1956 is a year that left a permanent scar on Paul McCartney, and he left the year as a mightily different soul to the one who began it. In November, Macca attended a concert that made him fall in love with the guitar. Soon enough, he’d become infatuated to such an intense degree that the instrument became his whole existence.
McCartney’s teenage years were full of hardship after his life was turned upside down when, aged 14, his mother passed away following complications related to her breast cancer surgery. His world changed on that grey-skied October day, and overnight, a teenaged McCartney needed to become a man. The loss of his mother would give him and John Lennon an unlikely and unfortunate common bond, which cemented their relationship, with music helping pull the duo from their respective periods of grief.
Just a matter of weeks after losing his mother, McCartney went to the Liverpool Empire to watch Lonnie Donegan, who transfixed him with his charm. Reportedly, Macca was so obsessed with the singer that he even visited the venue at lunchtime of the performance to get a peek of his hero, which gave him a glimpse of Beatlemania from the other side of the curtain.
“It was just after my mother’s death that it started,” Mike McCartney later recalled about his brother’s love affair with the guitar. “It became an obsession. It took over his whole life. It just came along at that time and became an escape.”
McCartney received a trumpet for his 14th birthday earlier in the year, but after seeing Donegan light up the Liverpool Empire, he knew that the guitar was where his heart now led. Therefore, Macca walked into town and traded the trumpet for a six-string acoustic Zenith, which he played until 1960, and the instrument changed the course of his life.
“My dad bought me a trumpet for my birthday, at Rushworth & Draper’s (the other music store in town), and I loved it,” McCartney explained in Anthology. “There was a big hero-thing at the time. There had been Harry James – The Man With The Golden Trumpet – and now, in the Fifties, it was Eddie Calvert, a big British star who played ‘Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White’ – all those gimmicky trumpet records. There were a lot of them around back then, so we all wanted to be trumpeters.”
He continued: “I persevered with the trumpet for a while. I learnt ‘The Saints’, which I can still play in C. I learnt my C scale, and a couple of things. Then I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to sing with this thing stuck in my mouth, so I asked my dad if he’d mind if I swapped it for a guitar, which also fascinated me. He didn’t, and I traded my trumpet in for an acoustic guitar, a Zenith, which I still have.”
In truth, McCartney’s love of artists like Lonnie Donegan had already infected him before seeing him perform at the Empire, and in his heart of hearts, he likely already knew that he was no trumpeter. However, that concert confirmed that it was time to follow his newfound dreams, and nothing would ever be the same.
The Zenith gave Macca a purpose when his grief easily could have made him slip off the rails, and music offered him a lifeboat at a pivotal moment in his life when he needed it most. The Donegan concert at the Empire steered him on the right path and played a small but significant role which consequentially led to the birth of The Beatles.