Friday, February 7, 2014

The Beatles' Arrival in America

It was fifty years ago today that The Beatles arrived at JFK Airport on Pan Am flight 101. Around 5000 fans and some 200 reporters, photographers and cameramen from newspapers, TV, and radio news outlets were there to greet them.

Although to many today it might seem as if The Beatles became an overnight sensation in the United States, in truth their conquest of America was a long time in coming. By 1964 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison had been performing together for six years, first as The Quarrymen and then as The Beatles. They would spend quite some time performing in Hamburg, Germany before they became regular performers at The Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961. Their first single "Love Me Do" (released on 5 October 1962) did well on the British charts, but it only went to #17--hardly what one would expect of what would become the most popular rock band of all time. Fortunately their second single, "Please Please Me" would do much better, going all the way to #2 on the British charts. Their third single, "From Me to You", would go all the way to #1 on the British charts.

It was arguably their fourth single, "She Loves You" (released 23 August 1963), that sparked Beatlemania in the United Kingdom. The song not only went to #1 on the British charts, but became the biggest selling record of 1963 in the UK. For fourteen years it was the biggest selling single of any artist in the UK, until it was surpassed by  "Mull of Kintyre" by Wings (ironically another song co-written by Paul McCartney). The Beatles craze in Britain grew so large that journalist Andi Lothian coined the term "Beatlemania" in a story printed in the 15 October 1963 of The Daily Mirror to describe it.

While The Beatles had become an outright phenomenon in the United Kingdom, however, it seemed they still had little impact on the United States. The Beatles were signed to EMI and EMI's American division, Capitol, showed little interest in releasing any of The Beatles' records in the United States. "Please Please Me" was released on the minor label Vee-Jay. Records (ironically on 7 February 1963, one year exactly before the band's arrival in America). With little promotion it did not even chart. "From Me to You" was not even offered to Capitol, and as a result Vee-Jay released it. It only reached 116 on the Billboard singles chart. Not even "She Loves You", The Beatles' first mega-hit, seemed to be able to crack the American market. Since Vee-Jay had not paid the band's royalties in a timely matter, "She Loves You" was released on Swan Records in the United States. Amazingly the song failed to chart. Indeed, American rock star Del Shannon couldn't even have a hit with a Beatles song. He covered "From Me to You" to help the band get noticed in the America. Unfortunately Del Shannon's version of "From Me to You" (released in June 1963) only peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100.

While The Beatles had found little success in the United States as of mid-1963, signs that Beatlemania could sweep America started to appear later in the year. Indeed, according to Vince Calandra, then a production assistant on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan's radar even as Beatlemania was unfolding in the United Kingdom. It was on 31 October 1963 that Ed Sullivan had finished a tour of Europe looking for new talent, just as The Beatles were returning from a successful tour of Sweden. It was then while waiting for his flight back to New York,  at Heathrow Airport in London, that Ed Sullivan was able to witness Beatlemania first hand. Once Ed Sullivan returned to New York City he immediately took the necessary steps to book The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was in November 1963 that everything began to fall in place for The Beatles where the United States were concerned. The American press finally took notice of The Beatles. Both NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report and The CBS Evening News did stories on The Beatles in mid-November, although CBS's story would not air until December (it was pre-empted by coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy). Variety and other publications ran articles on the band. While The Beatles were receiving widespread coverage in the United States for the first time, the pivotal moment may have came when The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and their producer George Martin finally convinced Capitol Records to release a Beatles song. That song was "I Want to Hold Your Hand".

Capitol Records scheduled "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (with "I Saw Her Standing There"  as its B-side) for a January release in advance of  The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. As it turned out a young girl would change Capitol's plans. In early December 1963 Marsha Albert, then 15 at the time, wrote WWDC DJ Carroll James and asked if he would play one of The Beatles' records. Mr James then imported a copy of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". He got young Miss Albert to introduce the single when it was played for the first time on WWDC. The response to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" proved enormous in the Washington D. C. area, so much so that WWDC played the single in heavy rotation. Soon stations in both Chicago and St. Louis were playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as well.

Unable to ignore the record's success at various stations about the country, Capitol Records then released "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the United States on 26 December 1963. Not only did "I Want to Hold Your Hand" prove to be a hit in the United States, it proved to be an outright phenomenon. Demand was so great for the song that Capitol had to contract Columbia Records and RCA to press copies of the record. It was on 18 January 1964 that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #45, The Beatles' first appearance on the chart. A week later it had hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. By 1 February 1964 it was the #1 record in the Untied States, a position it maintained for 7 weeks. It was replaced in the #1 spot by another Beatles record, "She Loves You".

Even as Pan Am 101 touched down at JFK Airport on 7 January 1963 The Beatles were the biggest selling music artists in the United States. Not only did they have the #1 record in the land, but "She Loves You", "Please Please Me", and "I Saw Her Standing There" were all rapidly moving up the chart as well. After years of struggle The Beatles had done what no other British artist had ever done. They had conquered America.

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