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Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Friends Reprise Beatles Hits for CBS Special

CBS Beatles Tribute Paul Ringo - H 2014
Cliff Lipson/CBS
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr

Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Pharrell, Imagine Dragons, Dave Grohl, a reunited Eurythmics and more filled the L.A. Convention Center to celebrate the Fab Four’s fiftieth, airing Feb. 9 on CBS.

It’s been said that all the world’s a Beatles tribute act – it was just said here, anyway – and that was certainly the case Monday at the L.A. Convention Center, with stars of both the boomer and millennial generations paying homage to the Fab Four’s fiftieth. Those musically bowing to the Beatles at the CBS taping of The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles included Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Imagine Dragons, a reunited Eurythmics and, as teased, a reunited Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

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During a break in the three-and-a-half hour taping -- set to be condensed to a two-hour network slot airing Feb. 9 on CBS -- Grammy telecast big-wig Ken Ehrlich confessed that he'd tried to pull this off for the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show… and, obviously, failed. Seeming to react to that when his turn came up later, McCartney said that he never felt it was "seemly to tribute yourself," but added that when the pitch came persuasively around again, "we thought it was time we showed up."

The question for Beatlemaniacs came down to just what surviving members Paul and Ringo would be able to do on stage that allowed them to interact naturally, since the group’s catalog obviously doesn’t include any duets by the rhythm section. The answer was inevitable for some, a gleeful shock for others: As soon as McCartney launched into "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," it became clear that he really would introduce the actual "Billy Shears" on stage for the first time in history, and Starr walking out as the music segued into "With a Little Help From My Friends" offered the evening’s biggest charge, even though we’d seen plenty of both of them prior to that. 

The other ballyhooed "come together" moment of the night belonged to Eurythmics. Annie Lennox hasn’t even appeared much in public in recent years as a solo artist, much less with old compadre Dave Stewart, so there was electricity to be found as she sat at a piano in the world’s shiniest silver gown and launched into "Fool on the Hill." Hers was the evening's least slick performance, but Lennox’s manic intensity and crazed eyes were altogether appropriate as she turned McCartney’s tune even more into a paean to passion. Visually, at least, Stewart seemed to be there mostly as a prop, however much he might’ve had to do with the arrangement — but it still represented a seeming rapprochement almost as compelling as Paul and Yoko Ono’s.

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Maroon 5 opened the show in skinny ties and Beatlesuits, their chameleon-like tendencies coming in handy for a couple of expert, picture-perfect, anonymous recreations of tunes made famous in the Sullivan appearances. Ed Sheeran gave "In My Life" a sensitive if not especially memorable treatment, while Katy Perry, in a floor-length kimono, also went the balladic route with a similarly proficient "Yesterday."

In what is sure to be the telecast’s only real controversial moment for Beatles fans over 40, "Revolution" was turned into a perfectly pleasant, all-acoustic hootenanny by Imagine Dragons, the rock group least historically likely to ever carry a picture of chairman Mao Zedong.

Pairings? This was a Grammy addendum event, so there would be pairings. Oddest of the couples: fellow "hat acts" Brad Paisley and Pharrell Williams. You have to love ‘em both, if you have any taste at all, but whatever convinced producers that they would gel together on "Here Comes the Sun" never quite came into evidence. And, although they were well-matched together, John Mayer and Keith Urban were no match for "Don’t Let Me Down," at least until the vocal harmonies gave way to the twin guitar heroics. (It may play better on TV, where, presumably, viewers won’t just have seen riveting footage of the Beatles’ 1969 rooftop version, the way live attendees did.)

Alicia Keys and John Legend, on the other hand, proved ideal foils for "Let It Be," facing each other at matching pianos. Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne gave "Hey Bulldog" all the gruff charm it deserved (although they refrained from repeating any of the Beatles’ climactic barking). Lynne joined up on "Something" with Joe Walsh and the sole Beatlekid to take the stage, a low-key Dhani Harrison

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was as much homage to Eric Clapton as George Harrison, of course; although Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. recreated Clapton’s solo almost note for note, the radical difference in their guitar tones made it a fascinating exercise anyway, and Grohl returning to thrash this one out on drums made sure it didn’t live up the gentility of the title.

Hands-down highlight, with apologies to any actual Fabs who followed: Stevie Wonder busting out the clavinet for a funked-up "We Can Work It Out," which also made solid use of the otherwise fairly subliminal female backup singers. When Wonder said he’d messed it up and asked if he could do it a second time, the audience responded as if they’d just been asked if their favorite movie star could make love with them again.

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The separate mini-sets that followed from Starr and McCartney didn’t offer any surprises for anyone who’s seen either of them on tour in recent years, but if you can resist the lure of Ringo both singing and playing drums on an oldie as ancient as "Boys," you’re a better skiffle resister than most. McCartney performed "Birthday" as a 50th-birthday song; birthdays, anniversaries, whatever the excuse, Tom Hanks, Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, and the rest of the attendees on hand would take it.

Following the Sgt. Pepper medley, Starr moved back to the drums -- accompanied by a second drummer, as he always has been at post-Beatles appearances -- for the closing "Hey Jude"… joined by the Cirque du Soleil aerialists, doing their own tribute to Pink. (Kidding.) There was no Sullivan-style hysteria among the crowd, if you don’t count the minor sniffles of boomers being pounced upon by bouncers every time they tried dare raise a smartphone for a snapshot. But we were all shrieking, skirt-wringing, and pulling our hair out in clumps on the inside.

Set list:

All My Loving(partial) – Maroon 5
Ticket to Ride – Maroon 5
Don’t Let Me Down – John Mayer and Keith Urban
In My Life – Ed Sheeran
Let It Be – Alicia Keys and John Legend
Revolution – Imagine Dragons
Yesterday – Katy Perry
Fool on the Hill – Eurythmics
Here Comes the Sun – Brad Paisley and Pharrell Williams
Hey Bulldog – Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne
Something – Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh, and Dhani Harrison
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr., and Dave Grohl
We Can Work It Out – Stevie Wonder
Matchbox – Ringo Starr
Boys – Ringo Starr
Yellow Submarine – Ringo Starr
Magical Mystery Tour – Paul McCartney
Birthday – Paul McCartney
Get Back – Paul McCartney
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help From My Friends – Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
Hey Jude – Paul McCartney (with Starr on drums)