February 1964: The Beatles Arrive in America!
By Jude Southerland Kessler
February 5, 2014
Fifty years ago the Beatles came to America. They came on one of the coldest days of the year, but that didn’t stop the crowds…or the lads. They came on a weekday, but that didn’t stop the fans from skipping school and flooding John F. Kennedy Airport en masse. They came with long hair, unusual accents, biting Northern British wit and tight, pocketless suits…but instead of being called “dumb” or “different,” they were dubbed “brilliant” and “trendsetters.” The Beatles came to America, and after that moment, nothing was ever the same.
Not politics, not fashion, not individual freedom, not poetry, not art, and certainly not music. The Beatles landed and stole our hearts. The Beatles landed and touched our souls. The Beatles landed and left us altered in deep, irrevocable ways.
Celebrating the journey of 1963 and early 1964 that culminated in their historic trip to America is the new book by author Jude Southerland Kessler, She Loves You, available at http://www.johnlennonseries.com. And in an exclusive excerpt from that book, here is how it happened in New York City…50 years ago this weekend:
The Boeing 707 moved steadily towards New York City. It banked over the tranquil eastern shore of Long Island and nosed its way towards the final approach into John F. Kennedy Airport. Everyone on board Defiance waited impatiently for their first glimpse of the Big Apple. But instead of an elegant view of the Empire State Building, the passengers looked out over rows and rows of sedate family homes in Queens.
“Hey, I think we’ve come to the wrong place!” photographer Harry Benson barked, deflated. “Where’s the skyline?”
But no one answered. Fantastically nervous, they were all biting lips or chewing nails. Brian, the Beatles, Cynthia, the entire entourage…all of them were on needles and pins-a.
They had no way of knowing, no way of realizing, that in New York City the department store windows were stacked to overflowing with Beatles paraphernalia: buttons, jackets, notebooks, hosiery, lunch boxes, wallets, charm bracelets, dolls, rings, blankets, record players, bubble bath, wigs and games, tennis shoes, earrings, rings and necklaces, wallpaper, curtains and autograph books. It was full-scale mania!
Five million bumper stickers graced five million cars: “The Beatles Are Coming!” they proclaimed. “The Beatles Are Coming!” All across America, the British band was wildly anticipated.
But no one had told the Beatles. As the wheels dropped and the plane reared back to land, the four dubious Liverpool boys wondered if “the crowd” that the pilot had predicted meant ten girls, a hundred, or perhaps—with any luck—a few more. They had no way of knowing that America was mad for them. It was a brisk 1:20 p.m. at John F. Kennedy Airport as shivering reporters informed their elated audiences that Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper 101—the Beatles’ plane—had touched down and was rolling its ponderous way towards the international arrivals building.
Whipped into a frenzy by Capitol’s publicity campaign and by the ebullient DJs at WABC, WINS and WMCA, thousands of eager American girls let go. They unleashed the passion they’d barely contained all night long.
“Wudja look at that?” an earmuffed baggage handler in a faded Pan Am jacket nudged his partner. “They’ve all gone nuts!”
“They look like a school of man-eatin’ fish, bangin’ against the aquarium,” his burly, unshaven co-worker replied. The two men shook their heads in bewilderment.
John stared at the seat back and ran his tongue inside his lips. His gut churned; his eyes were apprehensive.
“John, you were absolutely perfect at Heathrow this morning,” Cynthia whispered, brightening her husband while the sounds outside grew louder and louder. Must be jet engines, Cynthia presumed.
“Oh, God, look at that!” John exhaled, his eyes unblinking. Stunned.
He heard the others mutter and gasp: “Bloody hell!” and, “My God, look at that!” They’d all seen what he’d seen. And for what seemed like forever, the Beatles were paralyzed as thousands of screams pierced the 707’s shell and rained down inside the cabin, a ticker tape parade of reverberation.
Brian was the first to recover. “Listen, boys, we must hold together now. John, Paul, George and Ringo, you stay with me.” All eyes were on Epstein now. Everyone focused.
Clutching his BEA bag in both hands, George followed two pillbox-hatted stewardesses outside the plane. All morning he had worried about his haircut, but he needn’t have fretted; the wind tossed his locks and made a mockery of all attempted coifs. His sleek, velvet-trimmed coat lent an air of sophistication, though George was anything but. The Liverpool boy tried on an anemic smile and glanced back timidly in search of John.
John was only a step behind—his tie atypically cinched, his black BEA bag clutched tighter, and his cap fighting him in the wind. But for once—an extremely rare once—John wasn’t thin-eyed or tight-jawed. He wasn’t sardonic. He wasn’t angry. He was laughing. John Lennon was exultant. His eyes roamed the unfathomable crowds, and John rejoiced.
Paul exited into the bluster, his BEA bag slung casually across his shoulder, his mouth open in startled delight. He hurried down the Pan Am staircase where John had stopped, dead still, gaping at the thousands upon thousands of fans on the rooftop, inside the glass overlook, behind the chain-link fence—everywhere! John grinned, waved and took it all in: amazed, dazed, incredulous. And behind him, waiting to move forward, Paul waved to the “madding crowd.” He coyly cocked his head to the side and beamed.
Ringo, however, was less cheerful. He bowed his head and squinted against the wind and tumult. Wearing Maureen’s scarf, the drummer frowned at the onslaught of high-pitched shrieks. He edged beside Paul and looked around, bewildered.
A news reporter on the ground began his much anticipated live report: “As far as I can tell, the four Beatles are standing almost completely and utterly in shock. No one, and I mean no one, has ever seen or even remotely suspected anything like this before!”
“At WMCA New York, it’s 3:30 Beatle Time, and the Beatles have left John F. Kennedy Airport and are headed toward New York City!”
It was 4 p.m. when they finally rolled—with sirens blaring—into Manhattan. Nine o’clock London time. Even in America, the sun was beginning to wane. For the Beatles, it had been a very long day.
As the first long limo gradually negotiated the turn onto Fifth Avenue, John took Cynthia’s hand. Listening to 1010 WINS on the radio, they held onto one another, staring incredulously at the crowds growing thicker and thicker by the minute, at the tangled mass of fans congesting the street in front of them. In the second limousine (albeit the one that had left the airport first), Paul, George and Ringo gaped at the incredible crowds ahead of them, the swarm of teenagers filling every inch of Fifth Avenue.
“So this is America,” Ringo barely breathed. “They all seem out of their minds!” For a moment the limousines waited together, hovering on the edge of peril. Then a line of red-faced policemen began to edge the wooden barricade aside and admit the Cadillacs into the throng surrounding The Plaza hotel. The uniformed battalion linked arms and opened a narrow space through which the cars could navigate. And slowly, slowly, the sleek black vehicles inched along a route that was practically impassable.
Five-thousand fans pressed forward, one on top of the other, bearing down on “New York’s finest,” pressing frenetically towards the limos. It took 20 mounted police, a numbing wind and plummeting temps to slow the girls. They were indomitable.
But the Beatles were even more determined, more resilient, more strong-willed than they. The four British boys had not traveled to this place merely to survive a barrage. They had come to conquer it; they had come to claim American for their very own. And this they did.
Jude Southerland Kessler is the author of The John Lennon Series, a nine-volume biography of the musician. She can be reached at www.johnlennonseries.com.