10 Facts About The Beatles's 1969 Rooftop Concert

Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On January 30, 1969, at lunch time, The Beatles appeared on the rooftop of their record label’s headquarters, unannounced, and started performing. Londoners looked on with excitement and bafflement as the world’s biggest band, which hadn’t played live in two and a half years, tried out new material for 42 minutes. It would end up being their final live show.

Here are 10 things you might not have known about this strange moment in pop culture, on its 50th anniversary.

1. It took place during the Beatles’s “winter of discontent.”

When The Beatles reconvened in January of 1969, the band was frayed and dysfunctional, according to The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook the World, Mojo magazine’s book-length chronicle of the group. Paul McCartney assumed leadership of the band and envisioned the follow-up to the White Album, tentatively titled "Get Back," as a return to basics. The band would write songs and bang them out as a four-piece ensemble, forsaking all the overdubs and lavish production of their past few albums.

George Harrison came to resent McCartney's control, and recordings were often interrupted as the two bickered over Harrison’s guitar work. Ringo Starr was anxious for the project to end so as to not conflict with the filming of The Magic Christian, a comedy in which he was slated to star alongside Peter Sellers. John Lennon was prone to long silences, allowing the ever-present Yoko Ono to speak for him. Harrison and Lennon reportedly came to blows over the Yoko issue, a report the former denied to the press. Harrison called the time “the winter of discontent” and Lennon dubbed the Get Back effort “the most miserable sessions on Earth.” The recordings were scrapped in favor of Abbey Road and then retooled as Let It Be, The Beatles’s final album.

2. It was staged for a TV project.

McCartney planned a two-night TV special to accompany the release of Get Back. The first installment would document the group writing the material and the second would show them performing it live, marking their first concert since their 1966 U.S. tour. The band’s press agent, Derek Taylor, even told the media The Beatles were scouting locations for a January 18, 1969, concert, according to Ten Years That Shook the World. The band hired director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had created a handful of their promotional videos (including those for “Paperback Writer” and “Hey Jude”). Like the album, the TV special did not pan out as envisioned. In 1970, Lindsay-Hogg’s footage became a documentary film, also titled Let It Be.

3. They picked the roof for one main reason: convenience.

In The Beatles Anthology coffee table book, Neil Aspinall, the band’s former road manager and head of their label Apple Corps, said he suggested a boat, a Greek amphitheater, and London venue the Roundhouse as locations for the live show. But scheduling didn’t allow for any of those. “[I]t was a case of, ‘How are we going to finish this in two weeks’ time?’” McCartney recalled in Anthology. “So it was suggested that we go up on the roof and do a concert there. Then we could all go home. I’m not sure who suggested it. I could say it seems like one of my half-baked ideas but I’m not sure.”

4. Billy Preston was hired to lighten the mood.

Keyboardist Billy Preston, a distinguished American session musician, is the only non-Beatle in the rooftop performance. The band met him in their early 1960s Hamburg days and thought he could lighten the mood in 1969. “He got on the electric piano and straightaway there was a 100-percent improvement in the vibe in the room,” Harrison said in Ten Years That Shook the World.

5. There’s a reason no Harrison songs were played.

Photo of George Harrison of The Beatles
Keystone/Getty Images

Five new songs were played in a total of nine takes. All of the songs—“Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down," “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” and “Dig a Pony”—were credited to Lennon and McCartney. Harrison contributed a few songs to the Get Back sessions, including an early version of “My Sweet Lord.” According to Ten Years That Shook the World, the band skipped them because they didn’t know if he would still be a Beatle when the project was done. The guitarist walked out of the Get Back recordings twice, at one point telling the band they should advertise for his replacement in the British music magazine NME.

6. The audio was piped to the basement.

As the band played, the audio feed went to producer Alan Parsons in the basement of the building.

7. There were cameras hidden at street level.

Lindsay-Hogg’s camera crew set up cameras in the windows of the Apple Corps building that morning, anticipating a crowd gathering.

8. Onlookers were underwhelmed.

As the band played, traffic came to a halt, pedestrians gathered around the Apple Corps building, and workers in neighboring buildings came to their windows and their own roofs. “I remember it was cold and windy and damp,” Starr said in Anthology, “but all the people looking out from the offices were really enjoying it.”

