Woman died without learning she had played on final Beatles song | CBC News

It had been a melancholic morning for Erika Buckman. She put on her late daughter’s scarf, contemplating how much she missed her.

Then the phone rang.

And she learned astonishing news involving her daughter, Caroline Buckman, who was born in 1974, and died a few months ago, in March.

A caller informed her: Your daughter is on a new Beatles record.

A Beatles collab across decades

The family hadn’t known. Before she died, Caroline never found out either. This was the result of a project so secretive its details were guarded from her and other musicians involved.

When she heard the news last Friday morning, Erika Buckman replied, “You’re going to make me cry.” 

Born in Charlottesville, Va., her daughter became a violist in Los Angeles, a studio musician who unwittingly worked on what has been called the final song from the band widely regarded as the most influential of all time.

The surviving Beatles released Now and Then on Nov. 2. It includes John Lennon’s voice from the 1970s; George Harrison’s guitar from the 1990s; fresh recordings of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr; and a strings section.

Buckman, 81, envisioned her daughter’s reaction, had she learned she’d played on the last song ever released by the Beatles: “She would have been delirious [with joy] about it.”

She acknowledged her own conflicting emotions, with her daughter claimed by cancer before she could share in this news. 

“It is sad,” Erika Buckman said. On the other hand, she said, “I’m very proud.” 

The Beatles release last song thanks to AI, 1970s John Lennon demo

Featured VideoThe Beatles released a new song Now and Then thanks to artificial intelligence separating John Lennon’s voice from piano playing on a demo track from the 1970s. Experts say it could expand the music industry allowing new songs to be released from deceased artists.

A secret mission: Something involving Paul McCartney

A cryptic message went out to over a dozen musicians in late April 2022. A Los Angeles-based music contractor asked if they could be in the studio in three days.

The message said: This involves Paul McCartney.

Musicians were offered what’s known in the business as “a single,” a three-hour contract where they’d be paid the union rate of a few hundred bucks.

Musicians dropped everything to be there.

“Of course we all want to do it,” said violinist Charlie Bisharat, recalling how he and some colleagues rescheduled other appointments.

Cellist Mia Barcia-Colombo raced across the country. She had a concert in Miami the night before the session, a morning session, three time zones away.

Paul, John, George and Ringo standing at microphones. Paul and Ringo are older. John and George are images of their young selves, dressed in colourful 1960s attire.
Like the song, the music video for Now and Then used modern software to blend together material from different eras. Seen here: present-day Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, with 1960s images of the late John Lennon and George Harrison. (The Beatles)

She finished the show in Florida, cabbed it to the airport, got a red-eye flight to Los Angeles, landed at 6 a.m., then asked if she could crash for 90 minutes at her parents’ place because they live closer than her to the studio. 

“It became kind of a family affair to get me there on time,” she said. “[My folks were] like, ‘Anything for Sir Paul!'”

As they arrived at Capitol Studios, musicians were given sheet music, under a non-existent song title: Give & Take.

This was a decoy name. The musicians were told this was a McCartney solo project, to keep them from spilling the secret.

“It was all a bit hush-hush,” McCartney recalled in a new documentary.  

McCartney calls in the strings

What was really going on was the surviving Beatles had added a McCartney bass track and Ringo Starr’s drums onto a muffled old recording of John that had been digitally cleaned up using artificial intelligence.

By this point, McCartney was pleased: “We had a track that was really starting to cook.” 

But he wanted something extra the Beatles had occasionally used on their old songs: classical strings.

The musicians wound up chatting with McCartney about his past arrangements, as he stuck around after the session and talked shop.

The encounter with Sir Paul

“A lovely man,” Bisharat said. “You can’t say that about every artist.” 

Some celebrity artists, said Barcia-Colombo, spend the whole session detached from the musicians, ensconced in the control booth. At one point, a conductor asked McCartney if he wanted to go sit in the booth. The cellist recalls his reply: “No, this is where the magic happens.… I just wanna sit here and enjoy it.”

Group photo in studio, with musicians surrounding a seated Paul McCartney, with his arms wide open.
McCartney posed for photos with some of the studio musicians, including cellist Mia Barcia-Colombo, standing directly behind him. (Mia Barcia-Colombo)

After spending the whole three-hour session with the musicians, McCartney chatted with them, posed for pictures and signed autographs.

