Storm Clouds a-Comin’
Ah, to be young again and relive those treasured moments from one’s past!
One such moment — indeed, one of the more pleasurable experiences I can recall from my youth growing up in the Soundview section of the Bronx — was the first time I laid eyes on the Beatles, live and in the comfort of our parents’ living room.
That took place, of course, on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on the CBS Television Network. The performance was broadcast “coast to coast” on February 9, 1964, not three months after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, another of those life-altering events that, frankly speaking, was not so pleasant. When the nation needed a lift, however, the Beatles’ initial U.S. tour did exactly that.
My family and I also bore witness to the Mop Tops’ mammoth Shea Stadium concert, broadcast live as well on August 15, 1965. If the Beatles could impress my Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian-born parents, then their future in our home was secure. No doubt the gathering storm had turned into a veritable tornado.
By that time, the Fab Four’s music and exuberant personalities had exploded across the globe and onto every continent — even in Brazil, the country of my birth, where the group’s recorded output went on to make an immediate and enduring impact. Not only was their sound a fixture in every record shop, but in the way people dressed, in the way they wore their hair, the way they talked, the way they walked, and especially how their music was played.
How could that be? The Beatles didn’t sing their tunes in Brazilian Portuguese but in the Queen’s English. Back in the group’s Hamburg days, when German-language versions of their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were all the rage, the boys used to feature the Mexican pop ballad “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss Me A Lot”) as part of their act. Paul even got to record the number in June 1962 during the band’s ill-fated relationship with Decca records. It also turned up in their later January 1969 “Get Back” sessions (released on Beatles Anthology 1 in 1995) and as part of the Let It Be film.
In spite of this backdrop, many Brazilian and/or Argentine artists, including (but not limited to) Roberto Carlos, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, the Beat Boys, Erasmo Carlos, Milton Nascimento and others, took the Lads from Liverpool as their guiding lights.
A notable example of the above was a young performer named Ronnie Von (born Ronaldo Nogueira), a 23-year-old singer-turned-actor who, in 1966, introduced the Beatle’s Dylanesque “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on Agnaldo Rayol’s TV show, then a year later sang John Lennon’s “Girl” on the live Sunday afternoon program Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”). The song was translated into Portuguese and retitled “Meu Bem” (“My Beloved”) for the Brazilian market.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t Von’s wisp of a singing voice that served as the main attraction, but his oh-so-bashful looks that seemed to “mow the crowd down,” so to speak. The dreamboat Ronnie would shyly croon the number with forelock hanging precariously over one side of his face. He barely managed to get the lyrics out (in truth, he edged ever closer to incoherence), which endeared him even more to the female members of the audience.
It was obvious from this milestone performance that Ronnie Von had connected with Brazilian youth by virtue of the Beatle’s music. And it seemed equally evident that the British invasion had hit South American shores about as hard as it did the North American variety.
So when and how did their music and reputation affect me personally?
Public School Daze
I was all of 11 or 12 years of age and living in the Bronx when Beatlemania had been on the scene for several seasons. What I heard on the radio, and from what most of the kids at school had told me, was that the group’s tunes had become the Number One pop hits in the land. Soon afterward, one of those hits had smacked me right between the eyes (and in the pit of my stomach) at, of all places, our public school’s auditorium.
Yes, that’s correct, at Public School 77 in the South Central Bronx, located on East 172 Street between Ward and Manor Avenues. My family had already taken up residence at nearby Stratford Avenue, about a two or three block walk from the school.
As near as I can remember, P.S. 77 had what was known as “assembly day,” which normally occurred every Friday morning (at least, that’s when our school held it). On those days, all the school kids had to be dressed in white shirts or blouses, blue pants and skirts, and red ties or kerchiefs. (Note the colors, symbolic of the American flag). That was a requirement — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you forgot to bring your tie, one of the teachers would pull out a clip-on from his or her desk. If you failed to wear a white shirt or blouse (or blue pants and skirt), you were sent home with a note to your parents which stipulated, in no uncertain terms, that you could not return to class until you were properly dressed. Try doing THAT today!
I was in the sixth grade at that point, so this particular assembly day must have taken place sometime between the months of September 1965 and June 1966. I don’t believe it happened in the fall, but it wasn’t in the winter either (I have no recollection of having to wear a coat to school that day). So I’ll take a wild guess and say the assembly in question must have occurred around the spring of 1966.
