A Belfast photographer who snapped The Beatles at their historic first concert in Belfast in November 1963 has described Sir Paul McCartney as the “greatest songwriter of all time” who helped change the face of popular music.
hris Hill, who was a schoolboy when Beatlemania hit Belfast, queued up throughout the night to bag his ticket for the Ritz Cinema gig, securing a seat in the middle of the second row on the night.
His prime position meant he could take quality black-and-white pictures of the band and the young McCartney, which he later sold around the schools for a “small fortune”, kick-starting his own lengthy photography career.
Chris was speaking as Sir Paul marks his 80th birthday today, a week ahead of his Glastonbury slot as the festival’s oldest solo headliner.
The singer, songwriter and Beatles legend has had a career spanning more than 60 years as one of the most famous stars the UK music industry has produced. And the Liverpudlian also has strong ties to Ireland, having married his second wife, Heather Mills, in Co Monaghan before the couple divorced some years later.
His band Wings also released the controversial protest song Give Ireland Back To The Irish in 1972 in response to the events of Bloody Sunday that same year. The track — the band’s debut single, written by Sir Paul and his first wife, Linda — was the first to feature Northern Irish guitarist Henry McCullough. The single was banned from broadcast in the UK by the BBC and other organisations.
Chris said Sir Paul had always been his favourite Beatle and described his appeal as enduring and legendary.
“Quite simply, Paul McCartney is the greatest songwriter of all time,” he said.
“He changed the face of pop music and culture and really was the leader of a changed world.
“I remember when I went to see The Beatles at the Ritz in 1963, I cycled down at 3am to queue up for tickets and got a great seat in the second row.
“Belfast was in the grip of Beatlemania and there was so much screaming and excitement.”
Local broadcaster and music columnist Ralph McLean described Macca’s skills as a songwriter as his “greatest gift to the world, tied up with a gorgeous bow of melody”.
The BBC Radio Ulster presenter said he hugely admired Sir Paul for always “pushing the envelope” when it came to his music.
“Right up to his recent albums, he’s never lost it. He doesn’t rest on his laurels and the fact he’s still out there, on the road, is to be admired.”
Ralph, who has seen The Beatles icon in concert four times, also recalled meeting him at the Manchester Evening Arena in 2004 and noting how down-to-earth he was.
“He was very affable, had no ego at all, and called me ‘big lad’. I dined out on that for months afterwards,” he said.
Belfast architect and musician John Rossi, who has played in several Beatles-influenced bands, said he had been a fan of Sir Paul from the first time he heard him.
“He has such a great vocal range. It’s like he has the voice of a thousand men,” said John.
“His voice isn’t as strong now, which is understandable given his age, but he’s still gigging, and his body of work and longevity means he’s definitely in my top-three favourite ever artists.
“He’s a rock’n’roll icon.”
Sir Paul, who was born on June 18, 1942, formed The Beatles in Liverpool with John Lennon, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. When Sutcliffe left the band in 1961, Sir Paul replaced him on bass. A year later, Sir Ringo Starr took over from Best as drummer.
Brian Epstein signed The Beatles in 1962 and they had their first hit with Love Me Do later that year.
Sir Paul later formed a new group, Wings, with his wife Linda as one of the members. Wings went on to have hits with songs including Live And Let Die and Mull Of Kintyre before disbanding in 1981. Co Antrim musician Henry McCullough joined Wings, playing with them for two years, on lead guitar. It was during this time Wings released Give Ireland Back To The Irish, which was maligned by critics as being pro-IRA.
McCartney later said: “It was so shocking. I wrote Give Ireland Back To The Irish. We recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it.
“He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and they had to release it. He said, ‘Well, it’ll be banned,’ and, of course, it was.
“I knew Give Ireland Back To The Irish wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time [to say something].”