Flashback: Paul McCartney Launches ‘Wings Over America’ Comeback Tour
It was 47 years ago tonight (May 3rd, 1976) that Paul McCartney kicked off his one-and-only North American tour with Wings, dubbed “Wings Over America,” in Fort Worth, Texas. The tour, which featured the classic fourth lineup of Wings, marked McCartney’s return to the U.S. concert stage for the first time since the Beatles‘ final tour during the summer of 1966.
Since 1972, McCartney and Wings had recorded and toured extensively throughout the U.K., Europe, and Australia with various lineups of the group, which included wife Linda on keyboards and Moody Blues co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Denny Laine. It took the worldwide success of Wings’ Number One albums Red Rose Speedway, Band On The Run, Venus And Mars — and his then-most recent release Wings At The Speed Of Sound — along with nine Top Ten hits, including the soon-to-be Number One “Silly Love Songs,” to bring the act to America.
By the time Wings hit the U.S., the group included drummer Joe English, 22-year-old guitar virtuoso Jimmy McCulloch, as well as a four-piece horn section. Throughout the two-and-a-half hour show, McCartney moved around the stage playing bass, acoustic guitar, and both grand and electric pianos.
The 21-city tour opened on May 3rd in Fort Worth at the Tarrant County Convention Center, and continued for 31 shows across the country, closing on June 23rd during a three-night stand The Forum in Los Angeles. Ringo Starr appeared onstage at the end of the June 21st show to mug for the audience and present McCartney with flowers.
Reviews for the tour, which featured state-of-the-art sound and a cutting-edge laser light show, were glowing, with The Dallas Morning News declaring after the tour’s opening night that, “It was a far superior concert to any show the Beatles ever did and so much better than any previous concert by (George) Harrison, (Ringo) Starr, and (John) Lennon, (that) they should not even be in the same category.”
Paul McCartney said that he looks back to the 1975/1976 “Wings Over The Word” tour with particular pride: “I remember Wings, we did have some good lineups. And I think ’76, with Joe (English) and Jimmy (McCullough), and Denny (Laine), and Linda, we had — I think that was pretty good lineup, and we did some good stuff then.”
One of the secret weapons of the “Wings Over The World” era, was arguably, the most innovative drummer Wings ever had — Rochester, New York-born Joe English. English recalled how he scored, perhaps the most coveted job in all of ’70s rock: “Just a friend of mind who was in Macon, had been working on that record, ‘Sally G.’ in Nashville and ‘Junior’s Farm.’ His name is Tony Dorsey and he’s a horn arranger. And McCartney was usin’ him and he caught wind that McCartney was gonna be firing his drummer, Geoff Britton, and lookin’ for somebody else. And he called me up and said, ‘There’s a chance you might have a job’ — and then it came to pass, he called me. I went without any audition, went right to New Orleans on a Tuesday — on a Wednesday I started recording Venus And Mars. And I thought it would be a great big deal, but McCartney, he’s a fantastic songwriter and one of the top in the business; but look at it this way — he’s another human being, And he was real easy to get along with — it was really smooth.”
McCartney told us that late wife Linda weathered the critical beatings from the rock press for the sole reason that she loved the music: “It’s a cheap shot to criticize her. It was real easy, ’cause she was taking the place of either John, George, or Ringo. And, obviously, being a musician who was just learning, she obviously couldn’t compare with those guys. And y’know, the other thing is, you gotta remember this was before ‘girl power,’ and there were not many women holding down such an important position in a band, so it took a lot of courage to do it.”
Denny Laine admitted that by the end of the ’76 tour, the group got comfortable playing arenas and the unanimous praise: “As the tour went on, we were used to it then. But the very first night was an amazing experience.”
McCartney included only five Beatles songs in his 30-song setlist, performing “Lady Madonna,” “The Long And Winding Road,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Blackbird,” and “Yesterday.”
Bill King, publisher of Beatlefan magazine, says that the inclusion of the few Beatles songs — especially “Yesterday” — pushed emotional buttons that up till that point weren’t felt at your average rock concert: “It was nostalgia, it was a chance to finally see a Beatle doing a Beatles song live in concert — which many of us had not had. Already, even at that age — and most of us who were original fans were still in our 20’s when he toured in ’76. But already, even at that relatively young age, we had nostalgia. And it was an emotional moment for a lot of people to see him doing that song. It was a song they had never expected to see him do live.”
Although tensions could quickly become strained between Jimmy McCulloch and Denny Laine, today, Laine, fondly remembers the guitarist, who died of a heroin overdose at age 26 in 1979: “Jimmy was more kind of tuneful and a team person. He was a younger guy, he was into playing lots of different styles — but he was equally good at all of them.”
Beatlefan contributor Tom Frangione explained that the tour was initially set to kick off on Fort Worth the previous April 8th, but extenuating circumstances forced McCartney to push the tour back nearly a month: “The word was that Jimmy McCulloch had broken a couple of fingers; point of fact, Paul needed some time off because (his father) James Sr. had passed away. Everything had to be just — everything had to be just right for that.”
