The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released). They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.). They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe). They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.
On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour. He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls. Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis. He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.
The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963. First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band. Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan). Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S. It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”
But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz. She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?” James was impressed by the letter. He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.
Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley. It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll. Well, the same thing happened now. Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C. Then other U.S. stations took the cue. Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow. They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule. The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country. The freight train was now out of control.
(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell. After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears. Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)
And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before. After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion. The Beatles provided it. All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top. And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.
Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”