Arts & Entertainment
How the Beatles Conquered America
From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 23
by Andy Nagle
On February 9, 1964, an astounding 73 million Americans – roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population – tuned in to watch the Beatles’ American debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Yet only six weeks before, virtually no one in America had heard of the Beatles. How did they make this transition from complete unknowns to superstars in such a short period of time?
The Gaslamp Restaurant celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the British Invasion with Beatles vs. Stones – A Musical Shoot Out, courtesy of tributes Abbey Road and Jumping Jack Flash on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15 and may be purchased online at www.thegaslamprestaurant.com or by calling (562) 596-4718. Gaslamp Restaurant is located at 6251 E. Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach 90803. If you wish to eat dinner during the show, reservations are strongly recommended. The show is appropriate for all ages.
With the help of a 15-year-old girl, a television news anchor who wanted to cheer up the country after the tragedy of JFK’s assassination, an American record executive who decided to sign the Beatles after his own company had rejected them four times and a host of astonishing coincidences, the British Invasion captivated the nation and the Beatles became the biggest selling band of all time in the United States.
As of Christmas Day 1963, Beatlemania was in full swing in the United Kingdom, but no U.K. act had ever achieved sustained success in America. Cliff Richard, for example, is second only to the Beatles in the number of U.K. hits, but flopped in the United States.
On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan happened to be at Heathrow Airport in London when the Beatles returned from a tour in Germany. When he saw the enormous crowd of hysterical teenagers, Sullivan thought the Royal Family must be arriving. Sullivan was intrigued by the rock band’s following and immediately booked the Beatles for three appearances on his variety show.
At this time, the Beatles were not signed with an American record label. Beatles manager Brian Epstein phoned Alan Livingston, the president of the American division of Capitol Records, and asked why the label kept rejecting his group. Livingston had never heard of the band because a subordinate had declined Epstein’s submissions on four occasions. Livingston overruled his staff and signed the group. Because of the promotional opportunity of three Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Livingston decided to commit an enormous budget of $40,000 to launch the group.
On November 16, 1963, the London bureau of CBS News interviewed the Beatles and filmed a concert. The film was flown to New York to be run on the CBS Evening News in America on November 22 – the very same day that President Kennedy would be assassinated. Normal programming was suspended and the film can containing the Beatles segment was put away.
On December 10, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite felt that a nation recovering from the tragedy might be warmed by a light-hearted story about some long-haired musicians from England. He aired the four minute segment that night.
Marsha Albert, then 15, of Silver Spring, Maryland, saw the broadcast and sent a letter to Washington radio disc jockey Carroll James. She asked, “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” James had never heard of the Beatles, but arranged for an airline stewardess to bring him a copy of a Beatles record.
Carroll invited the teenager to the WWDC radio studios to introduce “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the American premiere of Beatles music occurred on December 17, 1963. The song was placed on heavy rotation on the station. Listeners bombarded Washington record stores with requests for a record and band that none of the stores’ employees had even heard of.
Two days later, executives at Capitol Records in Los Angeles discovered that a major Washington radio station was giving very heavy airplay to an imported copy of a record not due for release for another month. Worried that this would damage its carefully timed game plan, record company lawyers threatened to sue the radio station. WWDC radio refused to stop playing the record.
The incredible reaction in Washington to the single caused Capital Record President Livingston to make a radical decision – rush the release of the single. At the time, record companies never released discs between Christmas and New Year. The day after Christmas, Capitol Records delivered the record to radio stations. The reaction was instantaneous. In New York City for example, the records were delivered at 9 am. By midday, three of the most influential radio stations (WMCA, WABC and WINS) were playing the record as incessantly as the Washington station. Major stations in other cities rapidly followed suit.
It took only two weeks for record sales to top one million and the single was listed at the top of the American charts. Capital Records distributed millions of stickers announcing that “The Beatles Are Coming!” For the next three weeks, Beatlemania erupted in the U.S.
The Ed Sullivan Show received 50,000 requests for tickets for the Beatles’ February 9, 1964 show. A raffle was held and 728 people were invited.
The rest is history. The Beatles became the best-selling musical group of all time, estimated to have sold over one billion discs and tapes worldwide. They had 20 number one hits in the United States. Four of their albums are listed on Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 10 Greatest Albums of All Time, and three in the Top Five.