How The Beatles Conquered America in 1964
The story of how the Beatles first became successful in America is a fascinating tale - filled with astonishing coincidences.
They went from being virtual unknowns to mega-star status in just six weeks. On Christmas Day 1963 - practically no one in the USA had ever heard of them. By Sunday February 9th 1964 interest in the Beatles was so intense that a record-breaking audience of 73 million viewers tuned in to see the group's debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
(That was a staggering 40% of the US population at the time. The 2013 equivalent of an audience of 125 million.)
How did it happen? Was it the music alone? The novelty of the haircuts? A nation yearning for something uplifting after the tragedy of President John Kennedy's assassination? A brilliant marketing scheme by their record company?
All of those elements played their part. And there was definitely a Capitol Records marketing campaign that fanned the flames. But the Beatles also owe their initial American success to a series of extraordinary events triggered by an enthusiastic 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Maryland - that caused the record company's entire carefully-calibrated timetable to be suddenly thrown out of the window and brought forward by three weeks - much to the benefit of the Beatles!
Here is the entire story in chronological sequence.
April 1st 1963 - October 31st 1963,
In this 7-month period the Beatles go from being comparative unknowns in the UK to the most successful entertainers in British history. They become a phenomenon selling millions of records. They also conquer Europe.
But the Holy Grail of American success eludes the Beatles. Though there have occasionally been British records that have climbed the US charts - no UK act has ever achieved sustained success. So American record companies are understandably skeptical about the US potential of the Beatles.
Capitol Records - the US affiliate of the Beatles' UK label (EMI) - itself rejects the Beatles four times during 1963 - despite their British success. Two small independent American record companies (Vee-Jay and Swan) release Beatles records - but with no success. At this point their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin are beginning to despair. Then fate takes a hand...
Friday October 31st 1963
A chance encounter changes the Beatles' fortunes forever. Influential American TV variety show host Ed Sullivan is traveling to London and his arrival at Heathrow Airport is delayed by a riot of youngsters who are there to welcome the Beatles home from a tour of Sweden. Sullivan is intrigued by the fervor for this British music group with the strange haircuts - and considers booking them for an appearance on his show. Because of their (for that era) long hair and the bizarre notion of English kids playing what is considered American-style music - he is regarding them as a novelty act to make the audience smile. An English rock 'n' roll equivalent of Topo Gigio... What could be quainter?
Tuesday November 5th 1963
Beatles manager Brian Epstein travels to New York for a previously-scheduled business trip. He arranges to meet Ed Sullivan on Monday November 11th and Tuesday November 12th. Though the group has no American record deal or prospects - Epstein persuades Sullivan to book his group for what will be an unprecedented three consecutive appearances on the show. Even more remarkably - Sullivan agrees to consider Epstein's passionate insistence that his unknown artists should headline the three shows. The first two shows are set for Sundays February 9th and 16th. (The third show is subsequently scheduled for February 23rd)
Mid-late November 1963
Epstein telephones the President of Capitol Records in Los Angeles and asks why the label keeps rejecting his group. Intrigued about a group whose recordings he has never heard (the rejections have been by a subordinate) the label president - Alan Livingston - decides to appraise the Beatles latest record. He listens and then decides to over-rule his staff and sign the group. Skillfully using the promotional opportunity he has created of the three upcoming appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show - Epstein persuades Livingston to commit to a promotional budget to launch the group. He convinces Livingston to spend $40,000 - a gigantic sum in those days for promotion. (Adjusted for inflation, the 2013 equivalent of $40,000 is $305,000!)
Saturday November 16th 1963
Prompted by Beatles manager Brian Epstein who is keen to prepare the American marketplace for the group's imminent US debut - Alexander Kendrick - head of the London bureau of CBS TV News - shoots a news story about the Beatles. He accompanies a CBS news crew to film a concert and interview the Beatles. It will be the first major TV news story and interview with the Beatles to air in the USA. The film is edited in London and flown to New York to be broadcast.
Friday November 22nd 1963
It is customary that TV news divisions amortize their production costs by airing filmed news stories in more than one show. CBS News would often air a film segment on its mid-morning CBS Morning News - and then repeat it that night for the different audience that would watch the CBS Evening News. The Beatles film story airs on this day on CBS Morning News - hosted by Mike Wallace. Just two hours later President Kennedy is assassinated and all normal programming is suspended and replaced by rolling news coverage of the tragedy. So there is no CBS Evening News that night - and the film can containing the Beatles segment that had been due to air on that night's news is put on the shelf.