Contemporary assessments, gathered in Ten Years That Shook the World, were more critical. “It’s The Beatles? Christ, it doesn’t sound like that,” said one man. “You call that a public performance? I can’t see them,” complained a woman. “This kind of music is alright in its place, but I think it’s a bit of an imposition to disrupt the business in this area,” said an annoyed Londoner.

9. Some Apple Corps employees kept working.

British rock group the Beatles performing their last live public concert on the rooftop of the Apple Organization building for director Michael Lindsey-Hogg's film documentary, 'Let It Be,' on Savile Row, London, UK, 30th January 1969
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“I knew there was going to be something on the roof but it was not my business,” press agent Derek Taylor said in Anthology. “I had other things going on and saw people outside in the street.” The band’s longtime producer, George Martin, was also in the building. “I was downstairs when they played on the roof,” he said, “worrying like mad if I was going to end up in Saville Row police station for disturbing the peace.”

10. Police pulled the plug—literally.

Eventually, a bank manager (no doubt London’s biggest square) called police to complain about the noise. Officers from the Greater Westminster Council marched over to Apple Corps and made their way up to the roof. In Anthology, McCartney claims he heard an officer yell, “You have to stop!” (he said he still remembered his badge number: 503), but the singer egged the band on to continue until the officer yanked a cord from the equipment setup, ending the performance. No one, Beatle or otherwise, was charged for the incident.

This article originally ran in 2017.

12 Soulful Facts About Aretha Franklin

American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Before she was a global sensation, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young girl with a big voice. She was born in a tiny home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942 to C.L. and Barbara Franklin. Her parents, a well-known Baptist minister and a talented singer and musician, laid the groundwork for their daughter's roots in the gospel traditions of the church early on. When she was 5, the family moved to Detroit when her father took over as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and it later became the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit. It was there that Aretha Franklin's talents and views grew.

Though she became known as the Queen of Soul, Franklin's music was genre-bending—it touched on everything from gospel to pop—and her songs topped the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. Here's what you should know about the artist whose career spanned some six decades before her death from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76.

  1. Aretha Franklin knew Sam Cooke from childhood and wanted to emulate his career.

In the early 1950s, Franklin met Cooke—who is often referred to as the King of Soul—at her church. "I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle," she told NPR in 1999. "And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them—Sam and his brother L.C. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive—not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way."

Much like Franklin, Cooke was the son of a minister and started his career in gospel before transitioning to pop. "All singers aspired to be Sam," Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Sam was what you call a singer's singer … He didn't do a lot of running around on the stage, and because he knew he didn’t have to. He had a voice, and he didn't have to do anything but stand in one place and wipe you out."

Franklin covered a couple of Cooke's songs, including "A Change Is Gonna Come" in 1967 and "You Send Me" in 1968.

  1. Aretha Franklin's dad grounded her divaness.

Aretha Franklin circa 1968.
Aretha Franklin circa 1968.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

When Franklin was 16, she visited New York City—her first time beyond Detroit's city limits since her family moved there from Memphis when she was 5—and took vocal lessons and a choreography class. "When I went home, I didn't think I was supposed to do housework anymore," she told Canadian TV in 1998. "This is too mundane for me. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York. I'm a star now!"

She explained how she watched her sisters and cousin clean house, but didn't chip in. Her father walked into the room and asked her why she wasn't helping. "I said, 'I'm a star. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York City.' He said, 'Well, listen, star, you better get in the kitchen and introduce yourself to all those dirty dishes.' I have not been a star since. I really needed that. He grounded me and he gave me balance, and from then on I'm not a star, I'm the lady next door."

As a teen, Franklin toured on the gospel circuit, and by 1960 she had a record deal with Columbia. By October of that year, her first label single, "Today I Sing the Blues," was released. It reached No. 10 on the R&B chart, but generally, Columbia didn't know how to market her. Franklin's albums and songs were middling chart hits, and though she was making good money touring, she wasn't a top act. When her contract expired in late 1966, she chose to move to Atlantic Records. There, her career skyrocketed.

