The Link Between the Kennedy Assassination and the Onset of Beatlemania

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This past November, there were seemingly endless efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy.  Now (Feb. 9) we are in the midst of a similar celebration and reexamination of the 50th anniversary of arrival of the rock and roll band the Beatles in the United States and their initial appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Both of these efforts reflect the boundless enthusiasm of the Baby Boom generation for the celebration of the cultural landmarks of its childhood and adolescence.

These two events, occurring about 2 ½ months apart, are more closely linked than most people appreciate.  Had it none been for the tragic events of November 22, 1963, Beatlemania would probably have arrived in the United States even earlier than it did.

Looking back on the story of the Beatles, it is remarkable how slow the United States was to catch on to the significance and the appeal of the Fab Four.  Although 1963 was a breakout year for the band in England and Europe—selling over one million records that year and dominating the British pop music charts and well as attracting hysterical fans from throughout northern Europe—as late as November 1963, very few Americans had ever heard of the Beatles, and even fewer had heard their music.

Remarkably, the individuals who ran Capital Records, the American arm of the record company EMI which produced the Beatles’ records in the UK, were convinced that despite their popularity in the UK and Europe the Beatles were not suitable for the American market (as the Capital brass put it).  As a result, Capital refused to produce any Beatles records at all in the United States before finally agreeing to produce a token number (5,000) of copies of the band’s song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in late December or early January.

Through the efforts of EMI, three of the group’s songs were released in the United States in 1963, but all appeared on minor labels, either the Chicago-based Vee-Jay (“Please, Please Me” and “From Me to You”) or Philadelphia’s Swan Records (“She Loves You”).  Although all three of these songs had been hit records in the UK and would become well known songs in the United States, none sold well in 1963, and none received more than a token amount of airplay on American radio.

However, for any American who was in Britain in 1963, it was apparent that the Beatles were no ordinary musical group, given their extraordinary popularity, especially with teenage girls.  American television impresario Ed Sullivan, whose “Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS-TV was a major American entertainment venue , happened to be in London in November when the Beatles were mobbed by throngs of young girls at Heathrow Airport following their return from a successful tour of Sweden.  Sullivan was stunned by the enthusiasm of the fans and later that month decided to book the unknown (in the U.S.) group on to his variety show in early February as a “novelty act.”

Of course, Ed Sullivan was not the only American who was aware of the Beatlemania phenomenon in the United Kingdom.  In its November 15, 1963 issue, Time Magazine profiled the new band and its legion of fans in a story entitled “The New Madness.”  Three days later, the nation’s highest rated network news program, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, closed out its half hour nightly news show with a four-minute story on the band and its fans.  The story was reported from the UK by veteran newsman, Edwin Newman, and while Newman’s report included brief snippets of the Beatles performing, its primary focus was on the seemingly hysterical reactions of their fans.  (The audio from Newman’s report, introduced by Chet Huntley, can be heard here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY9PoR7-XGA.)

At this point, most American news outlets realized that the Beatles and their fans were no ordinary story, even if it was still almost impossible to hear the band’s music in the United States.  Newsweek, Life Magazine, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine all rushed stories into print, and Jack Paar, host of NBC’s Tonight Show,  acquired the rights to a clip of the Beatles performing, which he planned to “show as a joke.”

CBS News, playing catch-up, prepared an extended story on the Beatles phenomenon by having London-based correspondent Alan Kendrick report on his first-hand analysis of the British fascination with this new musical combo.

Like NBC’s Newman, Kendrick was generally disparaging in regard to the band’s musical abilities and focused instead on the inexplicable zeal and compulsive screaming of the group’s teenage female fans.   (Today, Kendrick’s report seems more like a documentary on what it meant to be middle-aged and clueless in 1964.  It can be viewed here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehNn4v9QxB0)

On Thursday, November 22, CBS used its morning shows to hype Kendrick’s report which was scheduled to air later that day on the Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  However, the tragic events in Dallas that afternoon led the network to drop plans for the Beatles story altogether.

In fact, just as the onslaught of publicity about the Beatles and Beatlemania was raising the curiosity of Americans, the president’s untimely death abruptly brought stories about the young band from Britain with the funny haircuts to a halt.  Presumably, had it not been for the assassination, the explosion in news coverage pertaining to the Beatles would have produced enough curiosity to encourage Capital Records to reverse course and start issuing Beatle records in the United States.

Thanks to the assassination, Capital Records had no reason to reconsider its policy toward the Beatles.  However, 18 days later, something remarkable happened.  On December 10, 1963, with no particular fanfare, CBS finally ran its Beatles story on the evening news.

