldest and quietest of the bunch, and he’s always wearing a smile that rarely ever leaves his face.
Joe Bologna lives in Michigan, born and raised, and worked in the post office for 10 years until he got married. Right when his twins were born, the post put him to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. The combination of no sleep and no family time forced Bologna into a desk job, and it came with a present: a pay cut. Looking for a part-time weekend job, he spotted an ad in the paper that said something along the lines of, “RINGO WANTED: We need someone to sing and play as bad as Ringo.” He found work quickly. Oddly enough, Ringos were in demand all over. Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Oklahoma, he was in four bands at once. In 2004, he quit his day jobs, and became a full time Ringo. But now, the hectic travel schedule takes a toll on Bologna more than any of the other members.
“Every time I try to leave this life, and go back to a real job, I realize that I can make more money here in one night than I can in a whole week,” says Bologna.
He joined The Fab Four full time in 2006, as full time as you can be in the band. The members regularly alternate, and they have multiple understudies available. With a tribute band like this, you’d think it wouldn’t matter, but to the fans, they see everything. Especially in the Facebook comments under pictures of Pring and Hastings with a different McCartney and Starr.
“Why do all the members keep changing??”
“Don’t recognize anyone here!!”
“Who is the Paul and Ringo fake Beatles?”
“They don’t want to hear Ringo, they want to hear what the last drummer did,” says Bologna about the fans and other band members.
Bologna begins tapping his cymbal again, thinning auburn hair shining in the spotlight, and Hastings puts down his guitar and sits at his keyboard.
Despite the slight jadedness Bologna, Pring, and Sarraf have accumulated from doing this for decades, the ice seems to be slowly chipping away with the new addition of Adam Hastings.
“By him coming into the band, it’s been a shot in the arm,” says Sarraf.
Unlike the Beatles tribute band that Hastings came from in England called “The Bootleg Beatles,” The Fab Four doesn’t have an extra guy in the back filling in the sound gaps, and they take a lot of pride in that. Hastings is especially technical about it. He’s the one who wants to make sure they’re doing justice to the original records, trying to replicate it as close as they possibly can. While the other band members are sleeping on the bus, Hastings is on his MacBook, studying the music, finding ways to improve their performances.
“There’s always a little bit of magic in there to find,” says Hastings, “I bet a lot of original bands argue over opinions about how they should play the music, but when you do this, there’s a Bible.”
But, despite all the effort Hastings puts into the show, anally studying the technicalities of the music is just for fun. He rarely makes suggestions for the show as a whole.
“I’m happy just to come and do my thing and tell my jokes,” says Hastings. “I’ve got no interest in being in charge of the decisions. I just want to play and enjoy myself.”
And he’s felt that way for a while, being in bands for as long as he can remember. Hastings grew up in Newcastle, England, received a Jazz degree back in Leeds, and one summer answered an ad for a wanted guitarist to play Beatles guitar solos in Dubai. One job led to another, as they tend to do in this business, and he soon became a full time John. In September of 2018, Adam was flying back and forth from the U.K. to the U.S. to do a few shows with The Fab Four, until last March, when he moved to Las Vegas to be in the band full time. Although, he thinks the whole concept of tribute bands is bizarre, he wouldn’t trade the lifestyle.
“It’s great,” says Hastings,” I get to be with my friends every week, and I have plenty of time at home with my wife and my son.”
His two and a half-year-old son, Ozzie, was never introduced to The Beatles by his parents, but after coming to a couple of the shows, he wants Dada to play She Love You Yeah Yeah. And he wants to watch the 1964 film “A Hard Day’s Night” almost every day, which has actually led Hastings to pick up on new things he’d never noticed before about Lennon. But he doesn’t actively research John Lennon. He’s never gone down the route of knowing everything about his life, and he doesn’t plan on doing so.
“I think he’s great, and I’m really interested in him and The Beatles, but that doesn’t make me do a better job on stage.”
Now sitting at his keyboard, he plays the opening notes of “Imagine.” And after that, the boys begin playing through other songs. After every pause, Sarraf yells to the back, “Are we good?”
Finally, after the 6th pause, they were good.
“It’s Forrest Gump Time!”
6:15 PM: “It’s Forrest Gump Time!”
Bologna, Sarraf, Pring, Stamper, and Trullinger walk from the theatre to Chippewa Square to see where the famous Forrest Gump bench scene was filmed. They’ve been obsessing over it all day. They’ve never played in Savannah as far as they remembered, so they decided to sacrifice a bit of pre-show downtime for their magic leaf moment (it was a feather, Pring later found out). Bologna stayed behind to get ready; he was always the first one ready.
