Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Birth of Beatlemania in America Part One

Fifty years ago yesterday The Beatles arrived in the United States for the first time. Tomorrow it will have been fifty years since The Beatles' historic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles' first trip to America and their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show have since entered the mythology of Anglo-American popular music. Ed Sullivan discovered The Beatles at Heathrow Airport in London while waiting for a flight back to New York. Once back home in the United States he promptly booked them on his show and the rest is history. That having been said, as often is the case, the truth behind the birth of Beatlemania was considerably more complex.

The band we know as The Beatles evolved out of a skiffle and rock 'n' roll group formed in Liverpool by John Lennon and Eric Griffiths called The Quarrymen in 1957. Paul McCartney joined the band later in the year, making his debut with them on 18 October 1957. The following year George Harrison joined The Quarrymen. Through the years the band would go through several membership changes. They would also undergo changes in their name. In January 1960 they became "The Beatals". In May 1960 they changed the name of the band again, this time to "The Silver Beatles". By the middle of August 1960 they would be using the name under which they would become famous. They were simply "The Beatles".

At the same time that "The Silver Beatles" became "The Beatles" they played in Hamburg for the first time. For much of the rest of 1960 and a good portion of 1961 the band played on and off in Germany, and it would be there that The Beatles as we know them would largely take shape. Following their return to Liverpool in July 1961 the band would see their popularity grow. Starting in late 1961 The Beatles would be helped a good deal by a young music columnist and record shop owner named Brian Epstein. The band attempted to get recording contracts with EMI and then Decca, but to no avail. Indeed, not only did Decca Records inform them that "guitar groups are on the way out", but the label also stated, "The Beatles have no future in show business." No greater understatement could ever have been made.

It was in January 1962 that Brian Epstein officially became The Beatles' manager. The group would also see other major changes as well. They finally received a recording contract, signing with EMI's label Parlophone in June 1962. Not long afterwards drummer Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr. Their first single, "Love Me Do", was released in October 1962. It peaked at #17 on the British singles chart. Their second single, "Please Please Me", performed even better. Released on  11 January 1963, it went all the way to #2 on the singles chart. It would be with  their second nationwide tour in March 1962 that the first signs of a growing craze for The Beatles in Britain could be observed. On the tour they supported American rock stars Tommy Roe and Chris Montez, both of who had already had considerable success in Britain. Despite this the crowds screamed for The Beatles, making it no secret that the four lads from Liverpool were whom they had come to see.

The growing craze for Beatles would be reflected in the success of their next two singles. Their third single, "From Me To You" (released on 22 March 1963), went all the way to #1; however, it would be their fourth single that proved once and for all that The Beatles had become a phenomenon in the United Kingdom. Released 23 August 1963 "She Loves You" not only went to #1 on the British charts, but it became the biggest selling song for the year of 1963 in Britain. Indeed, 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).

If it had not been obvious before, the success of "She Loves You" made it clear that the era of Beatlemania had begun (the term "Beatlemania" having been coined by journalist Andi Lothian in a story printed in The Daily Mirror in 15 October 1963). When The Beatles returned from a successful five day tour of Sweden on 31 October 1963 they were greeted by over 1500  fans, some 50 reporters and photographers, and a BBC Television crew. So great was the furore over The Beatles that the current Miss World went totally ignored by the press at the airport. When The Beatles started on their fourth nation-wide tour the following day at the Odeon in Cheltenham, the screams from the crowds were so loud that it drowned out The Beatles' instruments.

While Beatlemania had swept the United Kingdom, however, the band had seen no real success in the United States. This was largely due to EMI's American subsidiary, Capitol Records. Capitol Records turned down "Please Please Me" and as a result it was released by the label  Vee-Jay. With little promotion it did not even crack the American charts. "From Me to You" was not even offered to Capitol, and like "Please Please Me" it was released by Vee-Jay. It peaked at 116 on the Billboard singles chart on 10 August 1963. "She Loves You", at the time the biggest ever hit single in the United Kingdom, was offered to Capitol. Capitol turned it down. As Vee-Jay had been lax in making their royalty payments, "She Loves You" was then turned over to the small label Swan Records. Amazingly it failed to chart. Even American rock star Del Shannon couldn't have a hit with a Beatles song. His cover of "From Me to You", released in June 1963, only peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100.

