John Winston Lennon was born on the night of October 9, 1940, during a particularly ferocious German air raid in World War II. Sirens were wailing and the streets of Liverpool were teeming with chaos as Mimi Smith ran the two miles to the Oxford Street maternity hospital through blacked-out back roads lit only by the light of explosions, dodging in and out of doorways to avoid the shrapnel, and running as fast as her legs would take her all for a glimpse of her infant nephew — the first boy to be born to the family of five sisters.
The fanfare that ushered John Lennon into this world would prove prophetic of the life he was to lead in his short time here. That life will be remembered and honored around the globe this weekend on the occasion of what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. Plans to celebrate the former Beatles' legacy include an arts festival in his native Liverpool; a weekend-long ceremony at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the two-time inductee where a time capsule will be dedicated to his post-Beatles’ recordings and fan contributions; and the annual lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland by Lennon's widow, muse and musical partner, Yoko Ono. There are also plans for various film screenings and the US release of Nowhere Boy, a biopic about John Lennon's adolescence, the creation of his first band, The Quarrymen, and its evolution into The Beatles.
Born to Julia and Alfred Lennon and named for his paternal grandfather John "Jack" Lennon and Winston Churchill, John was descended from a musical lineage that included his grandfather, a traveling minstrel who bought the young boy his first mouth organ; the adventurous, stage-struck Alf Lennon — with his sharp wit and show-off streak that would be among his son's strongest characteristics — who entertained on ships as a merchant seaman in World War II; and his high-spirited, impulsive mother Julia, who played the ukulele, piano accordion and the banjo, and who often sang John to sleep at night. "She used to do this little tune...from the Disney movie," he would remember. "'Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell. You are standing by a wishing-well...'"
The audacious Julia Lennon was more muse than mother to John. She bucked tradition when she dared the happy-go-lucky Alf to marry her in 1938, and then left the oft-absent seaman — though never divorced him — some years later to cohabitate with her lover. Julia's frivolous and unreliable nature prompted her sister Mary "Mimi" Smith to twice contact Liverpool’s Social Services to complain about her perceived neglect of John. Under considerable pressure, Julia was forced to relinquish custody of her firstborn to her sister and Mimi's husband George. The childless Smith once said that, "I knew the moment I saw John in that hospital that I was the one to be his mother, not Julia.”
John Lennon grew up in the sensible household of his Aunt Mimi, who strived to give her nephew a proper upbringing despite his rascally nature. Outside of art class, schoolwork held little interest for the rebellious boy. As a disinterested student enrolled at the Liverpool College of Art in the 1950s, he became infatuated by the arrival of the skiffle music scene in the UK and the spread of American rock and roll. This new obsession was not to his aunt’s liking, and she staunchly refused to encourage it. Julia, on the other hand, provided John with his first guitar. As Lennon had difficulty learning chords, his birth mother taught him banjo and ukulele chords, which were simpler. She also taught him how to play the piano accordion. As Mimi refused to have a record player in the house, John learned to perform his favorite records by going to Julia’s home and using hers. She played Elvis Presley’s records for her son and would dance around her kitchen with him.
John formed his first band with some of his schoolmates when he was sixteen. Calling themselves The Quarrymen, the group performed for free at local parties before landing their first professional gig in June of 1957. It would be at the band’s very next show that Lennon first encountered fellow aspiring musician, Paul McCartney. This fortuitous meeting set a new course for John’s musical career, moving it in a more serious direction. Lennon and McCartney were mutually, if reservedly, impressed by one another's talents, and within a few weeks Paul was invited to join the group. McCartney then petitioned for his younger friend George Harrison to be added to the lineup, a request that was initially met with some resistance from Lennon. Soon John and Paul had agreed that everything written by either would from that point on be credited to "Lennon-McCartney," a promise they kept for nearly fifteen years.
The accidental death of Julia Lennon in 1958, who was struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty constable, would further bond Lennon and McCartney. Traumatized by the sudden loss of his beloved mother, the teenage Lennon resorted to drink and frequent fisticuffs to mollify the blind rage which contributed to the emotional difficulties that would haunt him for much of his life. It also drew him closer to McCartney, whose mother had succumbed to breast cancer when Paul was just thirteen. John turned to his music for healing, performing with McCartney, Harrison, and fellow art student (and non-musician) Stuart Sutcliffe throughout the remainder of the ‘50s. The band underwent several name changes, discarding The Quarrymen for Johnny & the Moondogs, and then the Silver Beetles, before finally settling on The Beatles, a name inspired by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, whom they idolized, with Lennon misspelling it to make the pun on "beat group."
In August of 1960 Lennon and his bandmates were offered a contract to play for six weeks in Hamburg, Germany. Another Liverpool musician, Pete Best, was quickly brought aboard to fill in on drums, and the band were given an opportunity to hone their skills through exhausting six-hour sets at seedy venues such as the Indra and Kaiserkeller Clubs. This first excursion was cut short as a result of Harrison's deportation due to his being underage, but the band returned the following year to perform at the Top Ten Club, and it was at this time that they were hired to serve as backing band for British singer Tony Sheridan on his version of "My Bonnie" and several other tracks.
Upon their return to England, The Beatles — minus Sutcliffe who had left the band to resume his art career — quickly grew to become one of the biggest acts in the Liverpool area. Their success attracted the interest of Brian Epstein, the owner of a nearby record shop. Epstein approached Lennon with an offer to manage the group, and after some difficulty, eventually secured a contract for them with EMI Records in June of 1962. After dumping drummer Pete Best and replacing him with Liverpool drummer Richard Starkey, who went by the name Ringo Starr, The Beatles’ lineup was in place.
The band began their climb up the UK charts with their debut single, the McCartney-penned “Love Me Do,” which reached as high as #17. Lennon's track “Please Please Me” followed two months later, earning the band their first UK #1 hit. On the cusp of their rise in popularity, John married Cynthia Powell, his girlfriend since his days at art school, after learning that she had become pregnant. But just like his father before him, John abandoned his family and set out with The Beatles. The group toured around the country to enthusiastic crowds throughout 1963 while their debut album Please Please Me climbed to the #3 position. By January of 1964 The Beatles had exploded on the charts with the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”