Chan Romero remembers the first time he played “Hippy Hippy Shake” in public.
It was in the old Eagles Club in downtown Billings, and he and his fledgling band performed for Edna Best’s women’s club, Romero recalled last week from his home in Palm Springs, Calif.
That was in the fall of 1958. Romero was 17, a junior at Billings Senior High School, and the other boys in the Beltones were just as raw as he was.
If the stars align, the next time Romero sings the “Hippy Hippy Shake” will be Tuesday night in Missoula, on stage with Sir Paul McCartney.
Nothing was set in stone as of Monday evening, but the possibility remained that Romero, 73, and McCartney, 72, will meet for the first time at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in front of 26,000 fans.
“That would be a gas,” said Romero, who plans to make the 5 1/2-hour drive from Billings with his wife, the former Laverne Allmer of Butte, and at least three carloads of family.
“He picked up my song in ’59 when I first recorded it,” Romero said. “It was released in England and he liked the song and the Beatles started doing it. So I just figured maybe he would want to do it with me, since he picked it up from my records. But we’ll see what happens.”
No matter what, memories will be made in Missoula on Tuesday night in what’s believed to be the first public performance by a Beatle in Montana.
Beyond their music, McCartney and the Fab Four have generated unfathomable numbers of individual stories for millions of people around the globe, including here in western Montana.
A woman from Rock Creek was 13, 14 and 15 when she attended Beatles shows in Los Angeles in consecutive Augusts of 1964, 1965 and 1966 – and didn’t hear a song because she and her frenzied friends were screaming so loud.
A Missoula man recalls in vivid detail his midnight train ride in 1965 from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Minneapolis at age 17 for a Beatles concert.
“For kids of that era, the early Beatles brought us a joy that helped us put the god-awful depression and shock following the Kennedy assassination behind us. They were the tonic that we so badly needed,” said Allan Mathews, now a Missoula historian.
Romero, born in Billings in 1941, was in the middle of the story-making. His recording of “Hippy Hippy Shake” led to a record deal in California, and he’s been picking, singing and writing ever since.
He and Laverne used to keep a second home in Billings to travel back home to, and Romero said they’re thinking about building or buying another one. Three of his sons and their kids live there as do brothers and sisters.
He’s written between 600 and 700 songs over a variety of genres. In 2007, Romero became the first Latino singer inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has an album, “California Earthquake,” that’s in the late production stages, and Romero recently recorded a country/rockabilly version of “Hippy Hippy Shake” with European recording sensation Zelimir Kulisic.
Romero, a gregarious father of 12, turned 17 the summer he wrote his fateful song. He’d left Billings to spend vacation with relatives in East Los Angeles. Its opening line was inspired by the 1957 Academy Award-winning movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”
“There was that real cute little Oriental girl and she’d get excited and say, ‘For goodness sake!’ I was thinking of that one day and just started writing,” he said.
For goodness sake, I got the hippy hippy shake. I got the shake, the hippy-hippy shake ...
It’s vintage early rock ’n’ roll, years before the idea of “hippies” came into vogue, and Romero figures it took him “probably between 15 and 25 minutes” to write it. When he returned to Billings for school that fall, he started the Beltones.
“Edna Best had a women’s club and she used to hear us practice across from her house on South 25th Street,” Romero recalled. “She asked if we could play for a little fundraiser they were having and we were like, you’ve got to be kidding. We were just learning how to play.”
But the do-wops sounded good to Best. She signed up the new group and the budding Beltones played at the Elks Club. That’s where Chan and Laverne first met.
“From there on we just started getting calls from different kids doing school functions,” he said.
Soon they were traveling around the state and northern Wyoming.
“We used to do some gigs in Missoula,” Romero said. “We did a thing for the high school prom there.”
All these years later, he said, how cool it would be to play Missoula again, this time with Paul McCartney.
“It would be quite a treat, quite a blessing in my life,” Romero said. “Paul and the Beatles have always been one of my favorite groups, and Paul always seemed to be the guy that had so much talent. His vocals and his writing ability have been so strong. It’s amazing to me how talented he is.”
