In 1969, Stephen Sammons was a 20-year-old aspiring photographer living in Montreal. A friend of his worked at an avant-garde film magazine and had scheduled an interview with the artist Yoko Ono, who was in town with her husband John Lennon to host a “bed-in” for peace. Sammons was invited to come along and take photos.
Lennon and Ono had already hosted one bed-in while on their honeymoon in Amsterdam earlier that year. Modeled after a sit-in, the famous couple sat in their bed for hours and talked about the need for world peace. Lennon would later recount the experience in the lyrics to the Beatles’ song “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
“It was a very interesting, cool sort of scene,” Sammons recalls. Lennon and Ono occupied a suite of rooms at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel and dozens of friends, journalists and other hangers-on—including Timothy Leary and comedian Tommy Smothers— dropped by throughout the day to visit. Sammons stayed all day long and says he doesn’t remember seeing Lennon or Ono ever get out of bed. “And then sometime in the afternoon, Lennon started writing this song,” he says. “He scribbled down the song lyrics and then started playing the tune.”
The song was “Give Peace a Chance.” Lennon reportedly wrote it in 15 minutes, or as journalist Dave Patrick put it in a 1969 article for Canada’s Weekend magazine, “just slightly less than the time it takes you or me to write out the grocery list.” He wanted to record song right then and there, so he wrote out the lyrics on large pieces of posters and asked his manager, Derek Taylor, to scrounge up some recording equipment.
Taylor had a portable sound system flown in from Toronto. Tommy Smothers found someone to loan him a guitar, and everyone scrambled to secure a local band to play back-up on Lennon’s impromptu track. It’s not easy to find a group of musicians on a moment’s notice, not even if you’re a Beatle. In the end, some local Hare Krishnas volunteered their services. “There was just Lennon and Smothers on guitar and a local DJ on tambourine,” says Sammons. “As far as I recall, the actual bass drum was someone kicking the bedroom door. And then everybody in the room joined in and sang the chorus.” Everybody, including the young photographer. “To be on a John Lennon record with no ability to sing is rather extraordinary,” he says.
Sammons remembers Lennon as “a very down to earth character,” although the only time he spoke with the Beatle directly was when Lennon asked him to move out of the way. “I was standing in his sightline to one of these large cardboard placards he’d written the lyrics on, and he shouted at me, ‘Get out of the way, Englishman!’ I thought, well, this is a bit rich.”
At home that night, Sammons developed his photographs of the concert. Only then did he realize that he’d witnessed something historic. He sold his pictures to Weekend (they accompanied the article quoted earlier)—his first major assignment as a photojournalist. Today, Sammons says he never listens to “Give Peace a Chance.” In fact, he’s never seen the video footage that exists of the recording. But he still remembers the day with fondness. “It was an extraordinary event,” he says. “There we were in a hotel room with John Lennon. It was an extraordinary event that still seems a bit surreal.”
Stephen Sammons worked for several years as a photojournalist before moving into the travel industry. He spent much of his career as an executive producing incentive travel programs for major corporations, and now divides his time between the Caribbean and Europe, writing a guide about how to best enjoy any travel experience.