Before John Lennon began his self-imposed exile in 1975, he had a few professional obligations to fulfill, ending with an appearance at a tribute show for the man he had been battling in court for years. Why did Lennon even perform at such an event? What’s with the masks his mysterious backing band is wearing on the backs of their heads? And why in the world did the former Beatle wear a red jumpsuit?! Even now, nearly forty years on, the reasons are cloudy, but it clearly resulted in Lennon’s weirdest performance as a solo artist—it was also his last.
Sir Lew Grade was a powerful media mogul with roots in cabaret and variety shows (he was initially known for his super-fast Charleston). To many, this British tycoon was a larger-than-life figure, known for his cigar smoking (he was once told by his doctor to cut down to seven a day) and for climbing on top of tables—even past age seventy—to show off his dance moves.
Lew Grade and his ever-present cigar
Grade was knighted in 1969, and that same year his entertainment company, Associated TeleVision (ATV), purchased a majority stake in the rights to Northern Songs and Maclen Music—the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In the ensuing years, Grade filed separate lawsuits against both Lennon and McCartney (with Lennon countersuing). In the McCartney case, the court sided with Paul, but John ended up settling, with ATV becoming the co-publisher of all new Lennon songs in 1974.
Lennon in 1974 (photographed by Bob Gruen)
The Salute to Sir Lew took place in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in New York City on April 18th, 1975. This shindig was very much a star-studded affair, a variety show (Sir Lew wouldn’t have had it any other way) featuring performances by such notables as Julie Andrews, Tom Jones, Peter Sellers, and John Lennon. A who’s who of the old Hollywood elite were in the house to pay their respects, with Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, and Orson Welles amongst those in attendance.
Playing acoustic guitar and singing live to backing tracks, Lennon performed three songs at the Sir Lew tribute: Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin,’” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” both from his recent covers LP, Rock ‘n’ Roll, closing with his signature solo tune, “Imagine.” His band that night was a little-known group called BOMF (a/k/a Brothers of Mother Fuckers). Perhaps the censors weren’t comfortable with this moniker, so the ensemble is credited as “John Lennon, Etcetera” during the broadcast (though “BOMF” can still be seen on the bass drum head).
When Lennon comes out from behind the curtain for “Slippin’ and Slidin,’” his attire is head scratching to say the least. Since the late ‘60s, he was generally in casual dress both on and off the stage, so to see him waving to the crowd in a fashionable red jumpsuit (did he raid David Bowie’s closet?) is pretty startling. Perhaps this was his attempt to come across as more showbiz, but he and BOMF—with their shaved heads and “two-faced” masks (believed to have been designed by Lennon to reflect his view of Grade)—look more like aliens compared to the conservative acts on the rest of the bill. I can’t help but think the mischievous Lennon just wanted to ruffle the feathers of the stuffed shirts—and that includes the guest of honor.
So why did Lennon play a tribute to a man he had been embroiled in lawsuits with? In his journal, John wrote of looking forward to the event, and on an audience recording can be heard dedicating “Imagine” to both Yoko and Sir Lew (surprisingly removed for the broadcast version), so he must have had at least some affection for the man, but I didn’t unearth any definite reason. Perhaps it was nothing more than a diplomatic gesture towards his new business partner.
Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman aired on June 13th, 1975 (“Stand By Me” was also left for the cutting room floor). Though he re-emerged in 1980 with Double Fantasy, the Grade tribute would mark the final time the public saw John Lennon on a stage—red jumpsuit and all.
Here’s a nice composite of the show’s intro, the two Lennon clips, a dancing Sir Lew, as well as John’s curtain call:
More of John Lennon’s final public performance after the jump…