  1. Her hit "Respect" was about respecting everyone.

When Franklin recorded Otis Redding's song "Respect" in 1967, she didn't have a specific feminist or civil rights agenda in mind. "My sister and I, we just liked that record [Respect]," Franklin told Vogue in 2016. "And the statement was something that was very important … It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women—it's important to people. … As people, we deserve respect from one another.” That's also what the song's line "give me my propers" refers to—Franklin told The New York Times that the phrase was street slang for mutual respect.

The anthem was Franklin's first No. 1 hit, and it quickly became her signature song. Not only did the song empower others, but it was a lifelong mantra for Franklin. "I give it and I get it," she said of the importance of respect. "Anyone that I don't get it from does not deserve my time or attention."

  1. Franklin wrote the most famous line of "Respect"—and it wasn't sexual, as many have suggested.

Besides the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" refrain, the repeated lyric "sock it to me" is the most famous line of the song. Redding didn't write that part, though—Franklin did. In 1999, Franklin told NPR that she and her younger sister decided to include the line while playing around on the piano one day. "It was a cliché of the day," Franklin said. "We didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, 'Sock it to me in this way' or 'sock it to me in that way.' It was nonsexual, just a cliché line." The two backup singers who sang that refrain were Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn.

  1. Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage.

At the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin performed a show-stopping rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for honoree Carole King (who co-wrote the song in 1967 specifically for Franklin, and then recorded a version of her own for her 1971 solo album, Tapestry). When she walked out on stage, Franklin was wearing a floor-length mink coat and carrying a sparkling clutch, which she laid on top of the piano before sitting down to play—a habit she had had for decades.

In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, editor David Remnick wrote that Franklin made it a point early in her career to be paid upfront—in cash, sometimes of amounts up to $25,000—before performances, so keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. "It's the era she grew up in," television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. "She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off … and she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her."

"She's got her money, she's ready to move, to go wherever she needs to be," Rickey Minor, who was the musical director of the Kennedy Center Honors, told The New York Times. "How many times do you have to leave your purse in the dressing room and have it go missing before you say, 'I worked hard for this money—I'm going to put my purse right here where I can see it'?"

  1. Aretha Franklin believed in equal pay.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, she commented on gender disparity. "If women are going to do the same job, why not give equal pay? Because that job is harder for a woman than a man sometimes," she said. "We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more. Especially if it's physically taxing, we should get a little more money, if you have enough heart to take it on."

  1. Aretha Franklin used her money to fund social and civil rights activism.

In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, Franklin she also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. "When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll," Franklin's longtime friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign … She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency."

Another family friend, the Reverend Jim Holley, echoed Jackson. "Whenever there was a tragedy with families, any civil rights family, she was always giving," Holley said. "She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking but they don't do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person."

  1. Aretha Franklin offered to bail activist Angela Davis out of jail.

In 1970, communist activist and academic Angela Davis was arrested for allegedly purchasing guns used in a California courthouse shoot out. Franklin rushed to her defense and offered to pay Davis's bail. "Angela Davis must go free," Franklin told Jet. "Black people will be free. I've been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I'm going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they've made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people." Davis was eventually released (a local dairy farmer posted her $102,500 bail) and acquitted of all charges.

  1. In The Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklin had wanted to sing "Respect" instead of "Think."

Aretha Franklin appeared in two non-documentary films, and both times she played a singing diner waitress, Mrs. Murphy. Director John Landis wrote the part specifically for Franklin, which she played in 1980's The Blues Brothers. In it, the script called for Franklin, as a sassy diner owner, to sing her song "Think" to her guitarist husband as a way to dissuade him from joining Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's band.

Franklin had other ideas for her song number, though—she wanted to sing her biggest hit, "Respect," instead of "Think," a song she'd co-written and that had become her seventh Top 10 hit back in 1968. "We had written 'Think' into the script, with the dialogue leading into the song and the song actually furthering the plot of the film, so we didn't want to change it," Landis told The Hollywood Reporter. Franklin obliged but asked to change the piano part of the prerecorded track herself. "She sat down at the piano with the mic and, with her back to us, started playing and singing," Landis said. "Her piano playing actually made a difference. It was more soulful."

