For over three decades, Mark Benson and company have been putting on their black suits and Italian loafers, strapping on those iconic Rickenbacker guitars and paying tribute to arguably the greatest rock 'n' roll band ever, The Beatles.
1964 The Tribute recreates the early touring days of The Beatles, performing tracks from the Fab Four's first seven albums with as much authenticity as possible. The now iconic tribute show returns to Savannah on Jan. 6 after several stops in the Lowcountry in recent years. They have more than 80 concerts booked for the new year, with no plans of slowing.
"I was telling someone the other day, I remembered having a conversation with my bass player and business partner at the time [Gary Grimes]," Benson said. "I said, do we really want to do this for three or four years, because that's how long it's going to take to get known and build up a machine around this.
"Thirty-three years later â€¦ If there's anything you can count on, it's that there's always going to be Beatles fans," he added with a laugh.
Benson and Grimes began 1964 The Tribute in 1984. Benson took on the role of John Lennon, which he continues to recreate to this day, and Grimes took on Paul McCartney. They began the tribute as way to recreate the pre-Sgt. Pepper's days of The Beatles, before touring became impossible due to overwhelming fandom and the band became more isolated.
With the exception of Benson, the band has seen several changes to the lineup over the years. Grimes passed away in 2010. Mac Ruffing took over McCartney duties in 2013, and currently Robert Potter portrays Ringo Starr. The band's original George Harrison, Tom Work, returned to the band in 2006 after a 12-year hiatus. The current lineup has the right stuff, according to Benson.
"Chemistry is very important," Benson said. "Right now, this band has a really good chemistry of guys. We're all going in the same direction. We want to make sure it's as right as it can be every night. If they were lucky enough to get a chance to see The Beatles, this is what they would have seen. That's kind of the premise.
"I keep telling the guys, we only have to be as good as The Beatles. That's all!" he said, laughing.
1964 The Tribute began long before the tribute industry blossomed into a 3.5 percent share of America's GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal. The industry now employs over 2.5 million working musicians. There are over 20 Beatles tribute bands of record. 1964 The Tribute is at the top of that list, continuing to sell tickets and book major venues each year.
"It's incredible," Benson said. "There's so many things people say about the healing power of music; music brings everyone together, blah blah blah. And it all sounds very cliche, but it's dead on the money. It's all so true. People stop being political and stop being racial and stop being ageist or sexist. They are just there with music and all having fun.
"I don't think people realize, that besides it being great rock 'n' roll, all of the songs are about love. It's all about some positive message. Very innocent, maybe, but when you get 3,000 or 10,000 people to sing I looooove you. That's incredible! When do you get to do that?"
Those early albums offer many songs for 1964 The Tribute to plug into each show. "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" are on the permanent setlist, but to keep things interesting for themselves, they'll toss in some unexpected tracks here and there.
"We're able to play any of those songs off the cuff, but we try to come up with a song list that has a really good flow to it," Benson said. "Not too many slow songs or John or Paul songs in a row. You also have to consider guitar changes. You don't want to be changing guitars every single song. We try to group things together, so the flow of the song list moves in a nice direction.
"We try to pick from the first seven releases," Benson continued. "I think 'Revolver' is the latest one that we choose anything from. People ask all the time, do you have a favorite song? I can't pick a favorite album! There's just so many good songs. Try to find a song that isn't recognizable or a good one to sing along with. It's amazing."
IF YOU GO
What: 1964 The Tribute
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 6
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.