Communications with the McCartney’s management have so far been less than fruitful, said Rajko Tolic, Romero’s booking agent from western Washington. Tolic plans to get to Missoula on Tuesday morning to try to work something out to get Romero on stage.
“It’s going to happen pretty much old-time old-school rock ’n’ roll style,” Tolic said. “Show up, let’s have a soda and let’s discuss this.”
McCartney and his band are well-acquainted with the song. Videos online include a rendition of “Hippy Hippy Shake” he sang in Liverpool, England, in 2008.
“I don’t see a problem with Paul McCartney because he probably would love to do that as a musician,” Tolic added. “But for some reason with these big concert organizations sometimes emails get lost or people forget to contact each other because it’s a lot of work to put a concert together. Sometimes it’s better just to be there and to try to deal with things on the spot.”
McCartney and Romero have never met, “but they’ve known each other since the beginning of the Beatles,” Tolic added. “For 50 years on all kinds of albums Chan Romero’s name is under every single Beatles track” of “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Romero admires the energy the 72-year-old McCartney brings to his performances, who push three hours in length. He’s had similar comments directed his way. And if he does get on stage, he’ll be easy to spot.
“I just turned 73 a week ago Sunday and my grandkids bought me a T-shirt with an old guy in a rocking shirt,” Romero said. “It says ‘Grandpa Rocks’ on the front, so I’ll probably wear that the night of the concert.”
Rory Page of Rock Creek has a special T-shirt herself for the concert. It’s a Beatles shirt –
“not an original” – that she will wear to Washington-Grizzly Stadium with husband Scott and daughter Michelle.
“I hope I’m not going to scream,” Page said. “I don’t really want to embarrass myself.”
That wasn’t an issue 50 years ago, when she was 13 and among the thousands of teens at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles during the Beatles’ first U.S. concert tour. She and they were back again in the same venue in 1965, and at Dodgers Stadium for the Fab Four’s final tour in ’66.
“I remember the Righteous Brothers opened for them one year and Jackie DeShannon another,” Page said. “The Righteous Brothers sang ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,’ which I loved. But I couldn’t tell you one song that the Beatles sang. I screamed. I was jumping up and down. I never sat in my seat, and my friends did basically the same thing.”
“We just couldn’t contain ourselves.”
It’s worth noting, Page said, that her mother tells of the same kind of behavior when she was a teenager at a Frank Sinatra concert.
She liked the Beach Boys and other pop groups of the time, but for them it was a matter of enjoying their music.
“They didn’t seem important,” Page said. “For some reason the Beatles became very important. And for me now it just brings back a ton of memories. If I were to meet Paul I think I would thank him for the experience, for what they gave to the kids.”
The Beatles changed Mathews’ life.
He made the overnight train ride with a high school buddy, a son of the Aberdeen, South Dakota, chief of police. The scene in Minneapolis was “just insane.”
An older brother gave the two boys a ride to Metropolitan Stadium. Planes flew overhead streaming banners that read, “The Beatles are here.”
“For a small-town kid it was pretty exciting,” Mathews said.
Their box seats were right above the dugout on the Minnesota Twins’ baseball field. Their tickets set them each back $5.50.
Before the concert, a maintenance man emerged from the Twins’ locker room with a Polaroid of the Beatles.
“These girls in front of us went nuts and started to climb out over the dugout to get to that picture,” Mathews said. “It was a wild frenzy, and when the Beatles came out it was just crazy. The power they had was amazing. John Lennon could point his guitar at one part of the stadium and thousands of people would jump up. For young guys like that, it must have been mind-blowing to have that power.”
The next day, Mathews bought a cheap guitar before he and a friend boarded the train for Aberdeen. He played it on the long ride home, much to the dismay of his fellow passengers, he said. Soon his hometown had a new rock ’n’ roll band. The Cossacks played at small towns around the region.
“I’m not kidding you they went crazy,” he said. “The girls in the small towns … it was scary. Their boyfriends all wanted to beat us up.”
The Cossacks played for a few years, and Mathews still strums the guitar, for his own pleasure and once a year at the Northside party in Missoula.
“As we grew, the Beatles grew, with their music becoming more sophisticated and topical,” Mathews reflected. “They were changing with every album and their music reflected the times.”