In the square, the golden light from the streetlamps glowed through the Live Oak trees and Spanish Moss as Hastings squatted, mimicking Forrest Gump’s bench sitting stance.
“Looks like you’re taking a shit,” says Pring.
After Trullinger snaps a few pictures of the band for The Fab Four’s Instagram, they have to head back to get ready for the show. Pring splits away to scout out the British pub in town, but says he’ll meet them back at the venue. The rest walk back, curiously discussing the city’s ghost rumors. Stamper’s heard of Savannah’s haunted history but doesn’t believe in that sort of ghost nonsense. To him, it’s the human conscience that keeps us awake at night, that haunts us.
7:30 PM: Dressing Room
There were suits lined on portable clothes racks in the windowless hallway. The suits came straight from the holy land— Liverpool. For years, they were getting their early Beatles suits, the infamous Sullivan-era black ones, from a guy named Russ in Maryland. They once experimented with a shiny lot of suits for a few “Hard Day’s Night” shoots ‘that someone thought was a brilliant idea to get from Hong Kong.’
“They didn’t look bad, though,” defends Sarraf.
“We looked like the flippin’ Tin Man,” says Hastings.
They had it all worked out now, though. The Sullivan suits are a staple with any Beatles band, but there’s more freedom in the later years which gives them a chance to switch things up. Sometimes, even fans contribute to their onstage wardrobe. Two nights ago, a friend of the band, a real southern guy who’d driven 4 hours for the show, brought Hastings a pair of spring court white tennis shoes, the exact make and model that Lennon had worn. When fans aren’t bringing them wardrobe pieces, Pring usually sticks to Harrison’s striped red and black flares and blue faux tuxedo shirt, Sarraf to McCartney’s black vest-white tee-mullet combo, Bologna to Starr’s Victorian-style cream ruffled shirt under a black blazer, and Hastings to Lennon’s infamous white Abbey Road suit.
“None of us look like them,” says Sarraf, “But when we get in a little bit of makeup, in the wigs, and put on the accents and persona, you know…we look pretty damn good.”
The makeup is a hodgepodge of different brands and quality levels, ranging from Amazon, eBay, and Walgreens, to the remnants of their wives’ collections. But they have to scrounge for their own wigs, and they leave them scattered around their dressing rooms like mini trophy pelts. Hastings has the largest collection of wigs due to John’s ever-evolving styles, lengths, and questionable sideburn phases. But, ironically enough, Hastings sports a shaved head that he almost always covers with a backwards baseball cap. With all of the wardrobe elements, they often are forced to get crafty; Hastings cuts Bologna’s Ringo wigs, Pring paints Sarraf’s 60s boots, and Trullinger helps keep all of the wardrobe accounted for.
In his dressing room, Trullinger is combing his dark hair back, making sure it’s as shiny and slicked to his scalp as possible. Then he begins to draw on wrinkles and frown lines with a brown stick of eyeliner.
“When I’m in full makeup and costume, a lot of times people will come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you really look like Ed Sullivan,’ and I want to friggin’ hang myself,” says Trullinger.
George Trullinger got into the band through The Fab Four’s previous Ed Sullivan, Jerry Hoban. Trullinger befriended Hoban in Atlantic City, where they’d sit and drink coffee and talk Old Hollywood. Later, when they were both living in Vegas, Hoban called Trullinger up and asked him to sub for him in The Fab Four show, and by 2015, Trullinger was subbing as Ed Sullivan once or twice a month. One morning, at Trullinger’s home near Daytona Beach, Florida, he and Stamper were installing a wooden floor when the phone rang; it was Sarraf. Sarraf told him that Hoban had a heart attack and dropped dead getting out of the shower. Ever since that day, Trullinger has been the Fab Four’s Ed Sullivan.
“I was in a big show in Vegas for 26 years, and never was it like this,” says Trullinger, “This is a dream job.”
8:00 PM: Showtime
The setlist was written in bold black letters on copy paper scattered around the stage: SHE LOVES, LOVING, TILL THERE, HAND, HARD, IF I FELL, 8 DAYS, CAN’T, 17, TWIST, YESTERDAY, PEPPER, LIL HELP, PENNY, REPRISE, DAY LIFE, GOT TO, IMAGINE, SOMETHING, GET BACK, REVO, JUDE.
Trullinger as Ed Sullivan walks on stage. “We have a live show for you tonight, and I’d like to know if we have a live audience here tonight!” He continues with a brief standup routine to warm the crowd up, telling the audience to take photos, videos, sing along…actually please don’t do that. Then it’s really showtime. “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!” Trullinger runs off stage and The Fab Four runs on and starts “She Loves You.” The fans go nuts, like it’s the 1964 Beatlemania all over again, and it really could’ve been; if you squinted your eyes just right, they could be who you wanted them to be, they could be The Beatles. They sure sounded like them, anyway.