One of the viewers who watched the news that night was 15 year old baby-boomer Marsha Albert (b. 1949), a high school student from Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Albert ignored the critical, dismissive tone of Kendrick’s report, but was enraptured by the musical clips it contained.

The next day, she called her favorite disc jockey,  Carroll James of WWDC-AM radio in the District of Columbia, and demanded that James start playing Beatle songs on his show.  Impressed by her passion, and aware of the popularity of the Beatles in Britain, James convinced a friend who was a British Airways flight attendant to purchase him a copy of the new Beatle record, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” when she was next in the UK.  James acquired the record, and to help call attention to the song, announced that Beatle fan Marsha Albert would join him in the studio to introduce the record to his audience.

The rest, as they say, is history.

James first played the song on December 17, and then began playing it over and over once the switchboard lit up with calls demanding to hear the song again.  A week later, radio stations all over the United States were playing Beatle songs, if they could find them.  Capital Records pushed the release date of the American version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (with “I Saw Her Standing There” on the flip side) to the day after Christmas, and by December 29, over a quarter million copies of the two-sided record had been sold.

By mid-January, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that listed the supposedly most popular songs in the United States.  By the time that the band arrived in the United States on February 7, that song was at the top of the charts, followed closely by three other Beatle songs, “She Loves You,” “Please, Please Me,” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”

On the evening of February 9, Ed Sullivan looked like a genius by having snagged the world’s most popular band for his show for that night and the next two Sundays.  On New Year’s Day, most Americans had still not heard of the Beatles.  Forty days later, their presence on Sullivan’s show attracted an audience estimated to be in excess of 74 million people, the largest audience in television history.

The Beatles’ 1964 turned out to be the greatest year ever for a singer or musical group in the history of American music.  Nineteen Beatle songs made it into the Billboard top 100 singles list between January 1 and December 31.  All 19 reached #35 or higher, 13 made it into the top 12 and 11 in the top 10, while 6 songs (“I Want to Hold Your Hand,”  “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Love Me Do,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “I Feel  Fine”) made it to #1.

Between February 1 and May 9, a Beatle song was ranked #1 on the chart every week.  On May 16, the top spot went to Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly,” but the Beatles were back on top again by the end of May.  Although they were not as dominant in the second half of the year as they were in the first, the year ended with a Beatle song (“I Feel Fine”) at the top of the charts.

The number of the Beatles #1 hits would have been greater but for the fact that so many songs were released simultaneously with each other.  “Twist and Shout,” one of the band’s most successful songs and the rare Beatle song not written by the members of the band, peaked at #2 because it was released at the time when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were still at the top of the chart.  “Please, Please Me” met a similar fate, peaking at #3.  In March of 1964, those four songs simultaneously occupied slots #1 to #4 on the Billboard Chart.

As someone who turned age 12 during the middle of 1964, I remember that listening to music on the radio seemed largely about listening to the Beatles hits with which we were already familiar being played over and over while waiting for the next new Beatle song to air.

On the album charts (in an era still dominated by the two-song “45’s”), the Beatles Capital Records album, “Meet the Beatles,” debuted on the charts on February 1; reached #3 a week later; and then jumped to #1 the following week, where it remained for 11 weeks.  Two weeks later, it was accompanied at #2 by the Vee-Jay album, “Introducing the Beatles.”  On May 2, both of these albums were surpassed by the group’s second Capital album, entitled “The Beatle’s Second Album” which remained at the top of the charts for five weeks.  For June and most of July albums by other performers topped the chart, but on July 31, the new Beatles album, “A Hard Day’s Night” returned to the #1 position and remained there for 14 weeks.

The Kennedy assassination clearly delayed the onset of Beatlemania in the United States, but neither that sad event, nor anything else, could have prevented John, Paul, George and Ringo from permanently transforming the popular music scene in the United States.

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2 Responses to “The Link Between the Kennedy Assassination and the Onset of Beatlemania”

  1. Deborah Darin Says:

    Thanks for the remembrance.

    My mother often said the Beatles were a much-appreciated respite from the sadness after November 1963. Maybe it is just as well it took them until early 1964 to arrive, and explode, in the States.

  2. Melissa Greipp Says:

    I have always wondered what prompted so much public hysteria over the Beatles when they first appeared in the U.S. (as in the picture above). Your blog may provide the answer–maybe it was because the fans wanted to show their support publicly as the Beatles initially weren’t getting as much press and coverage as would have been expected in the U.S.

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