John Lennon's murder 40 years ago stunned fans around the world
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Legendary former Beatle had several ties to Western New York
John Lennon’s assassination outside the Dakota in New York City on Monday, December 8, 1980, changed music history, altered how celebrities interacted with the public, and devastated fans all over the world.
Music lovers and social activists have spent the past four decades wondering what Lennon would have accomplished in the ensuing years, if he had lived.
Several Western New Yorkers were affected by Lennon’s murder — including musician Willie Nile, a Buffalo native who spent that day in the Record Plant Studio on a different floor from the former Beatle. The evening before, he loaned Lennon guitar strings that Lennon used in his final recording. Nile had planned to meet Lennon in person the following day.
People recall the shock and widespread feelings of hopelessness that followed Lennon’s death. While he was politically active, Lennon was not a political figure, like noted assassination victims President John F. Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an internationally beloved musician who asked listeners to “Give Peace a Chance” and sang optimistically that “… the world will be as one.”
After Ed Sullivan
John Lennon never performed in Buffalo, although early in his career, he almost did.
In 1964, when the Beatles first captivated American audiences, then-WKBW disc jockey Danny Neaverth and his on-air colleague, Joey Reynolds, had the opportunity to sponsor the band in Western New York for an evening concert on February 10, 1964, the day after their seminal appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show sparked a “British Invasion.”
“Being brilliant disc jockeys, we said, ‘Who’s going to come to Memorial Auditorium on a Monday night?’” Neaverth recalled. “We figured, nobody, that’s who.”
So they declined.
Neaverth, now 82, lives in Orchard Park and still does occasional media work. He began as an on-air personality at WKBW Radio in the late 1950s. At the time, the station was a 50,000-watt powerhouse, whose airwaves covered much of the eastern United States. In 1964, WKBW considered sponsoring the Beatles for a trip to Buffalo.
“Management turned it down,” Neaverth explained. “But they told us, if you guys want to do something, go ahead. We would have had to foot all the expenses, but would have gotten free publicity on the station.”
At that time, Neaverth and Reynolds were not in the business of booking musicians, although later, they hosted The Monkees and the Dave Clark Five. Neaverth recalls that the Beatles were to receive fifty percent of gate revenues, with a guaranteed minimum of $3500.
“That was 1960s money,” he said. “We weighed out what it would cost us. We had to hire all the people. It was a union shop at Memorial Auditorium. That meant additional expenses, like requiring two people to work the spotlights. And the Beatles needed a huge guarantee.”
After considering the cost and recognizing their lack of booking experience, Neaverth and Reynolds declined. Instead, the Beatles performed a sold-out concert in Washington D.C. the day after The Ed Sullivan Show. (Coincidently, that event was co-hosted by a young Washington DJ named Harv Moore, who later became well known on Buffalo radio.)
“People who are Beatles fanatics have never forgiven us,” Neaverth admitted. “We have yet to live that down.”
As the Beatles grew in popularity, Neaverth traveled to both Pittsburgh and Toronto to see the band in concert at the height of Beatlemania.
“Truth is, all you could hear was the opening bing of a guitar note. From then on, you couldn’t hear the music with all the screaming. Kids had cameras with flashes, and it was hard to see the stage with all the popping lights.”
Nearly 60 years later, Neaverth is lighthearted about his missed chance to make Buffalo history.
“I never thought they were going to be that popular or successful,” he chuckled. “I thought, why the hell would they have a name like the Beatles? I hate to admit it, but I was wrong.”
In October 2015, former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney performed locally at the First Niagara Center, his first-ever concert in Western New York, more than 51 years after WKBW, Neaverth and Reynolds missed a chance to make music history.
In the Studio
The closest local connection to Lennon’s death comes from Buffalo native Willie Nile, a longtime musician based in Greenwich Village. He worked in the same recording studio as Lennon during his final hours, although the two never spoke. Today, at 72, Nile remains disturbed by the senselessness of Lennon’s murder.
“Forty years… my God!” Nile mused. “I was going to meet him the night after he was killed.”
On Friday, December 5, 1980, Nile began recording his second album, Golden Down, at the Record Plant Studio in New York City. The process is intense, Nile explained, requiring focus during long hours that often stretch overnight into morning. Being in a studio with a full band is also expensive, so Nile and fellow musicians worked steadily, reluctant to break for too long.
The album’s co-producer, Thom Panunzio, knew Lennon and learned that the former Beatle was recording in a different room. With his wife, Yoko Ono, Lennon was mixing a song called “Walking on Thin Ice.”
“Thom had worked with [Lennon] in the past, and asked if I wanted to meet him,” Nile said. “We were excited knowing John was in the building. I thought we should record for a few days, then meet him. I suggested Tuesday.”
Late Sunday night, according to Nile, the phone rang in the studio where Nile recorded. An engineer from the floor above was calling to say Lennon was out of guitar strings and asked if there were any extras that they could use.