During the early Beatles set, Trullinger is running around; he’s put on his backstage helper hat, aiding in whatever way he can. When he finds that things are running smoothly, he takes a breather.
“Well, we’re off like a prom dress, boys,” says Trullinger as he leans against the curtain, watching the performance from stage right with a satisfied grin.
They play through the songs relatively fast, and by 8:50, it’s time for a costume change; it’s Sgt. Pepper time.
Pring is fully dressed in his tangerine Sgt. Pepper suit with the matching tricorn hat, and a lime green feather sticking out of the left side. He runs across the back of the stage, hidden from the audience behind the curtain, as Sarraf and Hastings perform “Twist & Shout.”
“Can’t find me mustache,” he says whirling by.
When he locates the lost stache, he meets Bologna at the left side stage entrance.
“Aye Aye Captain!” says a saluting Bologna, wearing Ringo’s pink Pepper suit.
“More like Captain Morgan,” replies Pring as he saunters onto the stage, switching places with the other men, giving them a turn for a costume change.
When Hastings and Sarraf come back, Sgt. Pepper time has begun. After “With a Little Help From My Friends,” they spot a child in the audience wearing McCartney’s blue Sgt. Pepper outfit. They wave him up to the stage, his long hair flowing as he runs down the aisle accompanied by his mother. The kid’s name is Lennon Harrison. His mother says John and George are her favorite as she waves her hands rapidly in front of her face, miming a swoon. The band doesn’t comment on the Rolling Stones T-shirt she blatantly wears.
Lennon Harrison runs back to his seat, and they get back to the show. After the Sgt. Pepper era is over, they go through another costume change, into the final Let It Be, breakup stage.
Hastings finds a Fab Four T-shirt on stage and yells out to the audience, “Does anyone want a t-shirt?”
“We do! We want some for free!” yells a girl and her friend from the audience.
“For free? Tough,” says Hastings.
Things are smooth sailing from here, as Hastings gives an emotional tribute to Lennon during “Imagine.” But earlier in the show, they had a few hiccups. Before “Hard Day’s Night,” Sarraf snapped a guitar string, and yelled backstage, “STRING.” It was fixed before anyone could notice a thing. Hastings covered on guitar without missing a beat, and Trullinger, Stamper, and Guzman ran to Sarraf’s aide.
“People don’t come to see the mistakes, they come to see the show,” says Stamper, “When shit goes down, it goes down backstage.”
And just like that, before the encore of “Hey Jude,” the monitor turns blue, signal lost. But again, the crew is faster than the mistake. It’s back on before “And anytime you feel the pain.” The fans don’t seem to mind, either. An older woman in the front row is swaying with hands held high to the “Na na na na’s,” eyes closed in Beatleish ecstasy, worshiping her teenage disciples like they’re the real thing. With a bit of visual impairment, and a dash of self-delusion, The Fab Four really is a time machine.
After a standing ovation, and a few goodbyes, the show is over. Earlier, the band debated on an autograph signing, but it was the 56th anniversary of the Beatles landing in America, and Guzman wanted them to do something special, so, ah, what the hell.
“I usually get mobbed out there,” says Pring, “But watch nothing happen now because I said that.”
10:00 PM: Signing
Walking up the aisles of the theater, heading to the merch booth at the front of the venue to sign autographs, a boy, about 14, is following closely behind the band. He’s Facetiming a friend, almost maniacally giggling as he takes long strides to keep up.
“I’m with the Beatles!!” he whispers excitedly to his friend on the phone.
As the boys open the doors to the lobby, an autograph line has already formed that stretches clear from one side of the room to the other. The line’s buzzing with chatter and soft screams from everyone— loyal, older fans, the middle-aged crowd, and a surprising amount of children. Lennon Harrison’s even there with his Stone tee’d mother.
“I wanna give Paul a kiss,” says a young girl to her mother in the line.
The boys sign pictures, Fab Four t-shirts— Sarraf even signs a girl’s shoe.
“I’m a George fan,” says a teenage girl to Pring.
“Oh really? I’m a George fan, too,” Pring replies.
The yellow-vested security guard that let me into the venue earlier that day was now wearing an Ushanka without the ear flaps, standing by the cracked door, letting the cool air blow the smoke from his cigarette away from the lobby.
At the end of a day in the life, when the autograph line has fizzled out, and the lobby of the Johnny Mercer Theater returns to its desolate normality, the Fab Four disappears backstage. They change back into their dark, modern clothing, wipe off the stage makeup, peel off the wigs and mustaches, and walk out into the night like ghosts, disappearing in the crowd who was moments before screaming in delight at the sight of them— or at least who they pretend to be.