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Beatles’ New York City trip still resonates 60 years later

By Peter Sblendorio, New York Daily News
Published: February 8, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
American television host Ed Sullivan, middle, smiles along with the members of British rock group the Beatles, on the set of his television variety series, &ldquo;The Ed Sullivan Show,&rdquo; at CBS&rsquo;s Studio 50 on Feb. 9, 1964, in New York. From left, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
American television host Ed Sullivan, middle, smiles along with the members of British rock group the Beatles, on the set of his television variety series, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” at CBS’s Studio 50 on Feb. 9, 1964, in New York. From left, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — Even the Beatles didn’t quite comprehend what awaited them in New York on Feb. 7, 1964.

Six days after “I Want to Hold Your Hold” broke through as their first No. 1 hit in the U.S., Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison braced for a warm welcome as Pan Am Flight 101 out of London neared its destination in Queens.

Never, however, did they expect the spectacle they found when they disembarked.

Some 3,000 fans, many of them smiling, shrieking, hysterical girls who skipped school on a Friday, ambushed JFK Airport, congregating along the rooftop and pushing past police barricades to catch a glimpse of the mop-topped British heartthrobs.

Delighted screams from overwhelmed teens served as the soundtrack as the grinning, waving Beatles stepped off a Boeing 707 and onto American soil for the first time.

Those screams became a staple of McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison’s two-week trip, during which they made history on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” played back-to-back concerts at Carnegie Hall and journeyed down to Washington, D.C., and Miami Beach.

“No one will understand the emotion of us landing in America,” Starr told the Daily News in 2019. “But it was New York, and all of the music we loved came from there. It was just far out.”

Wednesday marked the 60-year anniversary of that epic airport arrival, which remains a watershed moment in pop culture that society is still trying to unravel.

February 1964 offered America its first taste of Beatlemania, but the singer-songwriters from Liverpool had already achieved superstardom in their native England behind two full albums, a trio of chart-topping songs and the distinction of being the first pop act to perform before the royal family.

However, Capitol Records, an American subsidiary of the British label EMI, doubted the Beatles could satisfy U.S. ears and repeatedly passed on initial singles such as “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You” and “Love Me Do.”

“I Want to Hold Your Hold” was different. There were no harmonicas, which Capitol decision-makers feared gave previous Beatles songs too much of a blues feel to connect locally.

Convinced that Capitol couldn’t turn down the upbeat “I Want to Hold Your Hold,” Beatles manager Brian Epstein implored label president Alan Livingston to give the track a chance. Upon listening to the two-and-a-half-minute love song himself, Livingston finally agreed to get behind the Beatles.

Capitol released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on Dec. 26, 1963, and dumped money into a publicity campaign to generate excitement about their U.S. arrival six weeks later.

“It’s just a perfect song,” said Kenneth Womack, who teaches a Beatles course at New Jersey’s Monmouth University and has authored more than a dozen books about the band.

“It’s nonthreatening. It’s innovative. It has variety to it. It goes to a lot of places for just a few minutes, and it was a perfect introduction to the Beatles’ sound. When the kids of 1964 began to get their hands on other Beatles music that had already been out in England for quite a bit of time at that point, they just kept finding more and more and more of this.”

Americans fell fast for the Fab Four. Often equipped with pins and signs declaring their favorite band member, admirers followed the Beatles’ every move. Hordes of fans surrounded New York’s prized Plaza Hotel, where the Beatles stayed. Some navigated cars as they ran through the neighboring streets. At one point, the crowds required the Beatles’ chauffeur to climb across his car to reach the driver’s seat.

“Beatles Here; 3,000 Kids And a Hotel Ain’t the Same,” read a Daily News headline on Feb. 8, 1964.

“Beatles Blast Off, Kids Go Into Orbit of Ecstacy,” declared another two days later.

Being in America delighted the Beatles, too. McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison, all in their early 20s, adored American music, from girl groups such as the Ronettes to R&B acts including Little Richard.

Upon arriving stateside, the Beatles phoned radio stations and requested other artists’ records instead of their own.

“They wanted to hear more,” Womack said. “‘What are we missing?’ It was doing recon at a certain level. They wanted to hear and to meet the purveyors of this music that was so important to them. I think that’s kind of cool, that they weren’t coming over and just indulging in an easy ego trip. They meant business.”

The Beatles made the most of their visit. McCartney, Lennon and Starr posed for photos in Central Park as Harrison nursed an illness. The foursome later made their U.S. concert debut at Washington Coliseum on Feb. 11 during an overnight trip to the nation’s capital. They returned to New York the next day and played back-to-back concerts at Carnegie Hall, a venue reserved for artists who reached the pinnacle.

