Meeting the Beatles

It was nearly 50 years ago today that The Beatles made their Detroit debut. But one lucky teen got to meet the Fab Four months before.

For the Beatles, 1964 was a big year. Not only did it mark their maiden voyage to the U.S., but 50 years ago (on September 6, 1964), it also marked their first concert in Detroit – the city that produced much of the band’s musical inspiration through its Motown sound.

They performed two shows that day at Olympia Stadium. Among the thousands of fans that saw them was Harper Woods native Ellen Deneau. She also booked a room with her friend at the Whittier Hotel, where the boys were staying, hoping to catch sight of them. They didn’t, but it wasn’t a total letdown for Deneau — considering she met them five months earlier.

Deneau was just 15 when she won a Detroit radio contest hosted by a CKLW disc jockey named Tom Clay (who was apparently fired later that year for “Beatles Booster Club” scam). The grand prize was a trip to London to meet the Fab Four on the set of their movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Her conservative parents were hesitant to let Deneau cross the Atlantic Ocean to hang out with a rock band. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to go,” she says. It helped that Clay’s wife was also going along for the trip.

In April 1964, Deneau, the Clays, and another winner (from Windsor) arrived at London’s Twickenham Studios and prepared to enter the band’s dressing room. Still feeling a bit faint from excitement, Deneau stepped inside.

George Harrison immediately stood up from his chair to shake her hand as she entered. The three others followed and soon Clay began chatting with the Beatles about their popularity in Detroit. “I probably didn’t say very much,” says Deneau. “I was very shy.”

They spent much of the afternoon drinking tea while the Beatles casually sang the 1963 Impressions song “It’s Alright” and answered handfuls of interview questions. “They were really goofing around a lot with each other,” she says. “They were really friendly.” Ringo even gave her a ring that she still has to this day.

Ringo and George also invited her group to go to the popular Ad Lib Club with them, but sadly, a nightclub was out of the question for a 15-year-old.

After spending three hours mingling and taking photos with them, they parted ways with the band, but not without a special farewell from George. “When we were leaving, [The Beatles] went out in the hall,” she says. “But George came back in, shook our hands and said ‘It was nice to meet you, and see you in Detroit!’”

The next time she’d see the Beatles was at the Olympia, and she distinctly remembers the concert as being “quite loud.” “Mostly people screamed and it was hard to hear them sing,” she recalls. “I wanted to hear!” Of course, she was screaming, too.

“It’s always a fun thing to talk about, because most people that are of my age were involved in that period of time and we had so much fun following the Beatles,” says Deneau. She went on to become an English teacher and start a family, but some things never change. “I’m a fan,” she says. “I always will be, you know?”