Just last month, Juan Carrión died at 93, and why that should concern you is an interesting piece of rock ‘n’ roll trivia. In 1966, Carrión was teaching English in a high school in southern Spain. Knowing that he needed to keep his students motivated to learn the language, he came up with a plan: as the Beatles were hugely popular in Spain and all his students loved and talked about them, he started teaching them the lyrics to Beatles songs as a way to learn English. It was a big success except for one small detail: he couldn’t always figure out what the Beatles were saying in their songs. Please note that at the time, no rock bands were including the lyrics to the songs on their albums. Like, none of them. I think. Well, certainly not the Beatles. No, no one else. I think.
Señor Carrión wrote out the lyrics as best as he could understand them, but he was a dedicated teacher and he wanted all the words. This was before the internet, where everything is available, so he decided to write to John Lennon, sending the lyrics he knew, leaving out what he didn’t know, and asking Lennon to fill in the blanks. Considering the hundreds of pounds of fan mail the group received daily, he was not surprised that Lennon never replied. But he was determined, and when he heard that Lennon himself was coming to Spain to film “How I Won The War,” he bought a bus ticket to Almería, two hours away, where Lennon was filming, and with his clothes and sundries, he packed the notebook with the blanks where words should be.
As you might surmise, public school teachers in Spain don’t get paid a lot. Carrión had little money, so the bus ride was almost all he could afford; with enough cash for some food, some wine and a week’s lodgings, he settled in to some cheap accommodations and started asking around as to where he might run into Lennon. Following a tip, he went to a bar where he met Les Anthony, who was Lennon’s bodyguard and driver. A friendship was quickly struck and Carrión explained what he was doing there and handed the lyric sheets to him, asking him to give them to Lennon.
It took almost the whole week, but Carrión got to meet Lennon, they chatted for about a half-hour and got on well. So well, in fact, that Lennon made three promises to Carrión: one was that he would mail Carrión the lyrics to Beatles songs before they were released on albums, that he would publish the lyrics on future Beatles albums, and that he would come to Cartegena to visit Carrion at his school to meet his students.
The lyrics did indeed appear on the next Beatles album, which was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and on all the subsequent Beatles albums. Carrión and Lennon kept up a correspondence and the lyrics kept coming for almost three years, until Yoko Ono came aboard, the band broke up, and Lennon died before fulfilling his third promise.
When Carrión died in September, dozens of his students from the 1960’s came to say good-bye, and several who were interviewed about his passing indicated that they also had become English teachers. I like to think about how it must have felt to be in a small class in southern Spain, reading the lyrics of the songs from the most famous music group in the world before anyone else in the world had seen them.
“How I Won the War” was a flop in theatrical distribution, but while he was filming in Spain, Lennon wrote “Strawberry Fields.” And the next time you go to an album, google or Wikipedia to look up the lyrics for a song you like, and they’re there, you have Juan Carrión to thank. Yeah, I’m going to think about being in that class the next time I hear, “Let me take you down…”
R.I.P. and gracias, Señor Carrión.
Odds and Ends
- There are some fun things and oddities wandering around in my brain. I suppose you have them, too. Here are some of mine.
- Roy Orbison was having a middling career despite what everyone later acknowledged was an excellent singing voice and an impressive vocal range. I mean, he could sing like nobody’s business, but that slightly pudgy guy with the thick glasses and black frames just wasn’t setting the girl’s hearts afire. Then there was the show where he was about to go onstage and he couldn’t find his glasses. He told his manager he needed them to go on, so his manager looked, too, but no glasses were to be found. They looked and looked and… where were they? As we know, the show must go on, and his manager told him to go on wearing his sunglasses instead, as they were in his prescription. He went on and the girls started screaming. He was a lot sexier with those shades, y’know, like a bad boy, and they helped make him a star, and if you’ll notice, anytime Orbison’s on stage he’s wearing shades.
- Elvis Presley hadn’t impressed Sam Phillips when he came in to cut two songs for his mother’s birthday. In fact, Phillips didn’t even remember Presley when a few months later the singer for a demo date cancelled with the guitar and bass already there and about to be paid for nothing. Phillips secretary was the one who remembered the truck-driving kid with the sideburns and Presley’s recording career was set in motion with two recordings of country standards, “That’s All Right, Mama,” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” But he still wasn’t a performer and had no idea of his power until one of his earliest shows. Phillips put the guitarist and the bass player together to form “The Blue Moon Boy and his Hillbilly Cats,” and it was after their second show when they got offstage, Elvis asked his guitarist why the girls were screaming. The guitarist, Scotty Moore told him that it was his left leg. He’d been so nervous his leg was shaking and the girls thought he was doing it on purpose and they loved it, so Elvis kept those gyrations in his act.
- Nat Cole was the piano player in a combo until one night the singer didn’t show up. Rather than cancel the gig and lose the dough, Nat “King” Cole sang that night, the crowd was blown away at his warm, sensuous tones, and he never looked back. And his daughter, Natalie Cole, was a pretty good singer, too.
- One night while onstage, Chuck Berry slipped , but caught himself before he went down, the crowd thought it was part of his act, and so that became a Chuck Berry trademark: the duckwalk.