Among the Wings hits performed were “Jet,” “Live And Let Die,” “My Love,” “Listen To What The Man Said,” “Let ‘Em In,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Band On The Run,” and “Hi, Hi, Hi.”
The group also dug into their catalogue, playing album tracks such as “Let Me Roll It,” “Magneto And Titanium Man,” “Call Me Back Again,” “Bluebird,” “Picasso’s Last Words,” “Time To Hide,” and “Letting Go.”
Among the celebrities catching the tour on various stops were Ringo Starr, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Robbie Robertson, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Micky Dolenz, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Frampton, Elton John, Cher, Harry Nilsson, and the Beach Boys‘ Carl and Dennis Wilson.
McCartney was featured on the cover of the May 31st issue of Time in a specially commissioned Peter Max illustration, with the headline “McCartney Comes Back.”
One McCartney fan who left the concert unsatisfied was Eric Carmen, who attended Wings’ May 10th concert at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum, and says that he was unimpressed with the setlist, as well as hearing the other band members taking vocal turns: “It was so awful and such a letdown that I was literally stunned. I mean, I sat in the audience wanting to just be blown away. And he can do whatever he wants up there! But I mean, he did things that all I can think of is, ‘It must have been so long since Paul actually played and there was an audience listening as opposed to screaming.'”
McCartney edited the tapes from the U.S. shows later that fall, and in December released a three-record live set titled Wings Over America, which eventually peaked at Number One. An edited live version of McCartney’s 1970 track “Maybe I’m Amazed,” lifted from the by-then chart-topping Wings Over America, made it to Number 10 in early 1977.
Robert Rodriguez, author of the watershed books Revolver – How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll and Solo In The 70s: John, Paul, George, Ringo: 1970-1980, recalled, that 1976 will always hold a special spot in fans’ hearts: “That year leading into the tour, it was sort of like the second coming of the Beatles anyway — ’cause here’s Paul coming to America on a grand scale, and that same summer you have (the Beatles’ compilation) Rock N’ Roll Music out and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ riding in the Top 10 of the charts — so it was a really amazing year to have that sort of ‘Beatle buzz’ going. It wasn’t the only year of the ’70s that was like this, for sure. But what an amazing experience to have captured and put on record because, y’know, for the people that didn’t get to see the concert that are kicking themselves for the rest of their lives, y’know, that album is a really nice souvenir.”
Denny Laine told us that he and McCartney took pride that by 1976 Wings had finally progressed to the arena circuit: “It is that thing of having put together and rehearsed something within a small circle of people and getting it right. And getting all the lights and all the sound and all that together. And then, actually performing in a big arena. You are as much a part of it as the audience is, because it’s all new.”
Howie Edelson, the co-host and producer of the groundbreaking podcast, FABCAST — “the only home of intelligent, cool, and forward thinking Beatles discussion” — told us that McCartney’s triumph in 1976 proved that he had moved far past his partners as a modern touring artist: “I think apart from the incredible success of the ’76 tour, it underscored — beyond anything else — that the Beatles would never reform. There was no way that John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr could compete on a concert stage next to McCartney. He was a superhero.”
The “Wings Over America” tour was documented for both the small and big screen. On March 16th, 1979, CBS aired the Wings Over The World special, which included performances from New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
The movie Rockshow premiered on November 26th, 1980 at New York City’s Ziegfried Theatre.
In 2013, Wings Over The World was given its first commercial release on as part of the Wings Over America “Deluxe Reissue” box set. That year, Rockshow was also finally made available on DVD and Blu-ray.
McCartney and Wings’ next road trek, the 1979/1980 tour, was cut short by McCartney’s infamous pot bust at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, resulting in the band’s Japan dates and future shows being canceled.
McCartney — without Wings, which had officially disbanded in April 1981 — kicked off his second North American tour over 13 years after his solo U.S. debut on November 23rd, 1989 at The Forum in Los Angeles.
In 2014, McCartney snagged the Grammy Award for Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package for his massive 1976 Wings Over America – Deluxe Edition box set.
The amazing tale of late-Paul McCartney & Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch has been chronicled by author Paul Salley in the 2021 book, Little Wing: The Jimmy McCulloch Story. McCulloch, who died at the age of 26 of a heroin overdose, was a child prodigy mentored by Pete Townshend, and with the Who leader’s help, scored a 1969 chart-topper with Thunderclap Newman on the Townshend-produced smash, “Something In The Air.”
Throughout the years, McCulloch played with John Mayall, Stone The Crows, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Carl Wilson, and the Small Faces, among many others — but will be forever remembered for his historic four year-stint with Paul McCartney & Wings. In addition to the “Junior’s Farm” single and touring with Wings in 1975 and 1976 as part of the “Wings Over The World” tour, McCulloch played on Mike McCartney‘s McGear album before lending his talents to such classic albums as 1975’s Venus And Mars, 1976’s Wings At The Speed Of Sound, and Wings Over America, along with 1978’s London Town.
According to Little Wing’s press release, the book “features over 200 rare images and exclusive interviews with close relatives, musicians, friends, and fans. McCulloch’s story is traced from his humble roots to his rise to international prominence, and his untimely passing in 1979.”