John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool, England on October 9, 1940 during a blitzkrieg attack by the German Luftwaffe. His parents were Julia and Arthur "Freddie" Lennon, and the middle name of "Winston" was given to John in honor of Winston Churchill. Alfred was in the merchant marine and was largely absent from Lennon's early years, although he reappeared after the Beatles had become mega-famous. By 1944, Julia was pregnant with another man's baby, and Julia's sister Mimi threatened to call Social Services unless John was handed over to her care. John lived with his Aunt Mimi and her husband, George Smith, until his late teens. (His childhood home at Mendips on Menlove Avenue, where he lived with his Aunt Mimi, can be seen in the photograph below.) It was George Smith who gave John his first harmonica.
Although John attended the Liverpool College of Art, he was drawn to music at an early age, and, by 1957, he had formed a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. The group underwent several name changes and lost original band members Pete Shotton and Eric Griffiths. With the addition of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best, the Beatles were formed, although the band had not yet gelled. Sutcliffe died of a brain tumor in 1962, and Pete Best was later replaced by Richard Starkey, also known as Ringo Starr. The band played clubs in Hamburg as well as The Cavern in Liverpool. They were discovered by Brian Epstein, a record store manager, who succeeded in getting the Beatles an audition with George Martin, a producer at Parlaphone records. Epstein became their manager and cleaned up the group, replacing their black leather jackets with suits.
The Beatles fame is legendary. After conquering Europe and charting songs such as "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You," the Beatles made their first American tour in February of 1964, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show after the group's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" reached number one on American charts. Lennon was so nervous before Sullivan that he taped the lyrics of some songs to the back of his guitar. Beatlemania ensued as the group was chased by screaming teens wherever they performed.
The Beatles filmed A Hard Day's Night and Help! in 1964 and 1965 respectively. Lennon created a mild uproar in 1966, especially in America, after declaring that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, a remark for which he later apologized. The band stopped touring in 1966, stating that they could no longer improve musically since they couldn't hear themselves perform. Their last performance was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. In 1967, they took to the studio at Abbey Road, where they recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band over a period of several months, producing an album that was far different than anything they had composed thus far.
The Beatles had been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan during the early stages of Beatlemania, but Lennon went much farther into drugs in 1966 (the other Beatles would follow), taking thousands of acid trips, beginning with LSD that was dropped into his coffee by George's dentist without John's knowledge. The rest of John's life would be affected by the use of hallucinogenics, marijuana, speed, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. John's wife, Cynthia Lennon, has attributed the deterioration of her marriage to John's increasing use of drugs rather than his many infidelities while on tour with the band. By most accounts, John rarely saw his son Julian because of the Beatles' frenetic pace during the height of their fame.
A sea change occurred in Lennon's life after he met Yoko Ono at an art exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. The two rapidly became inseparable, and, while Cynthia was on vacation, John and Yoko recorded an album of electronic noises called "Two Virgins" after dropping acid at his home at Kenwood. Although John attempted to sue Cynthia for divorce, Cynthia herself filed suit in 1968 upon learning that Yoko was pregnant with John's child. (The pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage.) John married Yoko in March of 1969 in Gibralter, and the couple's courtship and early history are chronicled in "The Ballad of John and Yoko."
Tensions grew within the Beatles after the death of Brian Epstein in 1967. Yoko began attending most recording sessions, beginning with The White Album, and Paul began to assume a role of leadership within the band, a move resented by the other three Beatles. (George and Ringo both temporarily left the group but returned after coaxing from the others.) The band unofficially dissolved after recording Let It Be, although they reunited to record Abbey Road, their final album. The rooftop concert that is the culmination of the Let It Be sessions took place on top of Saville Row, the home of Apple Corps, Ltd. (see photo to the left)
Lennon and Ono moved to New York in 1971 to escape the bitter feelings among band members over the group's break-up and disagreements regarding business dealings within the Beatles' company, Apple Corps, Ltd. Lennon separated from Yoko for eighteen months beginning in the fall of 1973. John lived in Los Angeles during this period, engaging in drunken behavior while partying with Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Ringo (among others), a group calling themselves The Hollywood Vampires. John and Yoko reconciled in January of 1975, living at the Dakota on 72nd Street and Central Park West. Sean Taro Ono Lennon was born to the Lennons on October 9, 1975, John's birthday.
In 1972, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service attempted to have Lennon deported because the Nixon administration felt that Lennon, a strong influence on young voters, was a threat to the president's re-election. The deportation battle, based on an earlier charge of drug possession, continued until 1976, when Lennon's application to remain in the United States as a permanent resident was finally approved. It was later revealed that the FBI had kept a file of several hundred pages on Lennon's political activism. His political activities during these years were many and varied, including his appearance at a rally in Ann Arbor Michigan to free John Sinclair, the leader of the White Panthers. Sinclair had been imprisoned for selling two joints to undercover police. Lennon was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, returning his MBE (Member of the British Empire) to the Queen in protest of Great Britain's support of America's military involvement in southeast Asia.
In Lennon's last years from 1977 to 1979, John set aside his solo recording career to assume the duties of a househusband as he took care of Sean at the Dakota. In 1980, John began composing songs again after a storm-tossed trip to Bermuda aboard the schooner Megan Jayne reinvigorated his creative energies. His new songs resulted in the album Double Fantasy. The resurrection of his musical career was short-lived, however. After returning from the recording studio on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed by a fan standing at the carriage entrance to the Dakota Building. He was pronounced dead at Roosevelt Hospital at 11:15 p.m. Lennon's body was cremated two days later. A memorial, Strawberry Fields, was later dedicated to Lennon across the street, in Central Park.
John Lennon, public domain
Lennon House at Mendips, ©PT Madden, licensed under Creative Commons 2.5
Hofner Base, ©Norman Pogson, used with permission
Saville Row, public domain
Glasses, public domain