How the Beatles electrified America 50 years ago
It was 50 years ago today ... OK, not quite. But you get the drift.
Nearly half a century ago, on Feb. 7, 1964, The Beatles landed in New York City to play The Ed Sullivan Show. Little did they know they were really about to change the world. Their five-song set on Feb. 9 — seen by an estimated 73 million Americans, about 40% of the population — may be the most influential performance in music history, officially kicking off global Beatlemania, launching the British Invasion and inspiring a generation of teens to grow their hair and pick up guitars. The ensuing shock waves reshaped everything from pop and fashion to youth culture and stardom. But like all perfect storms, it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It was the inevitable result of a series of events, coincidences and forces that came together at exactly the right moment. With the 50th anniversary looming, now’s the time to look at the stars that aligned to propel The Beatles to the toppermost of the poppermost.
If, as some claim, the ’60s truly started that weekend, it could also be said the ’50s had come to a painful end 11 weeks earlier with the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. His slaying left a nation reeling, shattered and in mourning. Emotionally and culturally, it’s been posited, the nation needed a mood lift the boyish, fun-loving Beatles were able to provide. But Kennedy’s death helped set the stage in another way. On Nov. 22, CBS Morning News aired a five-minute report on the band — only the second bit of Beatles TV coverage in the U.S. — but a rebroadcast that evening was cancelled due to the shooting. When the piece aired on Dec. 10, it sparked interest that led to the release of I Want to Hold Your Hand, perfectly priming the pump for the Fabs’ arrival.
In the months before The Beatles, rock ’n’ roll was long past its late-’50s heyday. Elvis had been neutered, all but abandoning music to churn out filmic dreck like Fun in Acapulco. Chuck Berry had just ended a prison stint for violating the Mann Act. Little Richard had squandered his momentum by vacillating between secular hedonism and religion. And Jerry Lee Lewis’s career remained in tatters from his marriage to an underage cousin. One look at the 1964 Grammy Awards tells the tale: Henry Mancini won record and song of the year for Days of Wine and Roses, while Barbra Streisand and Jack Jones took home pop vocal trophies. The best rock ’n’ roll recording? April Stevens & Nino Tempo’s Deep Purple. Compared to this pablum, The Beatles — with a loud, brash and driving style forged from marathon sets in Hamburg dive bars — were a syringe of adrenaline plunged straight into rock’s moribund heart, just in the nick of time.
Stu Sutcliffe & Pete Best’s departures
Like chains, bands are only as good as their weakest links. In the early days of The Beatles, the dead wood was bassist Stu Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best. Sutcliffe was an art school pal of John Lennon, who convinced him to buy a bass and join. Best, whose mom ran a youth club where the band had played, was drafted on the eve of their first Hamburg trip because he had a kit and was available. Neither had the skills to go far. And neither ever truly fit in — McCartney abused Sutcliffe until they scrapped onstage, while the moody Best barely saw the others offstage. Sutcliffe quit in 1961 to stay in Hamburg and paint, but died of an aneurysm a year later. Best, who delivered better than rudimentary bashing, was eventually replaced by Ringo Starr, whose metronomic bounce and fun-loving temperament were more in tune with the band. And let’s face it: John, Paul, George and Ringo sounds way better than John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete.
George Martin’s infidelity
The Beatles wanted to hold your hand — but George Martin was doing far more with his secretary. For years, the unhappily married EMI exec had allegedly been in a clandestine affair with his assistant. When their liaison became public Martin’s straitlaced boss reportedly punished him by making him sign and record the still-unimpressive Beatles as a favour to a song publisher who coveted in a Lennon-McCartney number. It turned out to be a perfect match. Martin, unsatisfied with the comedy and novelty records he was making, found an act whose unlimited potential challenged him. The Beatles, whose previous producers hadn’t known what to do with them, finally found a mentor who got them and could bring out their best.
Ed Sullivan’s nose
Nobody would ever call hulking, hunchbacked TV host Sullivan the coolest guy in the room. But he knew a phenomenon when he saw one. In 1956, he had put the still relatively unknown Elvis Presley on his massively popular Sunday night variety show, creating an overnight sensation in the process. On Halloween 1963, he and his staff were in London’s Heathrow Airport, where they saw The Beatles being welcomed home by fans after a Swedish tour. The early Beatlemania reminded Sullivan of the frenzy surrounding Elvis and he eventually contacted the band’s manager Brian Epstein to book the band on the show, reportedly offering them top dollar for a single appearance — a superb offer for a group that was virtually unknown in North America.
Brian Epstein’s vision
Surprising as Sullivan’s offer was, Epstein’s counter-proposal was equally bold: Instead of one big payday, he struck a deal to have the band play three consecutive weeks for low wages, top billing and the chance to open and close each broadcast. It was an inspired piece of self-sacrificing strategy. But it was just one example of Epstein’s style. A failed actor who ran the record department in his parents’ store, he caught the band at the Cavern Club after being asked to stock their first single, and quickly foresaw the possibilities. He tamed the unruly crew, getting them to ditch their leathers for matching suits, prompting them to quit eating and smoking onstage, and even teaching them to bow. He worked just as tirelessly behind the scenes, lining up gigs, and travelling to London on his own dime to pitch them to labels — and bending over backwards to ensure that all his dealings were totally above-board and unfailingly fair to his “boys.”
