Paul McCartney introduced Sgt. Peppercorn's Marathon. Here's how it happened.
For 10 years now, Joe Peppercorn has led a band of his friends in one of the most impressive and ambitious musical feats in the city: playing every Beatles song in chronological order in one daylong performance.
Each year, the show gets bigger and better. But nothing could have prepared Peppercorn and friends for what would happen in the marathon’s 10th year. This is the year the band was introduced by a real Beatle.
“Hey, hi everyone! Welcome to the Beatles Marathon!” said Paul McCartney, seated in a studio wearing a white sweatshirt and holding an acoustic guitar in a pre-recorded video that was shown on a screen at the Bluestone on Saturday, Dec. 21, to kick off the event around 12:15 p.m.
“Hey, Amy. I got your letter. Thanks very much. And hey band,” Sir Paul continued, waving to the musicians. “OK, guys. Um, I think it’s a great idea. I wish you good luck and good stamina. The marathon is about to begin, and I’m about to kick you off with our first recording, and then you’ve got to carry on. Forever and ever and ever.”
And then, Paul friggin' McCartney starts the marathon, strumming his guitar and singing, “Love, love me do. You know I love you…. Carry on!” before giving a double thumbs up and waving goodbye.
So how did this happen? Who’s Amy? And what is the letter Paul mentions?
“I am absolutely in love with the Beatles Marathon,” said Amy James, seated next to husband Eric James on a recent afternoon in a Downtown coffee shop. “I have pure admiration for these guys. We go home and listen to our Beatles albums for weeks afterwards. ... It's become my favorite day of the year.”
James, whose dogs are named Ringo and George, attended her first marathon in 2013, and from then on she was hooked, arriving at the Bluestone two hours before opening to guarantee herself and Eric a seat. “One year they put a heater out there for us,” she said.
And while she was blown away by the musicianship and the physical feat of playing well over 200 songs — many of which the Beatles never performed live — she couldn’t help but notice that something was missing on “A Hard Day’s Night”: cowbell.
“I remember clanking my glass, thinking, ‘They really missed out on the cowbell hits here,’” James said. “So last year before the show, I sent Joe an email saying, ‘Listen, this is by no means a criticism. You guys are amazing. The show you put on — everybody loves it. But I can't help but notice you don't have a cowbell in ‘A Hard Day's Night.’ So if you need somebody to play, I’m your girl.’”
One time Ira Glass told me he liked one of my stories, which is pretty much the same as this whole Paul McCartney thing: Sign up for our daily newsletter
“I get a lot of messages from people who want to play,” Peppercorn said, though usually it’s someone who wants to come onstage and sing “Hey Jude.” “She was the first one to reach out and be like, ‘There's this little detail that you don't have.’ … Her letter was so humble and nice. She really got it.”
Peppercorn invited James to come onstage to play cowbell and also to sing “I Should Have Known Better” with him at the 2018 show, which she did. “It was one of the best days of my life,” James said.
Afterward, Eric turned to Amy and asked, “Do you think anybody’s tried to reach out to any of the remaining Beatles?” It lit a fire under Amy, so she began earnestly crafting a letter inviting two Beatles to the 2019 marathon.
“Sir Paul and Sir Ringo,” she wrote, “I’m writing to you with excitement to tell you about a very special group of people and their beloved community event that so many of us in Columbus, Ohio hold near and dear to our hearts. And, it all revolves around The Beatles.”
She went on to talk about the event for a page and a half (single spaced), describing how it’s not a typical covers show, how it’s also a tribute to the late CD102.5 DJ Andyman, and how she’s not sure how many years this collective can keep doing a show like this. “It’s hands-down a musical feat and thirteen hours of musical euphoria,” she wrote in closing. “I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
Writing the letter was one thing. But getting it in the hands of a Beatle? That’s a tall order. James, though, approached it like any other task. She reached out to a Youngstown friend from high school, Joel Kendall, who spent time working in the music industry in New York City. “I know it’s a long shot,” she wrote in a Facebook message to Kendall, “but I’m wondering if any of your music connections could get in contact with Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr? I’m trying to get information to them about a special event here in Columbus.”