But, as usual, the Queen eventually got her way. In the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, she sang "Respect."

  1. Aretha Franklin didn't like to perform with air conditioning on.

In 1998, for the first annual VH1 Divas Live telecast—which also featured Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, and Shania Twain—Franklin refused to rehearse because the conditions were not right. "The reason she didn't rehearse was because she had requested that the air conditioning be turned off to protect her vocal cords," Divas director Michael Simon told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was in the control booth and there was near-hysteria. 'Why wasn't the air conditioning turned off?' Everybody kept asking but nobody had an answer. I'm guessing some house guy at the Beacon Theater whose job it was to turn on and off the air conditioning messed up. So there was no rehearsal for Aretha. And you could sort of tell during the program."

During her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance, Franklin famously wore a mink coat but dropped it mid-performance. "I wasn't sure about the air factor onstage, and air can mess with the voice from time to time," she told Vogue. "And I didn't want to have that problem that evening. It's been a long time since I've done Kennedy Center, and I wanted to have a peerless performance. Once I determined that the air was all right while I was singing, I said, 'Let's get out of this coat! I'm feeling it. Let's go!'"

  1. NASA named an asteroid after Aretha Franklin.

Franklin racked up innumerable accolades throughout her life, including 18 Grammy Awards (out of 44 nominations, and a streak of eight Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance awards from 1968-1975). In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial service, and she performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her civil rights work, and in April 2019 became the first woman to ever be awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize. But perhaps the honor that best encapsulates her otherworldly talent came in 2014, when NASA named an asteroid after her.

  1. You can finally see her famed concert film, Amazing Grace.

In 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood, Franklin recorded her double live album Amazing Grace, which would become her best-selling record and the best-selling gospel album of all time. Sydney Pollack (who was already an Oscar-nominated director at that point) directed the concert but failed to use clapperboards to sync images with audio; therefore the film couldn't be edited, and Pollack abandoned the project.

In an interview with Vulture, producer Alan Elliott said in 1990 he decided to purchase the footage and assemble it himself. To buy all of the footage, records, do the editing, and pay for insurance and lawyers, Elliott had to mortgage his home several times over the course of nearly 30 years. Franklin sued numerous times to prevent the movie from being screened, including in 2011 when Elliott showed it to friends and family and again just before its planned world premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.

"It isn't that I'm not happy about the film, because I love the film itself," Franklin told Detroit Free Press in 2015. "It's just that—well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems."

However, Franklin's Amazing Grace bassist Chuck Rainey told The New York Times that "she didn't like the film at all." According to the Times, "He thought her resistance derived from a feeling that the film wound up being more about style and celebrity than about the music or the worship—or even about Franklin."

Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece and executor of the will, invited Elliott to Franklin's funeral. He returned a couple of weeks later and screened the film for Franklin's family. Finally, Owens and Elliott worked out a deal so the film could screen in public. In November 2018 the film premiered at DOC NYC, and in April 2019, Neon distributed it in NYC and L.A. theaters.

"It's the craziest story that I know of in show business," Elliott said.

How Science—and a Broken Heart—Helped Identify Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley's Lost Violin

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, as the R.M.S. Titanic was continuing its descent into the chilly, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, bandleader Wallace Hartley urged his seven musicians to continue playing.

The apocryphal version has Hartley tucking his violin under his chin and leading them in a rendition of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the ship sank. While it makes for a poignant finale, it's more likely that Hartley played "Songe d'Automne," a slow waltz that scored the untimely demise of more than 1500 passengers, including Hartley and all his bandmates.

When bodies began to be recovered in the days to come, authorities took inventory of any personal effects that were found. In this official registry of Hartley, a.k.a. Body 224, no mention was made of his violin, his bow, or its case. He had been in the water for 10 days. The German-crafted wooden instrument was largely believed to have been lost to the sea.

Nearly 100 years later, a UK-based auctioneer named Andrew Aldridge received a phone call from a man with a strange story to tell. Up in his late mother's attic, he told Aldridge, was a small collection of items he believed would be of interest to Titanic historians and collectors.

