'The British Invasion Killed Us': PBS Producer TJ Lubinsky on the Fate of America's Teen Idols

Frank Mastropolo

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1964Photo byBernard Gotfryd, Library of Congress

American artists dominated the music industry for decades until the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other British bands arrived on our shores in 1964. Fans embraced the new sound but once-popular artists at home suddenly found there was no room on radio playlists for their records. Concert gigs dried up and many found themselves out of work.

Decades later, impresario TJ Lubinsky devised a way to return these artists to the stage. Lubinsky is the producer of the PBS My Music specials Doo Wop 50, ‘60s Rock, Pop and Soul, The British Beat and others that span the Motown, folk and big band eras. Lubinsky’s specials have raised millions for PBS and rejuvenated the careers of these beloved stars.

We asked Lubinsky in 2020 to talk about the seismic effects the British Invasion had on American artists.

Photo byPR Newswire

TJ Lubinsky: I love those particular years, 1957, 1958 into just before 1964. The reason I love those years is the variety is incredible. Especially for early soul. You’ve got great music coming from people like Chuck Jackson, the Miracles, the early Temptations, early Motown with Martha and the Vandellas, which continued a lot of the flavor of the ‘50s but with this new arrangement style.

You still had your teen idols and you still had doo wop in there. I find to this day the songs that resonate with people the most are in that sweet spot up until around ‘65 or ‘66 which includes the British Invasion. It’s just an incredible feeling that these songs gave you at that time. They were filled with emotion and they were filled with dance beats.

Sam Cooke, you’ve got all of his major work right there in that time. Jackie Wilson, Mr. Excitement. I gravitate towards what you’d call rhythmic oldies or R&B and vocal group harmony, that’s where I start.

I think it’s a common theme to hear artists that were just starting to make it big in 1962, 1963, particularly the girl groups, to say, “The British Invasion killed us. We were just starting to take off, we had a brand-new career. Then all of a sudden, these guys came in and we were done. And there was no work for us.”

When the girl groups came along people like Ronnie Spector did incredibly because she went on tour with the Beatles, they loved her. And they were influenced by her. And she became even more successful as a result.

But a lot of the artists that didn’t have big promotion, that didn’t have record companies behind them, they lost their livelihoods, they lost their dreams, they lost their careers. It was a very sad thing for a lot of them. It’s what forced so many of them into difficult situations in life.

"Let It Be Me" by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler

You think about people like Betty Everett, who was incredible. What do you do when the Beatles come along and they just don’t have a slot to get songs like “You’re No Good” or “Let It Be Me” with Jerry Butler on the radio?

You have a group like the Cleftones. They had records like “Little Girl of Mine” and “Heart and Soul,” which came out in ’61. They were really a doo wop group. But when the Beatles came, they just got wiped off the map.

"Heart and Soul" by the Cleftones

The Chiffons are an example of a group that got past that transition. They had a lot of great hits: “He’s So Fine,” “One Fine Day,” “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.”

The Orlons. That’s Philadelphia. Incredible. “Don’t Hang Up,” “South Street.” They didn’t make it. I think that had more to do with Bandstand moving to the West Coast. Remember, Connie Francis, the Orlons, the Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, they were all fixtures of American Bandstand in Philadelphia. And when Bandstand moved, there was no promotion vehicle left for their music nationally. Where do you hear the songs if it’s not on television which would drive the people to buy the records?

It wasn’t a good time for certain songs. You think of the Singing Nun, some of that novelty stuff, “Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” or whatever. Not so great for that stuff but for “Heat Wave,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” all that kind of stuff which then influenced a lot of the British acts. Awesome, awesome.

"I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos

I always thought there was an evolution where you start with a group like the Flamingos or the Moonglows. The Flamingos did “I Only Have Eyes for You” or the Moonglows with “Ten Commandments of Love.”

And then you move into early Motown with the Miracles and the Tempts doing that same kind of harmony and then you move from there up to the Stylistics and the Delfonics. To me, it’s just an evolution of the same sound that just progressed and got more elaborate, more lush.

I think the difference with Motown and the reason why those groups stayed popular was because they had the giant marketing machine behind them. Motown was all about marketing and the presentation.

They were taught the same moves and the same routines and their pictures were taken the same way and it was promoted the same way. I think that’s why Motown survived, because they really knew how to keep these records playing and they knew how to put out a brand and a product. They never shied away from marketing their stuff and doing things to have their stuff out there. They did everything, live tours and fan clubs. Television was always the driver for getting songs promoted.

"Do Wah Diddy Diddy" by Manfred Mann

Then these British artists started coming in. They all hit you in a different way. Paul Jones from Manfred Mann is an incredible, outrageous guy. Loaded with personality, the guy could do anything in the world. He comes out, he sings their songs like “Do Wah Diddy.” They were inspired by the Exciters, the vocal group who did it first. The Exciters got wiped off the map once Manfred Mann came in.

"Do-Wah-Diddy" by the Exciters

Groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers were incredible to me. You’ve got that same feeling when you hear them do a song like “I’ll Be There,” which is a beautiful song by Gerry Marsden, which harkened me back to Bobby Darin and his version of “I’ll Be There” but taking it so much higher, so much deeper, with the strings and the horns and the piano. It still had that feeling.

“I’m Into Something Good” and “I’m Henry VII, I Am” by Peter Noone from PBS ’60s Pop, Rock & Soul 

Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, who has hosted many of our shows. He’s an incredible guy. He comes in and he does all his hits and every single one of them, eight or nine of them and he killed. But when it came to “Henry the VIII” the entire audience, 4,000 people, were on their feet and shouting back to him and calling and answering. It was one of the greatest moments we ever did on TV.

What took me through the British Invasion years was hearing all those groups like the Walker Brothers, who had so much soul like the Righteous Brothers. They all still had that Motown-y feel if it was a fast tune but if it was a ballad, you still felt that emotion. The emotion to me is what made the music so incredible when it changed in ‘64.

"Turn Back the Hands of Time" by Tyrone Davis

Tyrone Davis did a song called “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and he hated anything to do with anyone British because he thinks he never had the records he could have because of those artists. His life was ruined by it is what he said.

And then you talk to guys like Fred Parris of the Five Satins. He was very appreciative of those groups that re-recorded some of the songs. They took the songs to heights they couldn’t reach on their own.

The British Invasion meant one of two things to these artists. If they wrote their own songs then they had great success beyond their wildest imaginations. And they took that money happily.

If they didn’t and they were just performing and they didn’t have a promotion machine behind them, then things weren’t so good. Then they had to go get regular jobs and that wasn’t their dream. But then the ones that did have regular jobs and kept the music as an avocation, they did very well in life too.

I don’t look at it as the Beatles and the Stones and the British Invasion killed it, because it really gave us a lot of wonderful music. It just changed it for everyone. All they did was sell music back to us that was ours to begin with. And that was the genius of the whole thing.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022.

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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