Something in the way Joe Bithorn moves with his guitar is sure to remind you of George Harrison. And the moptop wig and "Sgt. Pepper" outfit don't hurt, either.
Bithorn plays "the Quiet Beatle" in "Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles," the lovefest to the Fab Four that opened at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre Tuesday night. It's the latest stop on a three-decade magical mystery tour for Cedarhurst musician, who first played Harrison in "Beatlemania" from 1980 to 1982. A year later, Bithorn joined the Beatles tribute band Rain, and he's been with it since. Bithorn recently talked to us about The Beatles and "Rain," or as he calls it, "Beatlemania" on steroids.
How did your career as George Harrison begin?
At the time of "Beatlemania," I had a band that was performing on Long Island that was a Beatles act. We didn't dress up like The Beatles, we just enjoyed playing the music live. We got some attention and a friend of mine was asked to audition for the role of George Harrison in "Beatlemania." He suggested that I come with him. So I did and I passed the audition. It was a week of rehearsal and a week of watching the show, because I had never seen "Beatlemania." So it was trial by fire.
When you perform "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in the show, how much of a challenge is it to pay tribute to George and the way he did it, yet still put your own spin on it?
I grew up listening to Eric Clapton. I was about 14 and I had "Wheels of Fire" and the album with "Sunshine of Your Love" on it, and I learned those solos as a kid because I really heavy, heavy into Eric Clapton and the blues as well. . . . I'm trying to channel George as much as I can vocally and the guitar work is really Eric, because Eric is the one that recorded that with The Beatles.
Do you remember the first time you ever saw The Beatles?
Sure. I was there on Feb. 9, , lying down in front of my black-and-white television and it was just astounding. That perked my interest in playing guitar for sure. . . . My parents had a friend that was a classical guitarist and he would come to the house, so I had always been fascinated with the guitar. . . . Then when I saw The Beatles that was just like, game over.
Since your mother worked in the classical musical business, what artists did you meet growing up as a kid?
There was a guy in my neighborhood, I never really got to meet him because we were all scared of him, and he just took special delight in scaring the kids in our neighborhood. We just knew him as "Monk," but I didn't find out until I got influenced in jazz by my cousins who are pre-eminent Latin jazz musicians, Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, they said, "Don't you know who that guy is? That's Thelonius Monk," and I had no idea. I'm a huge fan of his music and John Coltrane and everybody along the lines that was influenced by Thelonius. . . . I mean Coltrane was coming in and out of that apartment. I lived in the projects at 64th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, I didn't know that this was taking place right around the corner from me. It's just amazing to me now. But I do remember him. And I met Isaac Stern. I met Beverly Sills, who used to always tell my mother, "I'm going to take your son home with me," and I'd say, "Bubbles, let's go." My mother was a bilingual secretary, so she had contact with maestro Pabal Casals. She would do Spanish to English dictation and help out with his letters. She also traveled to Puerto Rico with the Festival Casals one year.
Have any of the surviving Beatles come to any of your shows or corresponded with you in any way?
Unfortunately not. I sure hope that happens one day. I'm enamored with their music. They were just the greatest of the greatest when it came to writing.
How did you have to adapt the show for Broadway?
We did an awful lot with our props and video, and different things that we tuned up specifically for Broadway. We'd gotten the tour up to two semi trucks. The Neil Simon is a small venue comparatively to some of the theaters that we've played. The Fox Theater in St. Louis is a 4,500-seat venue. Not only that, the areas backstage are a lot larger. Getting it scaled to where we wanted to get it, we had to do a lot of things specifically for the Neil Simon. We had to make it fit for Broadway.
How difficult was it deciding which songs to include in the show?
There's an awful lot that we couldn't include that we really wanted. The ones that really get me going are things like "I Am the Walrus" because of the complexities of the background stuff, and I'm playing guitar synthesizer along with our keyboard player, Mark Beyer. He's got an incredible array of things he had recorded in a studio and then translated them to his computer so he could implement them into the show. I'm also playing a lot of that stuff on the guitar synth to supplement them. He's got the greatest technology in the world and I've got the dinosaur.
You've been with Rain for almost 30 years. How did you still manage to stay enthusiastic and keep it fresh after all that time?
It's the music and the struggles to try and get it perfect. To try to make that music sound absolutely like it is on the records. We're talking house mixed, which we've been able to associate with Abe Jacob. I mean this man was running the board at Monterrey Pop Festival. He ran the board in 1966 when The Beatles played at Candlestick Park, and he worked with John Phillips and Jimi Hendrix. So this is someone who knows his craft and he knows it specific for Broadway. He also worked with "Beatlemania," too.
What do you remember most about growing up on Long Island?
My folks moved to Rosedale for two years and then we moved to Cedarhurst when I was about 11 years old. That was a good move. Nassau County, I considered that posh compared to 64th and Amsterdam. . . . Lawrence High School had a great teaching staff. There was a fella there who taught music, Anthony Pollera, who was a real influence. He was absolutely terrific about understanding the complexity of music. He taught music theory, which helped me enormously.