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Black Jacket Symphony makes Abbey Road magic in Birmingham

by Jude Southerland Kessler, author of Shoulda Been There

No, it wasn't The Beatles and no, it wasn't Birmingham, England. But if you hadn't been told, you wouldn't have known. It just felt real.

It was one of those nights when I was proud to be a writer -- thrilled to have been invited to come sell copies of my book, Shoulda Been There, in a venue lobby as part of an incredible event. Because of my little corner of the Beatles world, I had been given the rare opportunity (and Einstein said it couldn't be done) to travel back in time.

This was Birmingham, Alabama's WorkPlay Theater last night at 7:30 p.m., a venue packed to capacity with teens, young professionals, and tons of Baby Boomers all waiting to hear Black Jacket Symphony's faithful rendering ("note for note," the advertisement promised) of "Abbey Road." The faithful gathered in a wide assortment of Beatles t-shirts, trendy jeans topped with expensive jackets, retro bell bottoms and big earrings, and every variety of cell phone accessories (all busy photographing) to hear the famous Birmingham-based group bring The Beatles back to life. The room, a dark, concrete and stone room with layers of smoke (professionally generated by machine) was so very Cavern Club. There was a smattering of tables, a handful of chairs, but the bulk of the 300 people who filled the room stood, nursing drinks and staring in great hopes at the stage... waiting for magic.

Yes, there were some obvious differences from The Cavern. The loss of the close arches, of course. This building was two-story, and the overhang where I stood reminded me of that scene in some early Beatles video (Ready, Steady, Go perhaps?) where an all too enthusiastic, skinny boy hangs out over the railing and claps wildly to the music! As I waited for the first notes to sound, I shared that long-ago teen's excitement. This was great!

The mammoth mixer directly below me was not Cavern fare. It was the stuff of concerts. And the jumbo screen above the stage revealed a photograph of Abbey Road's zebra, minus The Beatles. But everything else was pretty darn authentic. Stone walls, dark room, antsy punters, smart remarks and whispers about The Fabulous ones.

And then the music began.

J. Willoughby (band leader, and lead vocalist on most songs) started the familiar, nasal "Shhhhhooooop" of "Come Together." The crowd drew a collective breath, waiting to pass judgement. But in seconds, they exhaled, happy. The Black Jacket Symphony rocked.

J. Willoughby is the son of deejay "John Ed." He was the radio partner of the man who started the who Jesus controversy in America... the two D.J.'s worked at a radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, and got the Datebook article... and released it on air. Sadly, that started the Beatle burns across the nation.

J. has spent his career recapturing the essence of The Beatles, and he and his dad have been to Liverpool. John Ed is still a huge Beatles fan. When I asked J. if his dad had remorse about how John was crucified over the incident that his partner, Tommy, precipitated, J. wrote this back to me:

"Truth is, it was kind of the "butterfly effect". I'm not real sure if Tommy was ever really sure what John Lennon said. It was a radio bit gone berserk."

This evening, it took eight band members (joined on some songs, like "Because," by a choir-robed chorus) to pull off what the four Beatles did by only themselves -- and yes, the supremely talented George Martin. But strength in numbers took the day, and when the band stepped up to the mike, they won the audience over immediately.

Damon Johnson

Vannie Warren on drums was Merseyside perfect. He had that "half on the rim, half on the drum double-tat sound" that is so Liverpool. And when he sang, "Octopus's Garden," he did Ring proud and then some! Jay Johnson, on what appeared to be a heavy, late 60's P bass, did honor to Paul. And Joel Buchillon (who admitted to the crowd later in a jam session), "I'm having so much fun here!" was expert on keyboards. As were guitarists and sometime vocalists, Brad Wolfe, Damon Johnson, and Marc Phillips. And over in the far back corner, Dannie Warren (Vannie's twin) ripped his guts out with sound effects. He was a maniac.

The result was, indeed, the magic that the crowd had hoped for, anticipated. Each song (except "Because" which is beyond even the best of groups) was pretty much letter-perfect. A couple of times, Willoughby forgot the words to a verse or two, but hey... that is John Lennon all day long. It only added to the reality of it all.

But that wasn't all. No, that wasn't all. After recreating "Abbey Road," (both sides, with no break) in its entirety, the group took a brief intermission and then tackled an assortment of crowd favorites. From "Revolution," to "The Ballad of John and Yoko," (there were lots of McCartney tunes as well), BJS brought down the house. People were dancing where they stood, cheering, whooping, and having the time of their imagined lives. (It was, after all, a chance to see "the lads" again.)

No, Black Jacket Symphony doesn't look a bit like The Beatles. They don't begin to try.

But what they offered the Birmingham group last night was pure, superb Beatles music. And you know that can't be bad.

Jude Southerland Kessler is the author of Shoulda Been There, the first volume in the only documented, historically accurate novel about the life of John Lennon. For more information, visit Jude at

Published May 29, 2009

This article is Copyright © 2009, Jude Southerland Kessler, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission

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