Wednesday December 4th 1963
Capitol Records issues a barely-noticed press release announcing that it has signed an English pop group called The Beatles. Following conventional wisdom that it is pointless to issue product by complete unknowns in the holiday season - the Beatles' first Capitol release "I Want To Hold Your Hand" is scheduled for Monday January 13th. The Beatles are set to make the first of their three Ed Sullivan Show appearances just three weeks later - on Sunday February 9th
In those days - even the most successful new record would usually take a minimum of 6-8 weeks to climb the charts. So the most optimistic expectation of Capitol Records (at the time the release date was chosen in late November) was that the three Ed Sullivan appearances might help propel the Beatles' record up the chart. There was absolutely ZERO expectation that the Beatles might reach #1 by the time of their arrival in America. Nor that there might be any airport welcome, screaming fans or record-breaking TV audience. Not remotely a possibility. Practically no one in America had ever heard of them. The forthcoming Ed Sullivan Show appearances are seen as a device to help BREAK the Beatles - not as a platform for the group to build on its triumph of already being #1 in America.
Tuesday December 10th 1963
Just as TV executives waited after 9/11 for an appropriate passage of time to elapse before resuming normal entertainment - so TV news executives in 1963 waited for the right time to introduce lighter stories to relieve the deep post-assassination gloom. On December 10th - CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite feels that a nation recovering from the tragedy might be warmed by a light-hearted story. He recalls that there had been a fun story from England about some "long-haired" rock 'n' roll musicians that had been shelved because of the events in Dallas. He decides to air the story that night. It is a fateful decision for the Beatles...
Watching Walter Cronkite present the 4-minute story about the Beatles on the CBS Evening News that night is a 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her name is Marsha Albert. And the chord that the Beatles strikes inside her - is about to help change the world...
Wednesday December 11th 1963
Excited by the music of the Beatles that she experienced on the CBS Evening News - Marsha Albert writes to her local deejay - Carroll James, a disc jockey at Washington's WWDC radio station. She asks: "why can't we have music like that here in America?"
Thursday December 12th 1963
DJ Carroll James receives the letter. He too had seen the broadcast on CBS Evening News. He has never heard of the group. And he is oblivious to the fact that an American record company is planning to release a record by this group in one month's time in mid-January. The radio station policy is to try and please its listeners. So he resolves to find a disc by this strange group called The Beatles. Since they are a success in their British homeland - he phones a contact in the DC offices of the British national airline (then named BOAC - now BA.) The friend arranges to have a BOAC stewardess (now called "flight attendants"!) bring a copy of the latest Beatles record to Washington. The stewardess brings it two days later.
Tuesday December 17th 1963
Having received a copy of the UK single "I Want To Hold Your Hand" from England - Carroll James decides that its US premiere should be introduced by the young girl who had requested the record. He contacts Marsha Albert and invites her to the WWDC studios. She introduces the record with the words "Ladies and gentlemen for the first time on the air in the United States - here are the Beatles singing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand.'" Here is an audiotape of this historic moment.
The oft-used expression "the phones lit up" does not begin to describe the reaction that WWDC experiences. Listeners phone in repeatedly to request the song. Carroll James and the radio station react by placing their solitary copy of the record in heavy rotation. The frequent playing of the record elicits even more listener response.
Wednesday December 18th 1963
Listeners start bombarding Washington DC record stores with requests for a record and artist that none of the stores have even heard of. The grassroots reaction has begun... About 40 years before etymologists record the first use of the phrase "going viral" - and in a world before music video, cell phones and the internet - quite spontaneously and without a marketing cent having been spent - the Beatles go viral...
Thursday December 19th 1963
Executives at Capitol Records HQ in Los Angeles discover that a major Washington DC radio station is giving very heavy airplay to an imported copy of a record not due for release for another month. Anxious that this breach will damage its carefully-timed game-plan - the first reaction of the record company is to request that the station stops playing the record. When the station indignantly refuses - the record company even hires an attorney to threaten a "cease and desist" order on the defiant station. Fortunately for the record company - and the Beatles - a wiser decision is made...
Friday December 20th 1963
Capitol Records President Alan Livingston ruminates that since record companies spend most of their time trying to get radio stations to PLAY records - that threatening a lawsuit to try to STOP a station playing a record is foolish. He makes a radical decision. Though the Beatles' record is not scheduled for release for another 3 weeks - and record companies almost never release new product in the period between Christmas and New Year - Livingston thinks that the incredible reaction in DC to the disc warrants the most unconventional of approaches. He orders that the record be rush-released on the very earliest date. All Christmas leave for Capitol Records staff is canceled.
Because the manufacturing elements are already at the factories in preparation for the mid-January release - the company is able to effect the release in just one short week.
Thursday December 26th 1963
The day after Christmas, radio promotion men from Capitol Records commence delivering the disc to radio stations. The reaction is instantaneous. In New York City for example - the records are delivered at approx. 9am. By midday, three of the most influential radio stations (WMCA, WABC and WINS) are playing the record as incessantly as the Washington station. Major stations in other cities rapidly follow suit.
