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The Beatles: ‘In My Life’

by David Fleet

February 19, 2014

Sheila Newton glances over the aging album covers.

The vinyl records inside the cardboard sheaths are etched with music that defined her generation, youth, and a closeness known to only a few.

Sheila, now a 71-year-old Brandon Township resident and former British citizen of 65 years, recalls the early years of the Beatles—before their fame.

"I danced to the Beatles music when they were playing dance halls—way before they came to America," laughs Newton.

The Beatles' American invasion began Feb. 7, 1964—50 years ago this month— when their Boeing 707, Pan Am flight 101, left the London Airport and landed in New York City.

About four years before the Beatles arrived in the United States, Sheila, then a teen growing up in England, encountered the "Fab-Four" up close and quite personal.

"I was born in Paignton, England in 1942, during the height of World War II," she said. "My parents, Rose and Leslie Heap, had me shipped to northern England to the town of Morecambe in Lancashire. Not far from Blackpool."

"I moved back to the seaside town of Paignton, in the county of Devonshire after the war," she said. "It was very harsh conditions in England, the bombing by the Germans took a lot out of our country. I remember burned out buildings and bricks scattered everywhere. Whole cities were just gone. We had rationing books—items like butter, petroleum products and sugar were very limited. Even many years after the war ended it was very tough to get by. I was a teenager before I saw my first television. In the late 1940s and even into the 1950s, few people in England even owned a television. We heard that the Americans had color televisions before we had one in black and white," she laughed.

The Heaps gave birth to a second daughter, Sylvia toward the end of World War II.

"We traveled around a lot when I was young—we lived outside of London for a while too," she said. "We lived in a small caravan or trailer. We lived in a trailer park that was near a small farm and I would milk cows to bring in money for food. I did not think about being poor. There was often no electricity or running water, but really that's all I knew. The war was over, but then the country really suffered."

Her father, Leslie Heap, served in the British Army during the war. Sheila does not recall his role in the service.

"Dad lost his hearing due to bombs going off near him," she said. "And he suffered from the psychological impacts of the war. Today it would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. We did not refer to his problems that way, but he suffered—it was hard for him to find work and keep a job."

In about 1960, Sheila, then about 18 years old, moved away following her mother and father's divorce.

"I attended college for a while in Torquay, England— I was studying to be a nurse, but had to move back home to take care of my mother who was having some health issues," she said. "Fortunately, I got a job as a nanny in Cardiff, Wales about 1960."

"We were going to the dance halls in Torquay, England," she said. "The town was full of mods and rockers."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the "rocker" subculture centered on motorcycling. The rockers generally wore black leather jackets with a pompadour hairstyle— associated with 1950s rock and roll, the rockers' music genre of choice. In contrast, the "mod" subculture focused on fashion and music—they rode scooters, wore suits, were clean-cut and preferred 1960s music such as soul and rhythm and blues.

"Torquay was a really beautiful seaside town with big dance halls everywhere," she said. "We'd go down there on the weekends to hangout and dance. The police were everywhere keeping the peace between the rockers and the mods. There was always fights or some conflict going on."

"Anyway, me and two of my girlfriends were going into this dance hall that was down a narrow staircase under a building when the Beatles were coming up from playing a gig there," she said. "George Harrison started talking to me and Paul (McCartney), John (Lennon) and Ringo (Starr) came up the stairs behind him. He (George) was flirting with me right there on the stairs. I mean, what do you expect him to do with three teenage girls? He asked my name and wanted to meet me outside the dance hall, but before we could really get to talking the crowds in the stairwell kept pushing us and yelling at us to get moving. There were a lot of people there—so we had to move on."

"But at that time the Beatles were just starting out," she recalls. "They were just another band—we all enjoyed their music and found out where they were playing in the Torquay area. You could go into one of the many dance halls and chances are they (the Beatles) would be on the stage playing. I also remember music changing about then, you didn't need a dance partner, either. Everyone just kind of went out on the dance floor."

Times were very unsettling in England in the 1960s.

"Many changes came to England and the counterculture in those days," she said. "And rock and roll was part of that. The kids were no longer hidden or forgotten—we expressed ourselves through music. The Beatles were very easy to dance to and there was a sense of freedom from the past. The youth were expected to be seen, not heard, in England until this time."

Sheila left England in 1964 for the United States and is now settled in Ortonville.

"I've always loved the Beatles," she said. "I became an American citizen about six years ago, but still recall my conversations and encounters with the Beatles—they were part of my youth and my era. I grew up with them."