The year is 1982, and Zev Buffman is throwing a lavish 50th birthday party for his friend Elizabeth Taylor at Legends nightclub in London.
The guest list is limited to 200, and it's dripping with glittery names, each more impressive than the last. Elton John. Ringo Starr. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Diana, Princess of Wales. Even Taylor's two-time ex-husband, Richard Burton, is a yes.
Then, late in the planning, Buffman gets a call: Paul McCartney wants to drop by. He can only stay a half-hour; he wants to arrive just before the cake is cut. But he's coming.
"Sure enough, at about 9:30 that night, he came in," recalled Buffman, now the president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. "Partly because he was the last to come, and partly because he just walked in and he's quite a presence, it's like the sea parted. I was standing there with my wife, and she said, 'It's like Moses just entered the room!' "
Yeah, Paul McCartney has that effect on people.
To call him the most famous singer in the history of pop (which he is) or the world's most important living musician (which he also is) doesn't fully capture why the presence of Sir Paul, after all these years, still feels like such a monumental deal. His concert Monday at Tampa's Amalie Arena — his first here in 12 years, and only his fourth ever — sold out in hours, with fans up before dawn paying $300 for seats in the second level, and thanking their stars for the privilege. It's a night of legitimate history, like the president coming to town, or the pope.
And McCartney gets it. Newly 75, and as eager to tour as ever, he's happy to oblige those desperate for a taste of living, breathing Beatlemania. His recent tours have taken him to cities he has never played, performing Beatles songs he has never sung live. He understands the big deal of Being Paul McCartney, and wants to share it with as many people as he can before he can't.
Everyone wants a moment with the Cute One, from the ticket-buying public to his fellow musicians to industry executives ushering him through a room of wide-eyed celebrities. Few actually get such a moment. But when it happens, it's unforgettable.
• • •
Meeting a Beatle isn't easy. And yet, under the right circumstances, it can be.
"I like walking around. I like meeting people," McCartney said on the Nerdist podcast in 2014. "I'm the guy who drops my youngest daughter off at school, talks to the school moms."
At concerts, he is fully insulated from the frenzied front of the house. He sells VIP tickets to his sound checks for select fans with four figures to spare, but those do not include meet and greets. Unless you're an invited guest, you won't be getting backstage.
"He's a Beatle," said Kevin Preast, senior vice president of event management at Amalie Arena. "That group has structure, and it's not their first rodeo. They know what they like, they know what he doesn't like, and they execute it to a T."
But once you are backstage, McCartney can be surprisingly accessible. Buffman witnessed it while working with the singer on a Fox concert special from Charlotte, N.C., in 1993.
"Every minute of work with the stagehands and with crew and with designers — both for the live concert and also the television production — he was so gracious and so cooperative," Buffman said. "It was like he was one of the guys. It was a job, he loved it, and he wanted it to be a success."
Kevin Bosley, 48, works in stadium security and has escorted numerous A-listers from their dressing rooms to the stage or field, from Tom Brady to Beyoncé. The tenor is usually serious and businesslike.
"It's a little different with Sir Paul," said Bosley, who splits his time between Venice and Annapolis, Md. "He laughs, he jokes around."
That turns those brief encounters — of which McCartney must have dozens each day — into indelible memories.
"How many people," Bosley said, "can say they've walked out next to Paul McCartney?"
• • •
Norman B,, a Tampa radio personality on WMNF-FM 88.5 and other stations, has met and conversed with McCartney through various jobs many times since the '60s.
Throughout the years, the singer's mood would change slightly by the setting — cordial and chatty at some events ("A really decent bloke, genuinely interested in the welfare of other people"), guarded and distant at others ("He could chat easily but would change the subject if he didn't want to go there").
"Some stars are more open than others," Norman said by email while traveling in Europe. "It felt to me that Paul was so used to people staring at him that he took it in his stride, while making those around him feel comfortable. He seems to me to know how his presence was daunting for some people.
"I did notice that he had curious eyes. He seemed not to miss anything. It's not that his eyes darted around all the time, so much as he appeared to take everything in. To me, he seemed charming but guarded. He gave just enough of himself, but no more."
How else could he get through his daily life? If you're a living Beatle, you have to set boundaries. Ringo Starr decided a few years ago he was done signing autographs. McCartney's rule: no selfies.