“Yeah I talk with Paul all the time,” Kendall deadpanned. “Let me give him a ring.”
Sarcasm aside, Kendall obliged, sending along a couple of email addresses for contacts at DawBell, an agency that represents McCartney and a bunch of other big names. “Amy you should know whatever you want from them is a 0.999999% chance,” Kendall wrote.
Undeterred, James reached out to DawBell’s Stuart Bell on Jan. 7 with the email subject, “Need to get a letter to Sir Paul.” Bell responded, thanking her for the letter while also diplomatically telling her not to expect anything. “I’m sure you can imagine Paul’s offices around the world receive thousands of letters, emails and requests each month,” he wrote. “I’m afraid it’s just impossible for Paul to see everything. We can pass this on to Paul’s office but there is no guarantee that he will see it.”
Then, on Feb. 1, Amy saw another reply to her email in her inbox, and this time it came from McCartney’s office. “Hi Amy,” it read, “Stu kindly sent your e-mail to us, and Paul has read your letter and in response recorded a short video for you.” Below was a Dropbox link to the 40-second video. (The email also gave instructions regarding the video’s usage, including not uploading it to social media.)
“You know that feeling where you instantly have to pee your pants?” said James, who called Eric, and then her mom. “She thought something was wrong; I was so hysterical,” Amy said. “Then I watched it about a hundred thousand times since.”
Eric and Amy wanted to do something more than just forward the email to Peppercorn, so they asked if they could meet him at Little Rock Bar one evening while he was bartending to show him something. “It involves a real Beatle,” Amy wrote.
The Jameses brought a laptop and headphones to the bar, where Peppercorn’s Beatles bandmates Phil Cogley (also of the Saturday Giant) and Quinn Fallon (owner of Little Rock) happened to be, and played the video for them. Peppercorn was dumbfounded, utterly speechless.
“I still can't wrap my head around it,” Peppercorn said. “On the one hand, I feel like, OK, don't get too carried away. But on the other hand, to have Paul know that we're doing this is surreal. And he says, ‘I think it's a great idea.’ I'm like, ‘That was my idea!’ I was at my kitchen counter in Grandview, thought of this thing, and then nine years later Paul McCartney is like, ‘I think that's a great idea.’”
The video added an interesting wrinkle to the naming of the marathon, too. Even though Peppercorn changed the name from the Beatles Marathon to Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon a few years ago to avoid any potential copyright infringement, in the video, McCartney calls it “the Beatles Marathon.” For now, though, Peppercorn is inclined to keep the revised name just to be safe.
Other than showing the video to bandmates, family and close friends (and the occasional Alive reporters), Peppercorn, who said he has the video memorized at this point, kept the Paul news under wraps until the 2019 performance, which has given him nearly a year to think about the video and the show and what it all means to him.
“The video came at a time when I really needed it, because I was starting to wonder, should I just wrap this whole thing up? Am I being obnoxious?” Peppercorn said. “This time last year, I was thinking, ‘OK, next year is the 10th one. That'll be it.’ And then after the show last year, I started feeling like, well, I just saw all these people take so much joy [in it]. I would hate to take that away from them. … But I was still thinking, ‘Has this run its course?’ And then I see that letter and the video, and it's like, 'I can do this. People can take joy from it, and we can find ways to keep it fresh and try to keep it pure.'”
“The music is so pure, and in 2019, what's left that's pure?” he continued. “This music is so important. I've always felt the music and related to it, but this year, I've almost started to tear up. The music has really done a lot for me this year. I mean, I'm terrified for my children. The internet is horrifying. It's empty and meaningless. And then you have these songs that continue to have so much meaning and just cut through everything. When we're in practice, sometimes it's just pure joy."
“Everything is too good to be true," he said, "but not this — not my kids, not my wife, not this.”