The band’s individuality
As the band flew to the U.S., Paul McCartney was apparently unsure of their prospects: “They’ve got their own groups,” he said. “What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?” Truth is, The Beatles were far more innovative than even he perceived. For one thing, they actually WERE a group without a public leader — a rarity in an era when bands had frontmen, from James Brown and the Famous Flames to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. For another, they all sang AND played, another anomaly in a time of faceless instrumental outfits like The Ventures and vocal combos. Finally, they wrote and recorded their own music, flying in the face of an assembly-line industry where Brill Building songwriters penned tunes played by session musicians. It turned out Paul was half-right: America had groups — but they didn’t have any quite like The Beatles. Despite generations of successors, followers, acolytes and imitators, they still don’t.
1964 Ed Sullivan Show Set Lists
Feb. 9 — New York City
All My Loving
Till There Was You
She Loves You
I Saw Her Standing There
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Feb. 16 — Miami Beach
She Loves You
All My Loving
I Saw Her Standing There
From Me to You
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Feb. 23 — New York City (taped Feb. 9)
Twist and Shout
Please Please Me
I Want to Hold Your Hand
THE KINGS OF ALL MEDIA
They say the best things in life are free — but naturally, that hasn’t deterred record labels, publishers, TV networks and others from trying to milk a few more bucks out of The Beatles. Some of the offerings and events coming your way:
The U.S. Albums
True to its title, EMI’s latest box collects the American versions of their early LPs, many of which were either cobbled together from U.K. albums and singles or featured different mixes and track lists than their British (and Canadian) counterparts. Some of the albums — including Yesterday and Today — are making their CD debut. And as with all Beatle reissues, the box already has purists grousing over the fact that the label used remastered versions from 2009 for much of the set instead of the old versions used in the 2004 and 2006 Capitol Albums boxes.
Live at the BBC & Bootleg Recordings 1963
If you prefer your Beatles in the live setting, there are a couple of good options. Both Live at the BBC and Bootleg Recordings 1963 include dozens of vintage radio performances, outtakes, interviews and studio tomfoolery from the early days of Beatlemania. Buy them both.
Tune In — The Beatles: All These Years Vol. 1 by Mark Lewisohn
There are already countless bios of The Beatles. But none can even approach the size and scale of this massively ambitious project from “professional Beatles historian” Mark Lewisohn. After a decade of research and writing, his exhaustive three-volume history of the band begins with Tune In, a 900-plus page account of their early lives and career up until the brink of fame at the end of 1962. The good news: It may be the definitive work on the Fab Four. The bad news: The next two volumes aren’t due until 2020 and 2028.
The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-70 by Kevin Howlett
A fine companion and complement to the BBC and Bootleg Recordings CDs, this set chronicles their radio appearances with transcripts, reminiscences, documents and photos — and comes in a faux reel-to-reel tape box.
The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles
The day after their reunion at this year’s Grammys, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr got back together again at this L.A. tribute show — which is being broadcast on CBS next Sunday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. ET, exactly 50 years after their Ed Sullivan Show debut. Other performers on the bill include a reunited Eurythmics, Alicia Keys with John Legend, Maroon 5 and John Mayer with Keith Urban.
50 Years: The Beatles
Before The Night That Changed America special, CBS online will mark the anniversary with a live interactive event from the Ed Sullivan Theatre. 50 Years: The Beatles — streaming on CBS.com from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. ET — will reportedly include rare archival footage from the band’s first American visit and Sullivan appearances, along with photo galleries, radio interviews and more.
BEATLEMANIA IN CANADA
Americans were introduced to The Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964. But Canadians got to meet them first — or at least listen to them.
On Feb. 18, 1963 — nearly a year before the band’s historic Ed Sullivan appearance — their first single Love Me Do was released in Canada by Capitol Records. It was quickly followed by Please Please Me, From Me to You and the breakthrough She Loves You, which came out here in late summer 1963 and topped Canadian charts.
Ironically, south of the border, it was a vastly different story. David Dexter of Capitol Records’ American division famously rejected The Beatles’ early singles, which were licensed out to the tiny Vee-Jay label. On the day She Loves You came out, George Harrison was visiting his sister in Illinois, where he did one radio interview — with the station owner’s teenage daughter — and jammed with a band at a local VFW dance. That obscurity didn’t last long. By late December, the band’s burgeoning popularity was unstoppable, with Canadian copies of their singles selling and charting down south, embarrassing Dexter and Capitol, who had to go to court to recover the songs.
Although The Beatles broke here first, it took them several months to get here — and they didn’t stay long. The band played just a handful of Canadian concerts in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal during their brief performing career. (See list below)
Oddly, the first Canadian city they visited was one they never played: Winnipeg.
It happened on the afternoon of Aug. 18, 1964. As the band were flying from London to California, their plane made a refuelling stop at Winnipeg International Airport — where they were greeted by more than 1,000 teens alerted by local radio. Seeing the crowd, manager Brian Epstein convinced the band to make an appearance. Paul McCartney was first down the stairs, shouting “Hello Winnipeg!” and praising fans’ “lovely welcome.” When a reporter suggested John Lennon must be glad to stretch his legs, he quipped “Among other things.” Ringo hinted the band might return following their upcoming tour. After the brief exchanges, the group reboarded their jet — only to be followed by local musician Bruce Decker, who dashed across the tarmac and up the plane’s stairs, catching a glimpse of the laughing musicians before being hauled off by RCMP. The pandemonium continued after The Beatles left, with teenage girls hanging around the airport and kissing the tarmac. Ringo’s predicted gig never materialized, but the Fabs did play these shows north of the border:
Aug. 22, 1964 — Vancouver, Empire Stadium
Sept. 7, 1964 — Toronto, Maple Leaf Gardens
Sept. 8, 1964 — Montreal, Forum
Aug. 17, 1965 — Toronto, Maple Leaf Gardens
Aug. 17, 1966 — Toronto, Maple Leaf Gardens