In prior assemblies, we students were privileged to have seen a number of programs: from puppet shows (I remember a colorful presentation of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale), a chamber orchestra, magicians, and short educational or animated features (of the “Don’t Do This or You’ll Be Sorry” type) showing the hazards of smoking or playing with matches, along with public service announcements about hurricanes and such — something we hardly ever experienced in the Bronx, at least not at that time.
On that specific assembly day, we were treated to a talent show. Kids from some of the lower and upper grades performed their acts on the school’s stage. My memory is a bit fuzzy as to what the majority of students did that day. However, one group REALLY got my attention, and the attention of everyone present.
Three boys roughly my age, from either the fifth or sixth grade (neither of them were in my class, by the way), took it upon themselves to form a singing group. The tallest of the boys, Ronald Naso (we called him Ronnie), stood in the middle and played an acoustic guitar. The other two boys, Joseph Pavone and David Diaz, flanked Ronnie on either side. After a brief pause, Ronnie looked about and started strumming the guitar as all three boys chimed in at once:
Last night I said these words to my girl
I know you never even try girl
Come on (come on), come on (come on)
Come on (come on), come on (come on)
Please, please me, whoa yeah, like I please you
It was the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me,” from the group’s first UK album of the same name (the song was released as a single in both the U.S. and the UK in early 1963). Reliving that moment in my mind’s eye, I am unable to recollect, for the life of me, what exactly went through my head. Surprise, I suppose, or maybe shock. Quite feasibly, I might have been stunned beyond belief. A fleeting lapse of consciousness took hold, and of numbness — about as apt a description as any.
But saying I was oblivious to the event, as it was happening in front of me, isn’t quite accurate, either. All of us, including our teachers, had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to belabor the point and state the obvious; that is, to spew forth tiresome clichés about how the three boys had wowed the student audience (which they did — girls screaming, lots of yelling, vigorous cheers and applause).
I couldn’t begin to capture the exuberance if I tried, or the sense of excitement and discovery we collectively experienced concerning what we had heard. It must have been a magical moment, otherwise I would have wiped it from my memory. After it was over, there was chatter galore from the student audience as to who they liked the most. And, best of all, their names — Ronnie, Joseph and David — started circulating among the crowd. Within a day, the youngsters had turned into celebrities.
As I write this, I’m struggling to decipher what made these boys stand out from the other so-called talents. It might have been the simple fact that each of them bore a passing resemblance to the Fab Four. Yes, that must be it! As a matter of fact, dark-eyed Ronnie was a dead ringer for hazel-eyed Paul (tousled hair over his forehead and all); blue-eyed Joseph actually “looked” like bashful George (except for his short haircut); and hook-nosed David could easily have passed for a hook-nosed John (despite David’s dirty-blond locks).
Was it my imagination? Had I subconsciously associated their physical aspects with my burgeoning affection for the Beatles and their tunes? I really couldn’t say. Well, then, how did they sound? Did the tone and timbre of their voices add or detract from the image I had inadvertently formed in my head?
Here’s the answer: Ronnie, Joseph and David excelled in three-part harmony, and, to tell you the truth, all three of them sang in tune. They did take the number a beat or two slower than the original, but considering the ad hoc nature of the circumstances they made “Please, Please Me” succeed in their favor. Like the title of that 1965 Beatles’ hit, they had worked it out.
But hold on a minute! Where was “Ringo”? I couldn’t help noticing that the trio needed a fourth member to complete the picture. If their idea was to mimic the Fab Four, the boys had come up short. I began to imagine that I could be the one to fill the drummer’s shoes (I don’t know WHY I thought that, since I couldn’t play the drum to save my life). All I remember was seeing myself joining the boys on stage and singing along with this terrific trio. By doing so, I could (hopefully) transform this motley crew into that fabulous foursome.
Fat chance of that happening! For one, I was much too shy at the time and much too self-conscious about getting up on a stage and warbling my amateurish way into a song — any song! “Please, Please Me,” my butt! For another, there was no way I would have had the chutzpah to do what those brave public-school lads had done. Kudos to them for trying, though. They had more courage than I could ever muster.
Beatlemania or Bust!
It was shortly after this occurrence that I sent away for a Beatles songbook. I must have torn apart that songbook every which way. Along with the lyrics and sheet music to all their hits (up to and including the year 1965, if I’m not mistaken), the songbook was filled to the brim with photos and mementos of the Mop Tops’ concerts — in other words, a Beatlemaniac’s dream! I even started wearing my hair long in a Beatle-like manner. Well, if you can’t join them, be them!
