Eric Michaels and his brother both loved to play music while they were growing up, and would often fight about which band to cover: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
His brother usually won the fights, but it didn’t kill Michaels’ love for the Fab Four - today, he fronts the Chicago-based Beatles cover band American English.
He’s been Sir Paul McCartney all over the world, from Maui to Japan to Liverpool. He’s rubbed shoulders and played onstage with the likes of original Beatles drummer Pete Best; he’s performed "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Abbey Road" top to bottom in front of adoring audiences.
"There's Beatles fans everywhere you go," he said. "It's constant."
Still, he says that in his experience, no one has love for the Fab Four like Wisconsin does.
"Wisconsin just has rabid Beatles fans. Wherever we play, from conference centers to festivals to casinos, it’s always jammed. And in Wisconsin people are pretty sturdy, so even if it's five below, I know people will show up."
Michaels and American English will play at the Grain Exchange, 225 E. Michigan St., this Friday evening to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ first album, "Please Please Me." The concert and dinner will begin at 6 p.m.
Michaels joined American English in the late 1980s, when his brother played guitar with one of the band’s former members. Within a few years (and after a brief hiatus), he took over as bandleader and now manages the group in addition to being a full-time player.
Other members have come and gone, but he says their current lineup is "the best we’ve ever had." American English also includes Frank Canino (John Lennon), James Paul Lynch (George Harrison) and Tom Gable (Ringo Starr).
The group specializes in attention to detail, doing meticulous research on the original Beatles’ biographies so that they can accurately represent all periods of the band's brief lifetime.
For Michaels, it takes a lot of time and effort to be Paul McCartney. First, there’s the accent. McCartney doesn’t speak like the rest of the lads from Liverpool - his mother Mary, Michaels reports, was determined that her son not sound like a "scouser" and drilled proper pronunciation into him from a young age.
Michaels has gone through hours of audio to capture the nuances of McCartney’s voice. "I listen to a lot of interviews – not just him on stage, out of breath, in front of 10,000 screaming 16-year-olds," he said. "You’ve got to bring in his regularity, get him talking like he’s in your parlor. And just like with music, it’s a lot of practice."
Secondly, there’s the look. American English has many of their costumes custom-tailored with materials brought from England. "We order a lot of the patches and military braiding for the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ costumes," Michaels says. "It’s expensive, but you’ve got to have it."
The group plays well over 100 gigs a year all over the world, and has the distinction of being endorsed and promoted by the legendary Sam Leach, the author of "The Birth of the Beatles." Leach also promoted the Beatles when they were on the cusp of stardom in the early 1960s, booking them to perform in Operation Big Beat at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in 1961.
Leach was reportedly "blown away" by American English and brought them to Liverpool in 2001 for the 40th anniversary of Operation Big Beat.
"Before Sam, we would play a bar here, a bar there, maybe three to four times a month," said Michael. "He really took us to a new level."
So what’s it like for four Chicago-land guys to impersonate Liverpool’s most beloved sons in their hometown? "It’s kind of scary the first night," admitted Michaels. "Beatles tribute band are not the biggest thing in England. They’re still into American music, like the Beatles were."
In fact, the band’s name, "American English," refers to the Beatles’ obsession with American rock n’ roll. John Lennon was particularly influenced by new music from across the pond and once famously said that without the inspiration of Elvis Presley’s music, the Beatles would never have existed.
"They based their original songs off of stuff they learned from Chuck Barry and guys like that," said Michaels, joking that they very well could have called themselves "English American."
For the anniversary dinner at the Grain Exchange, American English will be pulling out all the stops. "It’ll be a full show, all periods, from the early days to ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘Abbey Road,’" Michaels says. "We’ll be doing songs from all the albums, from ‘Let It Be’ to ‘The White Album,’ and we’ll throw a few oddballs in there for good measure."
Tickets to the dinner are $100 per person, but you can see American English’s show only for $25 per person.
"I really recommend the dinner package, though," Michaels said. "I hear the food is absolutely phenomenal."
The festivities will include a three-course dinner with wine pairings and a Beatles look-alike contest. And don’t worry – the boys from American English won’t be competing.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.