Then they waited for updates on the project. And they waited some more. 

Over an 18-month span, Bisharat kept searching online, failing to find any news, and he eventually started wondering: “What happened? Was that a demo?” 

In any case, the musicians already had their souvenirs.

Caroline Buckman arrived home, elated, with a copy of the sheet music signed by McCartney. She had it framed, said her longtime partner.

Paul McCartney signature in blue pen, atop a sheet of music.
Caroline Buckman never asked colleagues for autographs. But she asked McCartney, who signed this sheet music for her, as he did for other musicians in the studio that day. (Erika Buckman)

“She was super-thrilled,” her boyfriend, Mitch Brown, recalled. “She said, ‘I played with Paul McCartney today.’… In her entire career, she’d never asked a colleague [for an autograph].”

Her career credits had included several of the most famous shows on TV (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost); blockbuster movies (Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible); and musical legends (Brian Wilson, Neil Young, R.E.M.).

But this was different. This was a cultural phenomenon with chromosomes. This was a Beatle. 

A musical origin story: Cold War East Germany

Caroline Buckman’s first musical instrument was imported across the Iron Curtain. It was purchased in her mom’s home country: communist East Germany.

Her father, John, was a prominent psychiatrist on a visiting professorship in East Berlin and as the family’s one-year stint there ended in 1978, it wrestled with what to do with all its East German currency, essentially worthless in the outside world.

Erika Buckman had the idea of spending it on a piano. John, her husband, viewed this as a painfully impractical prelude to an intercontinental move.

But playing the piano was an unfulfilled dream of Erika’s, while growing up in impoverished postwar East Germany.

She got an upright piano, shipped to Virginia.

Black and white pics of the Beatles in the early 60s, on a red museum wall. As visitors stare and take pictures of the pictures.
Visitors take in an exhibit of McCartney photographs earlier this year at the National Portrait Gallery in London. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Her life’s geographic course coincided at key points with the Beatles’. In 1960, Erika arrived in West Germany, the same year the Fab Four started playing Hamburg clubs.

At age 18, she’d fled to West Berlin months before the infamous wall went up, and spent time in refugee camps, before working in Frankfurt.

She then spent the bulk of the 1960s in England. She moved there to work as an au pair, and met her husband, John, where he got a posting at the University of Virginia, and, like some of the Beatles, she moved to the U.S.

She recalls the parties in those years, where she danced to Twist and Shout

“I loved the Beatles. I absolutely adored the Beatles,” Erika Buckman said.

“[Caroline] liked the Beatles too. I mean, who didn’t?”

Soon after the family brought home its piano, she said, little Caroline said: “I want to play.” So she signed her up for lessons.

A couple of years later, Caroline said: “I want to play the cello.” That plan, mom nixed. There was no way a cello was fitting into the family Volkswagen.

One final song

So they settled on the viola. And Caroline was good at it, very good.

She went to Europe and Arizona for college. She later decided she’d move to Los Angeles to pursue her career there.

Her mom wondered how she’d pay for this move. Caroline told her: “I’m going to work.” She got three simultaneous jobs – at a travel agency, a music-promotion company and packing groceries.

In 2001, Caroline got in the car and moved across the country; she worked different jobs in L.A. as she built contacts in the music industry.

In conversations with several of Caroline’s friends and relatives, two attributes emerge: determination — illustrated by an athleticism that includes a decades-old club swimming record in Charlottesville that still stands — and charisma. 

To her brother, Dan Buckman, she was the eternally cooler older sister.

Her boyfriend described her as the centre of gravity in any party she entered: “People just loved her,” Mitch said.

When she recorded that session with McCartney, she’d been battling breast cancer for five years. She’d struggled through chemotherapy, and a pharmaceutical regimen, but, Bisharat said, she never complained.

Man in cycling outfit smiles, with arm around smiling woman
Two musician friends, Buckman and Charlie Bisharat, pause during a bike ride in 2013, years before they wound up together on the Beatles project. (Charlie Bisharat)

“She was still upbeat,” he said.

Less than a year later, she was gone. She died in L.A. on March 5, 2023, at age 48. People mourned her as a daughter, a musician, sister, partner, friend. 

One final line, however, was etched only belatedly into her epitaph:

For four minutes and eight seconds, the length of one improbable song, Caroline Buckman was a Beatle.

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