Between 1965 and 1967, my obsession with the Beatles peaked with the television debut of a syndicated cartoon series on ABC: The Beatles half-hour TV program solidified my love for their music, with each of the two individual segments devoted to one of the group’s songs. I owe my knowledge of their song lyrics to this Saturday morning showcase and to my trusty songbook. But my fandom did not end there.
There was one winter when I begged my mother to buy a purple Navy CPO jacket, just like the one the Beatles used to wear in their Sgt. Pepper period. It was a hideous thing, made of heavy wool with rows of brass buttons and shoulder epaulets. It was hot as hell, too. I wore it once to school and even tried dancing in it, sweating profusely with every arm movement (somehow, I survived the ordeal). Along with the CPO jacket came a matching 1960s long-sleeved blue shirt with super-wide collar and bright-yellow polka dots. Trashy and kitsch, it too was a one-shot deal. Both articles of clothing hung in my closet for years before mom convinced me to toss them out (oh, the pain).
So much for Mod fashions from Carnaby Street!
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
As these stories tend to go, a short time later Ronnie and Joseph found their way to one of my classes. Coincidentally, we all wound up going to the same junior high school (or middle school, as they’re called in some regions): to be precise, James M. Kieran Junior High School 123.
While at Kieran, I got to know both of them quite well. Ronald Naso lived a few blocks from the school, and we would often get together afterwards to play touch football. We’d chat about the latest James Bond flick and, of course, the Beatles. Instead of practicing how to conjugate the verb “to be” in French class, Ronnie and I would bounce song lyrics off one another, for instance, from John Lennon’s heartfelt “If I Fell in Love With You.”
Joseph Pavone and I went on to attend James Monroe High School (no longer in existence). Joe even went to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I, too, had graduated from. I never did get to know David Diaz, though, since he must have moved out from our old neighborhood some years before.
Needless to say, neither Joseph Pavone nor Ronald Naso (nor I, for that matter) developed into a performing artist of any renown. Years later, I ran into Ronnie at an outdoor basketball court. He had grown bigger, and had also filled out some. I did manage to keep in touch with Joe for a while after graduation from Fordham. Last I heard, he was working for the Metro North rail system. They both must be retired by now, David included.
The Beatles’ Brazilian influence continued, however. In 1969, pop singer Milton Nascimento, along with lyricist and friend Fernando Brant and the brothers Marcio and Lô Borges, wrote an offbeat number dedicated to John and Paul. They called it “Para Lennon e McCartney” (“To Lennon and McCartney”).
The song is in the form of a “challenge” to the British duo, sort of a question and answer session where Milton attempts to “educate” both Lennon and McCartney about what’s going on in the world (a few years before Marvin Gaye’s attempt). That he, Milton, is a native of South America, from the State of Minas Gerais. So why are they not familiar with the problems relating to the West? Why do they feign ignorance of Third World issues, their being from the First World? Their visibility as artists should place them in the unique position of addressing social injustice. Still, they have nothing to fear from him, Milton assures them, for he’s also one of their own.
The high literary quotient and elevated quality of the lyrics make “Para Lennon e McCartney” one of Milton, Brant and Borges’ most memorable song structures.
More recently, in January 2008 (and for several years thereafter) the Rio-based musical theater team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho brought to life a song-filled spectacular in honor of the Fab Four. They called their revue “Beatles in the Sky With Diamonds.” With a cast of 11 singing actors, accompanied by piano, cello and percussion, Charles and Claudio led audiences through a magical mystery tour of the group’s output, to include “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Help!”, “Get Back,” “Because,” and various other novelties.
Which brings me back to present-day matters. Whatever became of the so-called “Brazilian Beatle,” Ronnie Von? He’s still alive and kicking! Currently at age 75, Ronnie Von had been a fixture at São Paulo-based TV Gazeta since 2004 as a singer-host and presenter. Unfortunately, Ronnie was fired last July 2019 by the station due to budget cuts and alleged low ratings, but vowed to come back to live television. Supposedly, within hours of the announcement of his firing, Von received a proposal for a new show to debut in 2020.
In the wise words of the Lads from Liverpool:
Any time at all
Any time at all
Any time at all
All you gotta do is call
And I’ll be there!
Beatlemania dies slowly.
Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes