BILL BROWNSTEIN, The Gazette
Published: Wednesday, October 29
Bill Rotari simply shakes his head and emits a little grunt. He has
just been listening to yet another "expert witness" give his take on
what transpired in room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on May 23, 1969.
That is a place and date etched in the minds of Montrealers - of a
certain age. That's when John Lennon and Yoko Ono descended on the
city to stage their bed-in for peace and record Give Peace a Chance,
which included background vocals from a host of celebs and regular folk.
Much has been said and written about events that took place then.
Many have leapt into the fray to talk about their alleged roles in
organizing the event. But in the ensuing years, facts have become as
blurred as the smoke-induced cloud that hovered over that fabled suite.
Rotari, a gentle giant of a figure with a massive mop of a
Beatles-styled coif, is a soft-spoken fellow. It has been his job as
a behind-the-scenes record exec over the years to promote his artists
- be they a young Céline Dion or the late John Lennon - not himself.
But he feels the time has come to set the record straight.
"Everyone seems to have their version of events and lots of people
are taking credit for putting the event together," he says, over a
bowl of soup at a downtown resto. "It's become like Woodstock. I
don't even think some of the people who said they were there, were
there. There have been so many misconceptions."
Back in '69, Rotari was regional managing director of Capitol/ EMI,
which distributed Lennon's discs here. A few days before Lennon's
visit to Montreal, Rotari got a call from his head office telling him
that John and Ono were coming to stage their bed-in. Rotari was told
$10,000 was being transferred to the Queen E for Lennon, and to meet
the ex-Beatle at the hotel suite when he arrived. He was also asked
to ensure that the hotel have a huge security detail to watch over the couple.
"Mercifully, the hotel did provide security," Rotari says. "When I
got there to meet John and Yoko, there was a media crush the likes of
which I had never seen.
"Every TV and newspaper organization from around the world seemed to
have been there - largely because Lennon wasn't allowed to be in the
U.S. back then for legal reasons."
Rotari had a few hours of private time with Lennon and Ono in their
suite, before they slipped into their jammies and got into bed. "It
was nuts. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be at their bedside, from
Tommy Smothers to right-wing cartoonist Al Capp, who mixed it up with
John over their huge political differences.
"In spite of all the commotion in the room, though, John was in his
own space and kept singing this song softly to himself. A few days
later, he informed us that he wanted to record a song in the suite
and asked if we could provide him with recording equipment. I had my
A&R (artist and repertoire) director Pierre Dubord call every
recording studio in town, but they were all closed for the weekend.
So we called André Perry, then an up-and-coming recording engineer on
the South Shore, who naturally thought we were putting him on. After
some convincing, though, André did show up with a four-track recording system."
And musical history was made. The tune Lennon was singing to himself
was Give Peace a Chance. "John wanted as many voices as possible for
the refrain. In addition to all the people jammed in the room, hotel
security rounded up people who were hiding out all over the hotel.
They thought they were getting busted. Little did they realize they
would be part of the recording. It was just insane. Along with these
people, there was Smothers, Petula Clark, Derek Taylor and even
Timothy Leary. There were hardly any instruments around, so people in
the room starting kicking doors - in rhythm - and playing whatever
utensils they could find."
It may have been bedlam, but it was mission accomplished for John and
Yoko, as well as Rotari's team. What really riles Rotari is that
others he never even knew or saw then have since taken credit for
everything from arranging the room to setting up the recording
session. Some have even written books saying so.
"We were his record company. Why would he go to a complete stranger
to set everything up? It seems, though, that some will do anything to
catch a bit of fame."
Lennon and Ono came back not long after the bed-in to promote Give
Peace a Chance. Rotari set up a news conference for them and prior to
it, presented Lennon with a Habs sweater.
"John was a great sport and, despite the stories, Yoko was fine,
too," Rotari says. "They were really appreciative and thanked us
repeatedly for our efforts in bringing the event off."
Rotari also provided background vocals on the tune. "That's why the
song sold so well," he jokes. "Mostly, though, I was so relieved we
pulled this off without serious incident. It could have turned into a
completely out-of-control circus."
Rotari went on to the CBS label, which later became Sony. He is also
credited for getting Céline Dion signed to the CBS label.
"I ran into René Angélil at a burger joint in the early '80s - just a
chance meeting. I had known René, before he had managed Céline, from
his early days when he was singing with the Baronets. I had been
singing with my own group at the time, The Favorites. Over burgers, I
told René that before re-signing Céline to their old record label, he
should consider meeting me at CBS to have a chat about her coming there."
Angélil clearly heeded the advice, and the result was - and is - more