When Aldridge visited his caller in 2006, he was shown several items that purportedly belonged to Hartley, including sheet music and a leather valise with the musician's initials. But Aldridge's attention was drawn to a violin: It was cracked and weathered, with only two strings remaining. A silver plate on the tailpiece read:

For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.

Aldridge felt a surge of excitement. He had facilitated the sale of several Titanic relics, but nothing had ever compared to the holy grail of the Hartley violin. If this truly belonged to the musician, it would be one of the most important discoveries from the ship in history. And if it was the violin he played as the ship went down, it would be the most valuable.

But how had the violin survived immersion? And if Hartley secured it to his body before going into the water, why wasn't it listed among his personal effects?

It would be seven years before Aldridge had his answers.

 

A close-up of the engraved silver plate on the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

For decades, collectors and researchers had debated the existence of the Hartley violin. Some believed Hartley would be too panicked to bother securing his violin in its case and strapping it to himself before he was forced to go into the water; others pointed to contemporaneous news accounts which mentioned Hartley's violin had indeed been recovered during the salvage operation.

"At that point [in 2006], I think the collecting community generally believed it did not exist," Craig Sopin, an attorney and Titanic memorabilia expert who consulted with the Aldridge & Son auction house, tells Mental Floss. "But a lot of us hoped it did."

Four newspapers at the time reported Hartley had been found with the instrument strapped to him, but those were challenged by more conservative historians who cited the official inventory and its list of items that were returned to family members. These logs noted that Hartley had a fountain pen, money, and a cigarette case, but made no mention of the violin. "There was just no hard evidence," Sopin says.

Hartley himself had been something of an enigma. Born in 1878 as the son of a choirmaster, the bandleader had been a bank teller before pursuing his passion for music. Hartley had been on well over 80 sea voyages before he was hired to lead the musicians on the Titanic. It's likely he perceived the highly coveted job as a chance to make some good money. In a letter written to his parents the day of the April 10 launch, Hartley implied that wealthy passengers might offer tips.

"It was a feather in his cap," Sopin says. "He was fortunate at first, although not fortunate at all in the end."

An avowed ladies' man who fancied himself a bit of an early-century hipster—he referred to himself as "Hotley" in correspondence—Hartley had seemingly abandoned his bachelorhood for Maria Robinson, the daughter of a cloth manufacturer. The two were scheduled to be married just months after Hartley's expected return, with Hartley looking to support his wife-to-be with more bookings at sea.

While Hartley's fate became part of a great 20th century tragedy, Robinson's personal anguish was never heavily publicized. She wrote letters to authorities in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had jurisdiction over the wreck, requesting all of Hartley's personal belongings be returned to her. In a diary entry dated July 1912 and uncovered during the investigation into the instrument's history, Robinson drafted a note thanking them for returning the violin. So why didn't the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, tasked with recovering bodies, make any mention of it?

"That turned out to be the easiest hurdle to knock down," Sopin says. "What we learned is that there were many personal items not logged but returned to family, and their inventory was just not very detailed." Almost every body had been recovered wearing a life jacket, Sopin says, and almost all went unreported.

Like the life jackets, Hartley's valise that he kept his violin in would have been strapped to his body, opening up the possibility that the recovery team ignored items worn by the corpses. "It wasn't something he could put in his pocket," Sopin says, "so it may not have been considered a personal effect."

The paper trail assembled by Sopin and other researchers provided further credence to the theory that Hartley had taken the violin with him. When Maria Robinson died in 1939, her sister Margaret was charged with handling her personal possessions. The violin was given to Major Renwick, a bandleader with the Bridlington Salvation Army who also taught music. He gave it to a student of his, a woman stationed in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She later wrote of the gift that it had suffered damage and was not playable due to having "an eventful life."

It remained in her possession for close to 75 years. The call Aldridge received was from the music student's son, who had been responsible for sorting his mother's belongings following her death. (The seller, wishing anonymity, has not disclosed the family name.)

The story was reasonable, but none of it offered conclusive proof that the violin in the attic was the same violin played on the outer deck of the ship during the commotion. For that, Aldridge would turn to experts in the fields of corrosion, silver, and musical instruments to determine if the violin had been in the water the night of April 15, 1912.