"When you're posing on the street, you're that famous guy," he told the Nerdist. "I say to people, 'Look, happy to have a chat with you, shake hands, let's just talk.' Somebody said, 'You spend more time with them than you would for a photo. Why don't you just do a photo and get it over with?' I said, 'Because it robs me of me.' It changes you. I'm not this guy I think I am inside. I'm that guy on the poster. So I hold to that more than a lot of people."
No artist will ever be as famous as the Beatles in the '60s, so it's hard to imagine any artist being more insulated from fanatics than McCartney. These days, however, he's basically no different from any other artist.
"The Weeknd's security team is very similar to what Paul McCartney or Madonna would be now," Preast said. "Bieber, probably even higher, because you've got very aggressive people trying to take that selfie that nobody else has."
For his part, Preast — who has booked McCartney at a previous job in Atlanta — has never met the singer. And he's not counting on it happening in Tampa.
"It'd be cool," he said. "But I'll be more than happy if I can just watch him live with 13,000 people."
• • •
Most celebrities who have met McCartney eagerly confirm his friendly and gracious demeanor. A gobsmacked Idina Menzel crossed paths with McCartney backstage in 2015, after she had just sung the national anthem at Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.
"I bumped into him," said the Broadway star. "He said, 'Oh, darling, that was amazing.' And that was it. He was off and I was off. We both had press to do. I wish it had been a longer meeting, but that was it. It was great."
There are exceptions. Todd Rundgren, a Beatles disciple who frequently plays with Starr, said his encounters with Sir Paul left him cold.
"McCartney's a strange guy, I have to tell you," he said. "He might have had a bug up his ass about me, because I knew his wife before he did. That was the first time I met him, was he and Linda together at the Plaza hotel or something like that. We had some pleasant conversation, but ever since then, he's pretended not to know me, and I know he knows me. So, you know, I find him somewhat creepy."
At that star-studded party in 1982, Buffman walked McCartney around the room, describing him as "humble, quiet, polite" as he introduced the singer to icons like Taylor. He still recalls how many seemed so star-struck simply to be in the same room as the man who wrote Yesterday.
"With Princess Di in the crowd," he said, "she was looking at him like, Omigosh! She didn't look that way at the others."
Buffman racked his brain, trying to think of other elite singers he has encountered who have had that effect, who could balance their own megafame with a graceful awareness of the others in the room. Dolly Parton is up there, he said. But Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, the Eagles — "even cumulatively, there was nobody like this."
"The best way I can say it is, he is Sir Paul McCartney to me," Buffman said. "A form of royalty, if there is such a thing — and there is, in show business — that people make it to and then hold on to for so long. He has longevity, friendliness, he's approachable, he's everybody's friend — and yet he is that guy up there with the crown."
• • •
Josh Walther rarely brings up the gig. But wherever he goes, people ask about it. So he tells the story.
His Tampa band, Phase5, was playing a college graduation party at a Winter Park country club on May 9, 2015. The graduate: Arlen Blakeman, the son of Nancy Shevell and stepson of Paul McCartney.
"I was more worried about the details of the gig than the possibility of him being there," said Walther, 35. "I kind of didn't believe he would be there. I thought, that never happens. He'll get something to do, and if he comes in, he'll shake a few hands and we won't ever see him."
Instead, when Phase5 began to play, McCartney was the first one on the dance floor. He filmed the party on an "old-school camcorder," Walther said. No one bothered him, "but everyone was watching him. And there was an excitement in the room, because he was dancing and obviously having a good time."
During the band's intermission, McCartney came over to say hi. He asked if Phase5 knew any Beatles songs, particularly I Saw Her Standing There — they didn't, but they quickly offered to give it a go. When the band came back, McCartney hopped on stage to sing.
"I thought I was going to get nervous talking to him, because he was my hero," said bassist Watts Shimmura, who learned to play left-handed because of McCartney. "But he made me feel comfortable and made me smile. I cried a little bit when I was performing with him."
McCartney complimented Walther on his singing, Shimmura on his bass, the other members on their playing. In a weird way, Walther said, McCartney seemed more comfortable with the band than anyone else.
"It's like he found his people," Walther said. "Like, you walk into a party, you've never been to a place, and you find a place where you feel comfortable, and that's where you kind of want to hang out. ... My impression of the night was that he wanted to talk to us more, but his wife kept pulling him away to go do this or go do that. But he seemed to be more comfortable talking to us about music than walking around, shaking hands."
Over the last two years, not a day has gone by when the experience hasn't crossed Walther's mind at least once.
"We're so grateful for it, and we still think about it all the time. It doesn't happen to everybody, and he doesn't do that a lot. That's why it meant so much."
Times staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.