Get back: letter from Lennon to critic of Beatles sells for £12,000

A letter from John Lennon denying that the Beatles "ripped off" black music fetched £12,000 at auction yesterday.

Dashed off on a piece of American Airlines-headed notepaper in 1971, the letter was a response to a newspaper article accusing the Beatles of imitating and exploiting American black music in their early cover records.

Clearly upset by the suggestion, Lennon responded to the charges made by a journalist, Craig McGregor, in a piece for The New York Times.

McGregor, who at the time was living in East Sussex but has since moved to Australia, put the letter up for sale at Bonhams auction house in London, together with a photocopy of his article and a carbon copy of his reply to Lennon, which remained unanswered.

In his letter, Lennon described how the Beatles and their contemporaries were inspired by American black music and never tried to conceal their debt to it. He insisted: "It wasn't a rip-off. It was a love-in."

Lennon explained that the Beatles used to perform cover versions of songs such as "Money", "Twist and Shout" and "You Really Got A Hold On Me" in dancehalls early in their career because they did not consider their own material to be of sufficiently high quality.

"It was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could - I always wish we could have done them close to the originals," Lennon wrote.

"We didn't sing our own songs in the early days - they weren't good enough - the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals. We loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could," he added. "People like - Eric Burdons Animals - Micks Stones and us drank, ate and slept the music, and also recorded it, many kids were turned on to the music by us [sic]."

Stephen Maycock, a consultant specialist at Bonhams, said: "John and the other Beatles have spoken at great length in interviews about themselves and the early days, but it's quite unusual to find a document written about the group's beginnings by one of the members.

"It's a nice summary of John's opinions. He was quite stung by the accusation that the Beatles were ripping off black musicians and making all the money while the black artists remained penniless and obscure.

"They were doing their bit to promote black music in Britain. A lot of these records were coming into the country via Liverpool, which was a very busy port."

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Mary Wells, who went on tour with the Beatles, were important influences on the group.

Two years ago, The South Bank Show made a programme about a jukebox, which belonged to John Lennon in the mid-1960s. The director, Chris Walker, said: "In Lennon's jukebox there were R&B, Motown and soul records, but not much rock'n'roll." The ITV arts programme played a tape recording in which Lennon confessed that the Beatles lifted the opening guitar lick to "I Feel Fine" from black artist Bobby Parker's "Watch Your Step".

A black felt hat decorated with six metal discs worn by Lennon on the last official Beatles photo shoot at Tittenhurst Park in August 1969 was also included in the auction of rock'n'roll memorabilia, but failed to sell.

R&B influences

ROLLING STONES: The Stones were influential in introducing British teenagers to R&B. Their 1964 album The Rolling Stones included covers of "Route 66" by Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry's "Carol" and Bo Diddley's "Mona". The name of the band was taken from a song by Muddy Waters.

THE ANIMALS: Eric Burdon and his band covered songs by their R&B idols such as Ray Charles's "I Believe to My Soul" and Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". They were part of the first R&B recording in the UK in a concert with Sonny Boy Williamson in 1963.

ERIC CLAPTON: Growing up in 1950s Surrey, Clapton began a love affair with the Mississippi blues singer Robert Johnson. He covered Johnson's song "Crossroads" with his band Cream, and nearly 40 years later in 2004 he released an album entitled Me and Mr Johnson.

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