En español | "It doesn't really matter what clothes I wear," sings George Harrison in "Only a Northern Song," his self-penned track from the Beatles' 1969 album Yellow Submarine.
Beatles memorabilia collector Russ Lease respectfully — and most appreciatively — disagrees.
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The 54-year-old Maryland resident owns hundreds of Beatles-related items, including Ringo Starr's front-logo bass drumhead from The Ed Sullivan Show appearances in February 1964 and stage suits worn by the Fab Four during their world-conquering heyday from 1962 to 1970. His investments have multiplied as much as tenfold over the years — auction houses estimate the drumhead to be worth in the mid six figures today. In addition, Lease, who has more than 25 years experience in men's retail clothing and manufacturing, was inspired to start a business that makes replicas of the iconic suits in all different sizes for tribute bands and fans alike.
A first-generation Beatles fan himself, Lease began collecting in the mid-1970s. One of his earliest finds was sheet music for "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," autographed by John Lennon. After buying one of Lennon's guitar picks, he was taken off guard when another collector offered to purchase it a few months later for quadruple what he had paid. "I knew I was on to something," he says with a smile.
Some of the unique items Lease owns include a Mersey Beat music newspaper from January 1962 declaring the Beatles (with then-drummer Pete Best) as "Best Liverpool Band"; a lock of Lennon's hair and accompanying autograph ("Love from ‘bald' John Lennon") from 1963; pieces of artwork by Stuart Sutcliffe, who was in the band from 1959 to 1961; a pair of Lennon's trademark circular glasses from 1967; four sets of four Beatles signatures in which each member forged the other three's names; and a June 1963 telegram from Lennon to Liverpool's Cavern Club announcer Bob Wooler, apologizing for punching Wooler in the face during an argument on Paul McCartney's 21st birthday.
‘Suit you just fine'
The four lads from Liverpool were not only rock 'n' roll royalty in the 1960s, they were also sartorial trendsetters — transforming from clean-cut mods with mop-top haircuts and tailored, collarless suits in their early days to bearded hippies wearing Indian-inspired apparel and brightly colored paisley, striped and floral patterns on their shirts, bell-bottoms and costumes by decade's end.
In his 2001 book, A&E Biography: The Beatles (Lerner Publications), author Jeremy Roberts writes: "Discussions on a variety of topics — beginning with the length of boys' hair — pitted parents against teenagers. … The Beatles were at the center of this youthful rebellion. They grew their hair even longer than before and grew mustaches and beards. They began to experiment with illegal drugs and Eastern religions. John Lennon became an outspoken advocate of peace. … Millions of young fans followed the band members' lead, experimenting with new ideas and new fashions."
Combining his passion for collecting with his retail, design and manufacturing background, Lease launched his clothing business, R.W. Lease Ltd. (Beatlesuits.com), in 2002. Before that, his older brother, Rick, and he had owned a menswear store in Maryland from 1977 to 2001. "Over the years, I had met many tribute bands who said they were having trouble finding authentic-looking clothes in vintage stores. So I realized that there would be a market," he says.
Among the Beatles' original apparel that he owns (or once owned) and makes "near-stitch-for-stitch" copies of are:
- McCartney's tan military-style jacket and gold-star badge from the Aug. 15, 1965, Shea Stadium concert in Queens, N.Y. Members of the Wells Fargo security team, who drove the band to the venue, presented the Beatles with deputy stars. After finding the original button maker in Italy, Lease had the company create his buttons using a mold cast of one from McCartney's coat.
- Starr's long black Edwardian-style "crosswalk" jacket from the Abbey Road album cover in 1969. Harrison liked Starr's coat so much that he had one custom-made, too, Lease says. Both men wore their jackets to the world premiere of the Yellow Submarine movie on July 17, 1968, and Harrison can be seen wearing his on the front and back cover photos of 1970's Hey Jude album.
- Lennon's silver-gray collarless suit from 1962 by London's D.A. Millings & Son. Shortly before the young men hit it big in England, their manager, Brian Epstein, persuaded them to change their rocker look (black leather jackets, blue jeans and greased-back pompadour hairstyles) to a more polished appearance. Contacted by Yoko Ono's people, Lease sold the original suit back to Lennon's second wife in 2006. "It felt like the right thing to do ... for sentimental reasons."
