The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was a mainstay of our youth. You’d know every fall exactly when Labor Day came around because that was always the day Jerry Lewis held his annual fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Coincidentally this was also held the day before school started up again in the fall. For 24 hours that telethon dominated our local broadcast, featuring musical acts, celebrities and others all called together for the cause.
Four days after his monumental One on One concert in Madison Square Garden, and a year after George Harrison’s historic Concert for Bangladesh, coincidentally also at the Garden. The couple’s association with Yuppie radicals like Abbie Hoffman & Jerry Rubin brought the FBI to focus an investigation on them and their suspected plans to disrupt the National Republican Convention scheduled for August 21-23, 1972, in Miami Beach FL, the same city where the Democratic Convention was held that year..
Although Hoffman & Rubin were in love with the idea, John & Yoko had no part in any such plans, and the convention went on despite anti-Vietnam War protests on August 22. John & Yoko would face deportation in 1972, based on a past marijuana charge in the UK. While Yoko was granted permanent resident status in 1973. John was ordered to get out. Such was the backdrop to this seminal performance.
The 1972 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was broadcast from New York City’s Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue. Jerry Lewis began his intro: “Ladies & gentlemen, presenting, and I’m proud to present, two of the most unusual people in all the world, and I don’t mean just in the world of entertainment. They fit no patterns, meet no standards except the standard of excellence. Ladies & gentlemen, John Lennon & Yoko!”
They were joined for the last time by their unofficial backing band, Elephant’s Memory. John sported a faint mustache & beard as he segued into another heartfelt performance of “Imagine”. John couldn’t do a bad version, and here, on keyboard instead of piano it has more of an ethereal tone. He was joined by the saxman on the first bridge, which always brings a bit of soul to any song.
And no, I won’t be excluding Yoko from this. Introducing the second number, she said, “John & I love this country very much and we’re very happy that we’re still here.” This led to “Now or Never” a peace song from her upcoming LP Approximately Infinite Universe. Apparently she was trying it out on a live audience before committing the song to vinyl, just as they’d done with ‘Cold Turkey” in 1969. There was no screaming this time, instead taking a turn at a folksy style, again highlighted by a saxophone backing.
Next, John praised Jerry as “a great comedian–I wish he never grew up!” He closed with a reggae version of “Give Peace a Chance”, just as they had at the evening show for the One on One concerts. “This is how they do it in Jamaica!” John called, inviting the audience to sing along. This was at a time when most Americans hadn’t had much exposure to reggae. Bob Marley & the Wailers breakthrough in America, Catch a Fire, would not be released until 1973. Johnny Nash’s hit “I Can See Clearly Now” wouldn’t begin to chart until October 1972, the month following this performance.
This would be the last time he performed “Give Peace a Chance”. The sax certainly livened things up, but it didn’t quite hold up to the standard version offered up three years in Toronto. To their credit, the audience seemed charged up throughout the show. While Yoko encouraged viewers to give, John shouted “no more war!” Jerry Lewis joined in with a trumpet to dance with John & Yoko onstage. Even John joins in with the shouts for “money money money!”
Jerry led the audience in a call for an encore: “John, Yoko, John, Yoko!” But as has often been said of Elvis, they had already left the building. Once he realized they weren’t coming back, Jerry covered himself admirably. “I would suspect that John Lennon is probably one of the wisest showmen I’ve ever met,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing. He did two things tonight. He, one, came here to help, the primary purpose of his visit. And two, he meant to say something. I think he did both these things. He has split. Let’s thank him very much.” This was met with the appropriate applause.
Sidebar: Hot Chocolate Covers ‘Give Peace a Chance’
Years before they dropped hits like “You Sexy Thing” and “Every 1′ a Winner”, the Caribbean-British band Hot Chocolate recorded their first single, a reggae version of ‘Give Peace a Chance” where they changed some of the lyrics. One problem, though: then-band leader Errol Brown was told he needed permission.
Brown probably never expected John Lennon to approve, but when Apple Records contacted him, John not only approved but he agreed to release their version on Apple. Recording as the Hot Chocolate Band, their only single on the Apple label was released in October 1969.
The Apple connection fell apart with the Beatles’ breakup, but this interpretation might be where John got the idea to perform reggae versions of “Give Peace a Chance” at both the One on One concerts and the Jerry Lewis telethon.
Two months later in November 1972, Richard Nixon won re-election by a landslide. In April 1973 John appealed his deportation order and with Yoko, declared a new conceptual country, Nutopia with the slogan, “No land, no boundaries, no passports, only people…No laws other than cosmic.” His Lost Weekend was not far off.
In May of 1972 John & Yoko moved from their Bank Street apartment to their lifelong residence at the Dakota. John’s appearance on the Jerry Lewis Telethon would be his last public performance for the next two years, his last with Elephant’s Memory and in fact his last live appearance with Yoko. The Lennon’s Peace campaign had effectively been stymied by the Nixon Administration’s paranoid efforts to get John deported. The legal fight would consume the next couple of years of John & Yoko’s lives.
John Lennon battled the deportation proceedings until October 8, 1975, when the deportation attempt was barred. In what would become the foundation for DACA, a Court of Appeals stated: “the courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.”3 Leon Wildes’ strategy had worked, he successfully demonstrated that just because the government could deport someone did not mean there was an obligation to deport the individual. In 1976, Lennon became a permanent resident.
Jerry Lewis hosted his first MDA telethon on September 4, 1966. He would continue to serve in that capacity from 1968 to 2010, raising 2.45 billion dollars for the MDA. The telethons continued, with other hosts, until 2012. Jerry passed away on August 20, 2017, aged 91 years.
Availability: Officially John Lennon’s performance on the Jerry Lewis Telethon has never been up for release, but that’s never stopped bootleggers. One source is a 1996 item, John Lennon-Telecasts (JL-517-CD), label unknown. This collects his performances on David Frost, Dick Cavett & Mike Douglas in 1972, including the Jerry Lewis program.
The concert can be found on several YouTube channels. We also have more options on DVD, again via bootleg. As far as listing every relevant bootleg, this is in no way to be considered inclusive. The Complete Live Lennon Tapes (misterclaudel 4637577, c. 2006) may be true to its word. Along with Jerry Lewis, it contains performances from the Rock & Roll Circus, the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa, the John Sinclair benefit, David Frost, the Attica State benefit (without Yoko), Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, Madison Square Garden with Elton John, the Old Grey Whistle, A Salute to Sir Lew Grade, as well as seven tracks from the evening One on One concert.
From HMC’s TMOQ Gazette series comes John Lennon-Holy Grails, Upgrades & Reconstructions Vol. 1 (TMOQ Gazette HMC 042), which among other items, includes news footage from the Bryant Park Peace rally, as well as two versions of the Labor Day Telethon, in color and B&W.
Among the curiosities on The John Lennon Anthology, on CD 2: New York City. While Track 20 is labelled “Jerry Lewis Telethon”, all it offers is Jerry Lewis’ call for an encore & his gracious speech once he realizes they were gone.