Nothing resonated more, though, than their performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

At the time, Sullivan was known as the “Star Maker,” with his appointment-TV variety show offering the biggest platform for entertainers to introduce themselves to a national audience.

A popular narrative suggests Sullivan first learned of the Beatles during an October 1963 visit to London’s Heathrow Airport, where he observed rabid fans waiting for the band to arrive. That wasn’t the case, according to Sullivan’s granddaughter, Margo Precht Speciale, who said a London-based talent scout, Peter Prichard, put the Beatles on her grandfather’s radar.

Epstein had contacted Prichard about getting the Beatles on the “Sullivan Show.” Prichard pitched the band to Sullivan, and shortly thereafter, Epstein met with Sullivan and his son, show producer Robert H. Precht, at New York’s Delmonico Hotel. They hammered out a $10,000 contract for the Beatles to play three “Sullivan Show” sets, marking the program’s first-ever three-performance commitment.

“My grandfather was always trying to get the biggest scoop,” Precht Speciale told The News. “He was a reporter [at the Daily News] for many, many years, and he worked on that show like he was a reporter. He always wanted to get the big scoop. The Beatles, at the time, were that.”

A whopping 50,000 requests to attend the Beatles’ first “Sullivan Show” performance poured in, shattering the previous record of 7,000 submissions to see Elvis Presley nearly eight years earlier. Richard Nixon and Jack Paar managed to get spots in the 728-seat studio for their daughters. Leonard Bernstein wasn’t as fortunate.

Dressed in matching black suits, the Beatles made their “Sullivan Show” debut on Feb. 9, 1964, with a five-song set they performed live. They opened with “All My Loving,” performed a cover of “Till There Was You” from Broadway’s “The Music Man,” and followed that with “She Loves You.” Later in the show, they played “I Saw Her Standing There” before ending with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Some audience members were downright giddy, visibly struggling to contain their emotions as McCartney, Lennon and Harrison strummed their guitars and Starr pounded his Ludwig drums from feet away.

Approximately 73 million viewers tuned in to watch the Beatles, setting a record for a TV broadcast in the U.S. Among them were Billy Joel and Steven Van Zandt, who later spoke about how that experience influenced their own musical pursuits.

Guitars began to fly off music store shelves. A paradigm shift was underway.

“People didn’t want to be like the Beatles. They wanted to be the Beatles,” Tom Frangione, the resident Beatles expert on Sirius XM’s The Beatles Channel, told The News.

“The common wisdom is America was in the doldrums having lost [President John F. Kennedy in November 1963],” Frangione said. “He represented youth and hope and something new to latch onto. This is what showed up a couple of months later on national television. … It got the country united in a way. It was 73 million people. That was about a third of the population. There was something to rally around and something to feel good about.”

A week later on Feb. 16, the Beatles gave another live performance on “Sullivan,” this time out of Miami Beach. About 70 million people tuned in for that six-song set, which featured new additions in “This Boy” and “From Me to You.”

The band’s third appearance, a pretaped performance that aired on Feb. 23, featured the “Sullivan Show” debuts of “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me.”

The Beatles captivated America’s youth, but not everybody was on board. Media members at a JFK Airport press conference seemed to view the Beatles as a novelty, focusing on their hair and asking whether they were a group of Elvis knockoffs.

Crooner-loving adults dismissed the Beatles’ rock-and-roll sound as noise and criticized Sullivan for allowing it on his show.

“He was being blasted for bringing these kids into living rooms,” said Precht Speciale, who produced a documentary about her grandfather, “Sunday Best,” expected out this year. “The parents hated them and the kids loved them, and it caused a lot of friction within the families, but my grandfather believed in them and that’s why he continued on with having them on the show.”

The Beatles broke through in a way British acts before them hadn’t. Clint Richard, one of the U.K.’s bestselling artists ever, found minimal success in the U.S. With the Beatles came the British Invasion. Eight months after that “Sullivan Show” debut, the Rolling Stones performed on the program for the first time.

The Beatles achieved 20 No. 1 hits in the U.S., which remains a record. That unprecedented popularity endured as they experimented across their 12 studio albums, with different-sounding chart-toppers such as “Help!” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Come Together” demonstrating their evolution and range.

“The interesting thing about the Beatles is that those echoes are still out there,” Womack said. “We’re still coming to grips with that level of originality and what that means, or I think we would’ve repeated it or found a way for other talented folks to make their marks. In many ways, we’re still grappling with what that means, and it’s almost so enormous that it’s hard to understand.”

To Americans, it all started six decades ago, when McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison touched down at JFK.

“Because we landed there, everyone in New York thinks we belong to them,” Starr said with a laugh during that 2019 interview. “They do, and you feel that.”

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