“We all thought, if John Lennon needs guitar strings…” Nile said. “I gathered up a bunch of them. I was going to put a note with them saying ‘thank you for all the music,” but I thought I’d just tell him that when I see him.”
Nile’s band worked until 2 a.m. He later learned that Lennon remained in the studio for two hours beyond that.
“That was the last time he ever recorded, and it was on our strings,” Nile said.
The following night, while Nile and his band continued working, co-producer Panunzio quietly ducked out to chat with Lennon as the former Beatle left the studio after an evening session. Panunzio had a friend in New Jersey who had been trying to get Lennon’s autograph. Panunzio stretched the truth, and told Lennon that the guy who gave him the strings would like his signature. Using Record Plant stationery, Lennon scribbled “For Karl, who strung me along.” He signed his name and doodled a smiling face, adding “1980” at the bottom. No one knew it would be Lennon’s last autograph.
Panunzio watched Lennon get into his limo and drive away. A few minutes later, he was killed in front of his apartment building. Lennon was 40 years old.
“We were listening to a take of a song called “I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind,” Nile said. “Thom came back into the studio and said ‘Somebody just shot John.’ I thought, John who? It didn’t dawn on me. I thought John was upstairs. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Washed in confusion, the studio phone began ringing. Music mogul David Geffen called to confirm that Lennon was still there, hoping the reports he heard were false. A woman at the front desk told Geffen that Lennon had left a little earlier, according to Nile.
“We started watching TV like everybody else,” Nile said. “It was a horrible experience for everybody around the world.”
Walt Stefani was ironing a shirt before work on the morning of Tuesday, December 9, 1980, when he learned that Lennon had been killed the night before.
“I put the iron down and almost started to cry,” he recalled. “I was devastated. I told my wife that part of my childhood just died.”
Stefani, then 25, was a third-year social studies teacher at Orchard Park Middle School. He was so upset that he considered calling in sick.
Like many of his generation, Stefani was struck by watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.
“He introduced this young brassy group from England called the Beatles,” Stefani said. “The sound captured the hell out of me. I became an instant fan at 9 years old. No other group ever affected me like the Beatles. They had a look that was edgy. The Beatles’ lyrics spoke to my friends and me more than anything in the U.S. music scene. They were infectious. It seemed like the Beatles couldn’t do anything wrong at that time. Suddenly, I’m going out and buying shoes like theirs and trying to grow long hair.”
When Stefani arrived at work that Tuesday, he found it difficult to concentrate. He remembers putting the day’s lesson on hold as he processed news of Lennon’s death. Students were given a study hall.
“It was the shock of it,” he said. “John Lennon was a peaceful protestor. He promoted love. To have somebody shoot him, it struck me. All of us are very mortal and bad things can happen.”
Ron Schanne, a local collector of Beatles memorabilia, also watched the band’s initial performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He remembers exactly when and where he learned that Lennon had been shot.
“I was living in New Jersey at the time, working for a record distribution company,” he reflected. “I was watching Monday Night Football, kind of falling asleep. Then [host] Howard Cosell broke with the news that Lennon had been shot by a deranged fan. We didn’t know he was dead at that point.”
Schanne, now 65, is a commercial photographer living in the Southtowns. Upon returning to Buffalo, he worked in radio as a producer, music director, and on-air personality. He later became a photographer and editor for WGRZ-Channel 2.
Hearing about Lennon’s assassination “was like a shot to the gut,” he said.
“From my standpoint, that was the day that music died. The man only wanted to make music. Why kill him? To take him from us when he was so young… I can’t believe he didn’t have more on his plate to give. That’s one of the saddest parts of it, to think about what could have been.”
That feeling of loss spanned generations.
When he woke on Tuesday morning, Tom Roberts’ older brother, Tim, informed him that Lennon had been killed the night before. Tim, a Beatles fan who had passed on his love of the band to his brother, had learned the news watching Monday Night Football. By then, Tom, 11, had been in bed.
“It was one of the first times in my life that I ever cried over someone dying,” he said. “I was born in 1969, just around the time the Beatles broke up. When they were ending, I was coming into the world.”
Tom Roberts, now 51, lives in Orchard Park and works as an assistant principal at Sweet Home High School in Amherst. Over the years, he has dived deep into the Beatles catalog, becoming familiar with all their songs, reading books about their work, even listening to bootleg recording sessions.
“I went to school that day and everything felt different,” he recalled. “There was a girl in my class named Carmen who talked about John Lennon dying. I felt like she was the only one who understood me that day. My uncles and older brother had listened to the Beatles so often that I felt like they were family members.”
Channeling Lennon’s spirit
Nile’s connection to the Beatles wasn’t limited to Lennon’s murder. Twelve years later, in 1992, Nile toured with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band as the opening act for several shows in the Northeast, including a performance at Darien Lake.
“It was a whirlwind experience,” Nile said. “Ringo was so nice.”