All the while The Beatles were failing to chart in the United States, there were Americans who had taken notice of the Beatlemania that had overtaken Britain. Among the first Americans to take notice of Beatlemania was Sid Bernstein, a talent agent with General Artists Corporation. Mr. Bernstein had long been interested in British culture and regularly read British newspapers. Quite naturally, then, he knew about Beatlemania long before most Americans. By early 1963 he had become convinced that The Beatles could be a success in the Untied States. He was unable to interest the General Artists Corporation in The Beatles  and even the agency's London representative doubted The Beatles could be a success. Sid Bernstein then took it upon himself to bring The Beatles to America.

It took Sid Bernstein quite some time to contact Brian Epstein. When Mr. Bernstein did, Mr. Epstein was quite naturally sceptical given The Beatles' lack of success in the United States. Eventually the two men reached an agreement. For the sum of $6500 The Beatles would play two shows at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Bernstein's choice of the date for the first of the shows would be fortuitous. He chose 12 February 1964, then Lincoln's Birthday. As a national holiday children would be out of school, making chances for a good audience all the better. It was then in August 1963 that Sid Bernstein booked The Beatles at Carnegie Hall for 12 February 1963.

Sid Bernstein was not the only American aware of The Beatles long before their arrival in America. Beatlemania eventually reached such proportions that it was hard for the American press to ignore. On 6 October 1963 The Los Angeles Times published a story on The Beatles craze in Britain. Later in the month, on 29 October 1963, The Washington Post published their own story on Beatlemania. It also seems possible that even Ed Sullivan was aware of The Beatles before his first personal encounter with Beatlemania at Heathrow Airport. Jack Babb, the talent coordinator on The Ed Sullivan Show, regularly visited Europe to look for talent there. He was often helped by London theatrical agent Peter Prichard who served as Ed Sullivan's representative in the United Kingdom and in Europe. What is more Peter Prichard knew Brian Epstein personally. At least once during the summer of 1963 Mr Prichard took Mr. Babb to a Beatles concert. At the time neither Jack Babb nor Peter Prichard considered getting The Beatles for The Ed Sullivan Show.

All of this would change as Beatlemania grew throughout the rest of 1963. It was then on 31 October 1963 that Ed Sullivan found himself in Heathrow Airport in London awaiting a flight back to New York after a talent search of Europe. At the same time The Beatles were returning from their successful five day tour of Sweden.With around 1500 fans, 50 members of the press, and a BBC Television crew there to greet the band, Mr. Sullivan could not help but notice the furore over The Beatles.

It was a few days later, on 4 November 1963, that The Beatles performed at the the Royal Command Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. This would bring The Beatles even more attention from the international press. Brian Epstein planned the following day to travel to New York City to promote another one of his artists Billy J. Kramer. Before he left Peter Prichard got in touch with him and the two put into motion getting The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was Peter Prichard who convinced Ed Sullivan to think about booking The Beatles, largely using  their performance at the Royal Command Performance as an argument to do so. It was then that Brian Epstein met with Ed Sullivan on 11 November 1963. It was at this first meeting that a tentative agreement was reached that The Beatles would appear on the 9 February 1964 programme and on the following 16 February 1964 programme, which would be broadcast live from Miami, Florida. A second meeting between Ed Sullivan was held on 12 November 1963 at the Delmonico Hotel. It was agreed that The Beatles would be paid $3500 for each of their live appearances, and $3000 for a taped appearance that would be broadcast on the 23 February 1963 show.

Even as steps were being taken for The Beatles to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show the band began receiving more coverage from the American press. On 4 November 1963 The New York Times published a story on The Beatles' return from Sweden. Time published a story on The Beatles in their 16 November 1963 issue, with Newsweek publishing their own story on the band in their 18 November 1963.

Both NBC and CBS sent television crews to cover The Bealtes' performance at the Winter Garden Theatre in Bournemouth, England on 16 November 1963. NBC aired their report first, on their evening news programme The Huntley-Brinkley Report, on 18 November 1963. It would be the first appearance of The Beatles on American television. The CBS Evening News was set to air their report on 22 November 1963, but it was pre-empted by coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It ultimately aired on 10 December 1963.

By mid-November 1963 The Beatles were set to appear on the United States' biggest variety programme, The Ed Sullivan Show, and to play one of the United States' most prestigious concert halls, Carnegie Hall, both in February 1964. Starting in November the American press began devoting more coverage to The Beatles and Beatlemania. It would not be The Ed Sullivan Show or Carnegie Hall that would spark Beatlemania in the United States, however, but an entirely unexpected turn of events beyond the control of Brian Epstein or even The Beatles themselves.

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