 

The valise and straps used as a carrier for the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

"The best way to describe the research was like a jigsaw puzzle with numerous component pieces," Aldridge tells Mental Floss. "Each one had to fit together, whether it be scientific, historical, or research."

To date the violin to the night of the wreck, Aldridge first approached the now-defunct UK Forensic Science Services and their trace analysis expert, Michael Jones. (Citing confidentiality clauses with his former employer, a representative for Jones declined to comment for this story.) Performing a salinization test would determine whether the instrument had ever been submerged in saltwater. "If that had been negative, the investigation would have ended there," Sopin says.

It was positive. Jones could then examine the metal portions of the violin, including the engraved tailpiece and the lock on the valise, and compare the corrosion to other metal items recovered both from Hartley and from other victims that were in the hands of private collectors. "It was not a quick process," Aldridge says. "These are not the sorts of items that are easily obtained."

Eventually, Jones was able to determine the deposits were consistent with those found in items definitively known to be recovered from the site. He also tried examining algae on the violin to see if it was consistent with the part of the North Atlantic where the ship struck the iceberg, Sopin says, but results were inconclusive.

Because Aldridge's intent was to prove its provenance beyond all doubt, the authentication continued. The straps of the valise were measured and found to be 90 inches long, leaving plenty of give to tie the case around Hartley’s body. Aldridge also consulted with gemologist Richard Slater, who examined the engraved plate and found no evidence it had ever been removed or recently applied to the instrument.

Aldridge took it in for a CT scan at Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, which revealed stress fractures in the wood—the kind that may have rendered it unplayable according to Renwick's student—and a type of glue that would not have dissolved in seawater. (The heavy leather valise provided additional protection from the water.) Aldridge also consulted instrument expert Andrew Hooker, who held no opinion about the violin's connection to the Titanic but confirmed it was made in the late 19th century and was re-varnished and rebuilt, likely owing to the damage incurred after 10 days of immersion.

"The violin was nothing special," Hooker tells Mental Floss. "Just a cheap, factory-made German instrument."

Of course, the instrument's value was tied completely to where it was played, and by whom. By 2013, both Aldridge and Sopin—a notoriously skeptical collector who made for a strong litmus test—were convinced. After seven years and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, Aldridge believed he had his answer.

"I remained neutral until I didn't," Sopin says. "I believe the violin was on the Titanic."

 

The Hartley violin, more than 100 years after being recovered at sea
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

 

The owner's desire had always been to take the violin and the other Hartley items to auction. Armed with reams of supporting evidence from forensic experts, that's exactly what Aldridge and Son did on October 19, 2013. TV satellites and media were parked outside the Devizes, Wiltshire, England facility, the site of the auction.

Behind the podium, Aldridge began the bidding at 50 pounds, or roughly $65. Bidders on the floor and via telephone quickly got down to business, taking bids from 80,000 pounds to 500,000 to 750,000. By the time Aldridge brought down the gavel a final time, the violin had sold for 1.1 million pounds, or $1.7 million. (The valise was sold separately for 20,000 pounds, or $26,000.)

As is often the case with big-ticket auction items, the buyer has no desire to be named—although it's probably not Sopin. "I would have considered paying something," he says, "but not $1.7 million."

Sopin believes the buyer is male and resides in the UK. It's also known that he allowed the violin to go on display at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as its sister location in Branson, Missouri, in 2016.

As of now, no other Titanic artifact has come close to realizing a similar sale price, a testament to the emotional impact of what would otherwise be an unremarkable instrument. In playing for terrified passengers, Hartley and his band used their talent under extreme duress to maintain a sense of order and civility, likely saving lives in the process. His funeral was reportedly attended by 30,000 to 40,000 people.

While Aldridge performed his due diligence above and beyond reasonable doubt, some historians still question why a distressed Hartley would have bothered with the violin at all. "Hartley's mother commented on this," Sopin says. "She thought if he felt there was any hope at all of getting off the ship, he would have taken the violin."

Additional Sources: Auction Background [PDF].

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