Wanting to expand his product line and offer Beatles clothing that he doesn't own, Lease contacted other collectors and was granted access to measure and photograph their originals. Four more pieces that he created patterns for are:
- Lennon's black Chesterfield suit with velvet collar from the historic Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. More than 73 million people — about 40 percent of the country's population then — watched the Beatles' live American debut at CBS Studios in New York. "You don't necessarily recognize it as the suit the Beatles wore when they first came to the U.S," Lease says. "Classic tailoring never goes out of style. You can dress it up for a black-tie affair."
- Lennon's brown suede jacket from the Rubber Soul album cover in 1965. Lennon was photographed wearing it on tour, at news conferences and at Abbey Road recording sessions, according to Lease.
- Lennon's silver-gray sharkskin suit from 1964's A Hard Day's Night movie. He also wore it at the Washington Coliseum show on Feb. 11, Carnegie Hall on Feb. 12 and The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 16.
- The black suit with double-breasted coat and green taffeta lapel inserts from 1966. The Beatles wore this suit for their final concerts at San Francisco's Candlestick Park and Tokyo's Nippon Budokan Hall. Lease created the pattern for this suit from photos.
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'A crowd of people stood and stared'
Lease has sold his clothing to tribute bands in the United States, Japan, England, France, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands and other countries.
The band RAIN is performing its A Tribute to the Beatles show on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre through Jan. 9, and will be wearing Lease's "Sullivan Show" suits and "Shea Stadium" jackets on stage. Steve Landes, who portrays John Lennon, admires "Russ's never-ending search for perfecting his reproduction pieces.” “That love for what he does is why the finished product is so spot-on. ... I appreciate that eye for detail," Landes says.
Ardy Sarraf portrays McCartney in The Fab Four:The Ultimate Tribute, a California-based band. His bandmates and he have bought the "Sullivan Show" and "Budokan" suits and the "Shea Stadium" and "crosswalk" jackets. For Lennon's 70th birthday on Oct. 9, the band performed a special show of Lennon songs at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles. "The suits help me get into character," Sarraf says. "Part of what we do is acting, and Russ's Beatles clothing takes you back to the time period and gets you motivated to go out and play."
"As it's turned out, only about 35 percent of my business today is tribute bands, and the other 65 percent are regular people,” Lease says.
Mark Lindamood, 55, of Washington, D.C., wore the "crosswalk" jacket during his wedding to his wife, Iris, on May 8. "It's a smart-looking and comfortable frock coat," he says. The gray-haired Lindamood, an editor for a Defense Department think tank, is the drummer for a local tribute band called The Apple Core. "We don't try to look like the Beatles did in their 20s. I can't imagine myself in a black mop-top wig at my age," he says, laughing. "It's all about paying homage to their music."
Lease attends about six trade shows and conventions each year, such as the annual Fest for Beatles Fans in New York in March/April, Beatle Week in Liverpool in August, and the first annual Abbey Road on the River festival in Washington, D.C., this past Labor Day weekend. In addition, he has written several articles for music trade publications, such as the Toronto-based Beatlology magazine. Since the mid-1990s, he's worked as a consultant for several auction houses, including Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's.
‘Keeps calling me back again'
"Although I was only 7, I remember that first Ed Sullivan Show like it was yesterday," Lease says. Every Sunday, he watched the popular variety program with his family — mom Peggy, dad Ben and sister Peg — in the living room of their Linthicum, Md., home. "I didn't know who the Beatles were, but Peg, who's 10 years older, told me about them beforehand. Immediately, I was mesmerized."
His family today includes his wife, Becky, and sons Charlie, 24, Ben, 20, and James, 17. He says his three sons are only casual Beatles fans, but they know a lot of the tunes and lyrics from his playing their music in the car and around the house.
"Every time I replay those Sullivan Show episodes on my DVD player, it's just as exciting for me. I think you had to have lived through Beatlemania the first time around to understand the passion and fervor," he says. "I had no idea this hobby of mine would turn into a full-time business when I got that initial autograph. The fact that I can make a living at something I love is icing on the cake.
"I can't imagine a world without the Beatles."