It’s a challenge to stand out among the thousands of Beatles tribute bands around the world. But Nashville’s WannaBeatles have a few distinguishing hooks, from integrating original, Beatles-related material into their set lists, to performing the difficult orchestral material the Beatles themselves never played live, to re-creating the Fab Four’s iconic “Ed Sullivan” appearance, complete with video synchronization. The group has even been nominated for a Grammy, in the spoken word category, for its album Fab Fan Memories—The Beatles Bond.
The group will bring its theatrical and interactive production to three venues in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale Nov. 17-19. And as bandleader Dennis Scott explains, their first Boca Raton gigs are as dear to his heart as a McCartney melody.
You have a connection to Boca Raton, correct?
My parents were longtime residents of the Florida area; they lived in Delray Beach and Boca. I was a child actor growing up. I was on Broadway when I was 7. My mother was my stage mother, so she’s always looked out for my professional career, and one of her biggest desires was that the WannaBeatles play in Boca. She was working on getting that happening at her country club. She passed just before that was going to happen. That was a little sad, but I feel I’m fulfilling her wish, because now we are playing Boca—once at the Black Box theater on Friday, and then on Sunday for the JARC fundraiser.
And you even have a Fort Lauderdale gig on Saturday.
We do, and that’s a fundraiser too, for cancer research.
With these three shows, is it the same set list? Does the vibe change based on the type of show?
We make an effort to customize the shows. The shows at Boca Black Box and JARC will be pretty similar, because the demographics do match. The one we’re doing in Fort Lauderdale is a mini show, plus we’re going to be playing dance music for the organization, which includes all sorts of groups, like the Bee Gees and other Sixties groups.
Here’s another South Florida connection: Our drummer is Cuban-born, and he came to Miami at a very young age. Life took him all the way to Nashville, Tennessee, the capital of country music where, ironically enough, we met him and we started playing as a Beatles band in a Mexican restaurant in Nashville!
We joke about it, because when we approached the restaurant owner about doing a Beatles program, he said, “si, si! Beatles and fajitas!” We even gave ourselves funny nicknames; instead of John, Paul George and Ringo, we called ourselves Juan, Jorge, Pablo and Gringo, which our drummer always takes exception to, because “gringo” is meant for Americans, and he’s already Cuban.
How does your tribute vary from the hundreds of others out there playing the Beatles’ music?
A few things distinguish us. One is the fact that we are all showmen with entertainer backgrounds. We put things into our show that your everyday Beatles cover band would not do. We do parodies of Beatles songs, because I’m a writer. I’m a two-time Grammy winner for my work in children’s music. I’ve done work with “Sesame Street” and Disney and Henson. We do a parody of “Yesterday” called “crème brûlée.” We do a parody of “Sounds of Silence” called “Sounds of Nonsense.” People say I look like Paul Simon, so we said, ‘let’s take advantage of that.’ I put on a cap, and our tall guitarist puts on a Garfunkel wig, and it gets a million laughs.
So I would say there’s a lot more variety to the show. Our guitarist, Bryan, plays several instruments, including flute, cornet, saxophone, trumpet. It’s like a three-ring circus. He’s constantly putting one instrument down, picking up another one. We do a small tribute to Louis Armstrong in the middle of the show because he actually knocked the Beatles off the charts in 1964 with his song “Hello, Dolly!” So we do a Louis Armstrong impression, and Bryan picks up his trumpet and takes care of the horn part.
So you also slip in trivia and backstories about the Beatles throughout the show?
We do. Over the years we’ve come to know a lot about the Beatles, and we like sharing inside stories we find out about them. Sometimes, when you’re a Beatles lookalike band, you can’t break that fourth wall. But for us, we can comment on them.
The album the WannaBeatles were nominated for, for a Grammy, was an audiobook. It was nominated in the spoken word category. It is a collection of interviews with Beatles fans telling incredible stories about their adventures trying to meet the Beatles, or where they were when they first heard the Beatles. We lost at the Grammys to Betty White, who had an audiobook out that year. Here’s another thing that distinguishes us: As a result of that experience, we wrote a song called “The Betty White Song,” and we will be premiering it in Boca.
And you also have audience interaction in your show?
Absolutely. When you boil it down, we’re all Beatle fans. If there’s a person willing to join us, we’ll bring somebody up who’s willing to be our Betty White for that song. We might invite people to dance to “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Why have the Beatles endured through so many decades? They’ve never waned in popularity, and even the youngest generation, which is programmed to like Justin Bieber, gets into the Beatles.
That’s one of the things we addressed when we did our album. We interviewed people and said, “Do you think the Beatles will still be around in 50 to 100 years?” And I’m going to say yes. And I think it’s attributed to the quality of the songwriting. Their songs got better and better through the years, and they just stand the test of time. I think most people who are musicians have to know about the Beatles. I don’t know a single musician who has not been affected by the Beatles. When we play concerts, we see 7-year-olds who know all the words to “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus’ Garden.” It’s permeated through everyone’s consciousness.
My biggest challenge is when we’re putting together a 90-minute or two-hour show, which songs do I leave out? They’re all so great. We try to pick our battles. A lot of groups have one show and stick with it; we love so many of those Beatles songs, even album cuts, that we’d hate to not be able to play them. I’ll work in some lesser-known songs, but ones still beloved by people, songs like “Rocky Raccoon.” You’d be amazed how many people want to hear that.
In terms of the songwriting, are you more of a John person or a Paul person? Same goes for the rest of the band.
Everybody has their favorites. I tend to lean towards Paul, because I love a good melody, and he’s a master at that. I think maybe Bryan likes George Harrison more. I know David, the drummer, likes John’s songs. The one who gets left out as a songwriter is Ringo.
He only wrote two or three songs, right?
Right. And some of them are charming, like “Octopus’ Garden.” But if you want to compare “Octopus’ Garden” to, for example, “Something” or “And I Love Her” or “If I Fell,” there’s no contest. But don’t tell Ringo I said that!
Some Beatles tributes play with period-authentic instruments. Do you subscribe to that philosophy, or do modern instruments work just as well?
I think for ones that are going for more of a lookalike, that’s probably very important. For us, we have a bigger challenge. We’re only four people, and we’re tackling not only the early material, but the later, orchestrated material. And a lot of the tribute bands out there have to have a fifth person offstage covering those parts of even a sixth person. So with only four of us, you’ll see on some songs the drummer will be hitting the drums with his right hand and playing a keyboard with his left hand. Our other guitarist picks up various wind instruments. I call it a three-ring circus, because we’re always moving around to do whatever we can to cover those parts.
The most challenging song, perhaps, is “I Am the Walrus,” because it has everything—strings, French horn, trumpets, guitars. With only four hands, that’s an instance where the drummer is doubling on keyboards. He taped a shaker onto a drumstick, so he’s playing a shaker and a drumstick at the same time. It really is a challenge.
Catch the WannaBeatles at 8 p.m. Friday at Boca Black Box, 8221 Glades Road, Suite 10 ($25-$35, 561/483-9036, bocablackbox.com); at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Royal Dames of Cancer’s 48th Annual Tiara Ball at Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six in Fort Lauderdale ($300, 954/465-9873); and 1 p.m. Sunday at JARC’s Benefit Concert at Olympic Heights High School, 2101 Lyons Road, Boca Raton ($25, 561/558-2572).