Interview: Joe Bithorn, George Harrison from The Beatles Tribute Show, ‘Rain’
The Beatles are never not going to be cool. John, Paul, George and Ringo changed music, were some of the greatest musicians of their time and I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that you can sing at least 10 of their songs by heart.
It’s a testament to The Beatles popularity and huge catalog of songs that the tribute show, Rain, has been entertaining audiences for over 30 years. The show has had over 800 performances, 300 of which came from their Drama Desk winning run on Broadway, and they aren’t about to stop.
I recently talked to Joe Bithorn, who plays George Harrison, about what it’s like to play an idol, how he found his way into the show and the craziest thing that’s happened on-stage.
Tell me about the show. I’ve had a couple of friends who saw it when you guys were on Broadway and they absolutely loved it. But I think, some people might not know what to expect when they come to it.
Joe Bithorn: It’s kind of a start off point of what the 60s were about, you know? It’s kind of a little bit before the Beatles. We have trivia that runs before the curtain goes up, you know, just asking all kinds of questions and, you know, we’ve got questions and then multiple choice answers. And, the music that’s going on, it’s sort of the pre-Beatles. And then some of it’s just surrounding that time period.
As the curtain goes up, we go up to chronological order from, like, the Ed Sullivan Show into, like, the Shea Stadium… or Hard Day’s Night into Shea Stadium and then into what we would call like a Sergeant Pepper era. And, I mean, the stage is coordinated along those lines, you know, all of the things that were flying in and various accoutrements including videos.
And also we shoot live video and also show video from the time period while we’re performing. And some of this is live footage that we shoot of ourselves and of the audience and this is all done in black and white camera to sort of bring you back to the days of black and white TV.
And then, of course, as we get into, you know, some of the later periods, the shots are in color. And when they look at the Sergeant Pepper layout that we do, when they look up at the stage they’re gonna see what looks like the Sergeant Pepper album except it’s not… it’s not any of the faces that you remember from the Sergeant Pepper record. It’s actually the faces of friends and family that we’ve, you know, that we’ve put up there.
Take a break, there’s like a 15… like a 10 minute intermission I believe. Then we go into the, like, sort of the flower power era. The stage is kinda dressed somewhat of like what the Beatles have done when they did All You Need is Love. And, funny enough, that’s what we start with.
And, you know, we go through the music of that period and get into, like, an acoustic guitar section, sort of bring it down a little bit volume wise and it comes to a little bit more of an intimate setting. We take a couple of acoustic numbers and at the end of that, we go into the, well, acoustic version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And then as we get to the solo part, we go into the electric part.
So that’s kind of a cool moment, especially for me as George.
It’s pretty amazing. It’s a pretty amazing piece of body of work to do as a musician and as a performer.
How did you get started doing this? Because this seems like the coolest job in the world.
Joe Bithorn: Oh yeah.
I don’t think you can even call it a job, though.
Joe Bithorn: Well, the way that it all started, we were all former cast members of a show called BeatleMania and that’s what we had… that’s what we had done previous to joining with Rain. I had been in BeatleMania from 1980… ‘80 till about 1982 and joined forces with Rain in ’83 and that’s how that whole thing took place for me.
How’d you originally get into BeatleMania? Was it a big, like, audition?
Joe Bithorn: Actually, for me it was a different kind of a setup. As BeatleMania was coming into its own through, like, 1977 it really hit its stride, ’77, ’78. And they needed a guy coming in who could come in and do the George part. And I was that guy.
So actually what happened was one of the guys was doing his own thing and was getting closer to a deal and those things are really hard to, you know, everything is really hard to come by in the music business. It’s never really an easy call for any of it. And I just came in as a replacement for him and joined the show in 1980 in June and worked with the show all the way up until ’82 in December. Found out about Rain, I thought this would be interesting because the Beatles, you know, the BeatleMania show was just doing the same 29 songs over and over and over again, which, I understand that now because we have to keep our sets to a certain restriction and as far as lighting and sound and all that. You can’t throw up a song and go, “Ok, here we’re gonna do this one” and expect everybody to kind of follow through. But we, at that time, were doing close to 200 songs from the catalog and, you just learned them as you went along.
And we all are fans of the Beatles music and that’s kinda how the whole thing came to pass, you know, fans, musician, and then we really tried to hone in on it in as far as being as precise as, like, classical musicians would have been performing their music.
How did you, like, first start to prepare to play George? Did you watch a ton of his stuff and try and mimic his on stage mannerisms?
Joe Bithorn: Yeah, there was a lot of that and, you know, in performance, that’s what you do when you’re doing that. But for the most part, the way I looked at it was really in the perspective of trying to be as close musically as I could, first of all, because that’s the template. That’s what you really wanna go for. And then somewhat after that, you know, go towards the character. I mean, we were all doing that in BeatleMania and, of course, you had to be as close as you could.
And it is like a dream job, like you say. It is somewhat of a very better than job, let’s put it that way.
But it is a really, really cool thing to break into, especially as far as what I had been doing. You struggle in the business and for me I was trying to play sessions, I was playing with club bands, I was playing, you know, whatever I could get my hands on. You know, to try to keep working. And BeatleMania came along and saved the day so to speak.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
Joe Bithorn: I guess, you know, a really bright moment for me is doing that While My Guitar Gently Weeps medley and all of that. I mean, that’s truly, for a guitarist, it’s just a great moment and a lot of fun. It’s, you know, Eric Clapton’s solo on that, you know, in that song. So that’s a pretty cool thing to do.
And moments within the show are just outstanding. There’s so many. Parts where we’re singing three part harmony that are just glorious because the guys that I get to work with are all, you know, just incredible, incredible singers and, you know, and instrumentalists. Everyone is a top notch guy up there. I mean, there’s no, to me, there’s no weak link.
How many shows have you done?
Joe Bithorn: It’s hard to tell. I mean, when we were… when I was first in Rain, we… it ranged from, like, 250 shows a year to more than that.
Joe Bithorn: And, it’s come into its own. I mean now, you know, with it growing the way that it was, we started off doing what I would call the three C’s: clubs, casinos, and cruises. You know, corporate dates you could say as well as county fairs, you know, all of that.
It really started gelling for us in Lake Tahoe when they’d come to us and we had been coming and performing, you know, our week of shows in their showroom. It was really in the cabaret days, it started there, and then that was just still like a club act, club band. And then they shifted things over in Harrah’s where they’d shut down the cabaret rooms and shifted some of the groups into the main rooms. And they shifted us over into the main room, which was great, and that was a lot of fun for a bunch of years. And then they came to us and they said, “Look, you guys are doing great numbers. Why don’t you, you know, is there some way you can come up with a show to replace the review show?” So we kinda tossed back ideas back and forth and came up with the germ of what our show is today, you know, with video and lighting.
And that’s basically how that… how we’ve grown into what we are today.
With all those shows, what’s the craziest thing that’s happened either to you on stage or something going on in the audience?
Joe Bithorn: I think one time there was a base amp that had gone on fire. We were playing on a cruise ship. It was a pretty bizarre incident. It was all well and good because the base amp was really used mainly for fallback just for us. So it didn’t really make a difference except for when the guy came out with a fire extinguisher to put the amp out. No one panicked so it was all good.
But that’s just one of them that I can think of right now. I’m sure there are many more.