A crucial benefit of the spur-of-the-moment decision to rush-release the record the day after Christmas is about to manifest itself. During the Christmas holidays kids are out of school and at home - able to listen to the radio all day. Most schools do not recommence till Monday January 6th - so for ten consecutive days that shook the American world - kids hear "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on their radios. (Had the record been issued on January 13th as originally scheduled - kids could not have heard the record at anything like the same frequency.) The impact on America's kids of exposure to so much intense airplay of the Beatles soon becomes apparent.
Friday January 10th 1964
Just two weeks after its first release - sales figures indicate that the Beatles have sold over ONE MILLION records. It is a staggering number by a previously-unknown artist. Clearly the kids are reacting instinctively to something in the music. The Capitol Records marketing campaign hits full stride now. Millions of stickers bearing the legend "The BEATLES Are Coming!" are distributed. But the campaign does not CREATE Beatlemania. It fans the flames of what is already there. It builds on a genuine grassroots reaction to what kids are hearing on the radio...
Thursday January 16th 1964
On this day executives at leading industry trade journal Cash Box compile the sales statistics for the record charts that will appear in the next issue of the paper. The Beatles have leapt from #43 to #1. After being on sale for exactly three weeks - the Beatles are top of the American charts! The issue of Cash Box goes on sale on Saturday January 18th (with a cover date of January 25th) The rival trade publication Billboard lists the Beatles at #3 for the same week - and at #1 the following week. The word is officially out. The Beatles are obviously an unprecedented phenomenon.
Friday January 17th - Thursday February 6th 1964
For the next three weeks - three crucial weeks - Beatlemania explodes in America. Newspapers and magazines write reams of analysis of the phenomenon. Late-night TV hosts make jokes about them. A nation still aching from the gaping, emotional wound of President Kennedy's assassination finds a diversion. And the media reflects all this. Even though there is no MTV, no cable TV, no Internet, no Google, no YouTube, no social media - everyone in America knows that The Beatles Are Coming!
Friday February 7th 1964
The day finally arrives. Thousands of screaming kids waving banners descend on the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome the new conquerors. The day is dubbed B-Day to signify the Beatles Invasion - which will soon become a British Invasion.
Hundreds of cynical journalists crowd into a packed conference room at the airport to fire questions at this new teenage phenomenon. The universal attitude at the beginning of the press conference is that these strangely long-haired Beatles and the hysterical reaction to them at the airport is just another teen fad - like the Hula-Hoop. Questions are fired at the Beatles expecting them to be the stereotypical pop singers who will grunt laconic, monosyllabic answers. No one expects the exuberant, witty, self-deprecating charm of the Beatles. Gales of laughter greet their good-natured attitude. By the end of the televised press conference the Beatles have won over the toughest room in America - New York's press corps. After that - the rest of the nation is a breeze...
Sunday February 9th 1964
The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. The show had received 50,000 ticket applications. Only 728 lucky people get tickets. 73 MILLION people watch on TV. A staggering 40% of the population. (Equivalent today to an audience of ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY FIVE MILLION.)
If the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" had been released as scheduled on January 13th 1964 - at a time when America's kids were back at school - it is virtually impossible that the record could have been heard enough to generate the unprecedented momentum that drove the record to a million sales and the top of the charts in just three weeks...
If the Beatles had not been at #1 in the charts by the day they arrived in America (let alone #1 for three crucial weeks BEFORE they arrived in America) then there would never have been thousands of screaming teenagers to greet them at Kennedy Airport or outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Or hundreds of media scrambling to cover the Beatles at their JFK press conference. Without that hoopla - there is absolutely no chance that a record-breaking 73 million viewers would have tuned in that Sunday night.
The Beatles would still have succeeded in America. Of that there is no doubt. Their exuberant music and giddy optimism was an unstoppable force. But the sheer SPEED and MAGNITUDE of their breakthrough owes much to the unusual set of circumstances described above.
The heroes of this story? (apart from the Beatles of course)...
BRIAN EPSTEIN - the manager who would not take no for an answer. And who convinced Ed Sullivan to book his unknown group for three consecutive appearances as headliners. Then persuaded Capitol Records to sign and promote his band.
ED SULLIVAN - the TV host who didn't 'get' the music but who instinctively understood the phenomenon - and gave it the unprecedented platform it deserved.
WALTER CRONKITE - the news anchor who wanted to cheer up America after the Kennedy assassination - and chose just the right tonic for the nation.
MARSHA ALBERT - the 15-year-old schoolgirl from Dublin Drive, Silver Spring, Maryland - who cared enough to write a letter to her local deejay...
CARROLL JAMES - the deejay who cared enough about a letter from a listener to arrange that an airline stewardess would bring him a record from London. And then refused to back down when a record company attorney instructed him and his station to stop playing the record.
ALAN LIVINGSTON - the record company president who signed a band already rejected four times by his own company - and who had the instinct to radically change an entire marketing campaign just 5 days before Christmas
The rest is history...