On that tour, the All-Starr Band included musicians Nils Lofgren, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmunds, Burton Cummings of the Guess Who and former Eagles Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit. During a show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Starr and his band performed “Photograph.” The poignant lyrics about someone who is gone forever made Nile reflect about Lennon:
Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go
But all I've got is a photograph
And I realize you're not coming back anymore
“Ringo closed the set with that, before his encores,” Nile recalled. “When he came offstage, I was about 15 yards away, and he came right over to me, gave me a big hug, and thanked me for opening the show. I couldn’t believe it. Who am I? I was nobody. I was opening the show for him. He didn’t have to do that, but he was old-school respectful.”
Starr invited Nile to join the band onstage and sing “With a Little Help From My Friends” for the encore. The Beatles drummer introduced Nile to the audience, and Nile then shared a microphone with Lofgren.
“In July 1992, I couldn’t help but think back to that Monday night when John was killed. It was bittersweet. All those feelings came right back to me.”
Last December, as he has for several years, Nile performed at the 39th Annual John Lennon Tribute concert on New York’s Upper West Side. Begun in 1981, the show raises money to provide workshops for children and adults affected by cancer. Another Western New York native, Jamestown’s Natalie Merchant, received the “John Lennon Real Love Award” at the most recent show. Nile sang Lennon’s songs “Dear Prudence” and “Anytime at All."
Nile, who grew up in Cheektowaga and graduated from Bishop Neumann High School and the University at Buffalo, lives in Greenwich Village, where he is a respected music industry veteran, having recorded 16 albums since 1980. His most recent, New York at Night, was released in May. Although touring has been postponed because of the pandemic, he frequently performs in Buffalo.
Like many fans, Nile speculates whether the Beatles would have reunited had Lennon lived.
“I think they would have gotten together,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they? They broke up and there were some bumps in the road, but they’re musicians. At some point they would have done something together. Maybe they had songs they would have recorded. I’m sure they would have played Live Aid and other things as well.”
Tom Roberts, so affected by Lennon’s death as a boy, wonders how the evolution of the music industry could have influenced a potential reunion.
“In the 1980s, you had MTV,” he said. “You didn’t really have to tour. Could the Beatles still have been great? Or is part of their mystique that they never came together again?”
The Beatles wrote more than 200 songs in a seven-year period between 1962-69.
“They had 26 number one hits,” Roberts noted. “That’s almost four each year. I believe that they were such great musicians that if they had gotten back together, they still would have written great songs.”
Stefani has similar thoughts.
“I think about what Lennon would be doing now. Look at his partner, Paul McCartney, who’s still very active at 78.”
Although Lennon’s death ended Stefani’s lifelong dream of seeing the Beatles live, he and his wife did the next best thing. They traveled to Albany in July 2014 to watch McCartney in concert.
“Sir Paul played for three and a half hours,” he said. “I think as he’s gotten older, McCartney has come to grips with his legacy in the band. Yes, there was notoriety and arguments, but he sang a song to John Lennon that night, and started to cry. My wife said it’s so beautiful that the love they had for each other supersedes all the other stuff.”
Now 65 and living in Hamburg, Stefani retired from teaching in 2012. His wife, Beth, died of cancer in 2018. There have been many touchstone moments in his life. One of them remains Lennon’s death.
“I’ve always admired people who could create something out of nothing, and John was the impetus for the Beatles. He was the type of guy I’d like to drink a few beers with. Look what he created. After John’s death, I remember telling Beth, ‘We better make the most of what we have, because we don’t know how long we’re going to have it.’ We started living each day the best we could. You honor the memories, but you keep pushing forward.”
‘A force for peace and love’
Schanne, a collector of Beatles memorabilia, still feels the loss forty years later.
“It’s a sad commentary on our times,” he said. “[Lennon] had so much more to give. It was a travesty. To be ripped away so carelessly… to this day, my head still shakes. Why did that happen?”
Lennon's killer resides in Western New York. Mark David Chapman pled guilty to murder in 1981 and was sentenced to 20 years to life, with the judge insisting he receive psychiatric treatment during his prison term. He was sent to Attica Correctional Facility, where he remained until May 2012. He was then transferred to Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. Chapman, now 65, was denied parole for an eleventh time in August 2020.
There is one local footnote to events on December 8, 1980: at Stage One, a club located near the corner of Main and Transit in Clarence, (then owned by now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein), a young Irish quartet opened for local rockers Talas. According to media sources, 20 people gathered on a Monday night to watch U2 perform. Bono references that night whenever U2 returns to Buffalo.
All these years later, Nile remains philosophical about his connection to Lennon.
“I’ve met Paul McCartney and I’ve sung with Ringo Starr,” Nile said. “I never met George [Harrison], but I’ve had more than my share of luck in that regard. I would have loved to have met [Lennon]. But I would have loved it more if he wasn’t shot. Politically, John was very vocal. He would have been a real force in the world for peace and love and all the things he championed.
“I don’t really spend time thinking about how I didn’t get to meet him. That’s way too selfish. If I could go back in time, I’d have warned him.”
© 2020 by Jeff Schober
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