December 17th, 1963: The Birth Of Beatlemania
Posted in Features by Rex Thomson
Washington disc jockey Carroll James didn't realize it at the time, but on this day, in 1963, he helped The Beatles launch the third British invasion of America. This time, the attack didn't come by land or by sea, however...this one was by air. More precisely, the air waves. The first shot fired in the assault on every facet of American culture came in the form of a song, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," by The Beatles. By the time this invasion was done, our musical and cultural landscape would never be the same.
The Beatles, who served as the vanguard for this sonic assault on our shores were already conquerors at home. After a few years honing their skills, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had seen their fame grow exponentially in late 1962 with their first hit, "Love Me Do." The were dubbed "The Fab Four" and the first stirrings of the soon to be worldwide phenomenon known as "Beatlemania" were felt.
On a snowy, early December day, America's most trusted voice Walter Cronkite was looking for an upbeat story to fill out his show and decided to rerun a recent piece on the Beatles surging popularity in England. The segment had only aired during the morning news, but hadn't been reran as part of the evening show, as was often the case, due to its unfortunate original air date, November 22, 1963. That date will always be remembered for the assassination of president John F. Kennedy.
A dark mood hung over the country, and Cronkite felt the need to try and lift the nation's spirits when possible. Here's that report, aired for the first time during the evening news on December 10th, 1963, below.
A young viewer in Maryland, Marsha Albert, watched the piece and immediately wrote a letter to WWDC disc jockey James Carroll. She asked him "Why can't we have music like that here?" Lucky for her, it turned out we could. Carroll was dating a stewardess at the time, and managed to get a copy of the UK release of the single "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Radio was a powerful force then, and Carroll was also aware of his public sway.
He invited the fifteen year old Marsha and her mother to the studio to introduce his first spin of true music history. Neither imagined the effect dropping that needle had on history. The nation was still reeling from the senseless death of its most beloved leader. The war in Vietnam was filing the papers and televisions with daily tolls of American lives lost. A whole country was in need of something bright, pure and unassailable, and The Beatles could not have been better fitted to the role if they had been fiction sprung to life.
A shot of Albert and James years later, alongside one of James with The Beatles.
The record was an instant hit. The station was flooded with requests, and the song began to dominate every one of its DJ's play list. The song proved so popular, an Op-Ed writer for The Baltimore Sun used it in a xenophobic piece on preparing to repel future invasions. While teenager's stayed up late static-y transistor radios waiting to hear the song "Just one more time" there was one group of listeners who actually were getting angrier each time the song was played. Those angry men were the board of directors for Capitol Records.
Capitol Records held the American rights to distribution of the music of The Beatles, and were preparing their own release of the song...over a month later. Needless to say, they weren't enthused to find out that the song not only had an unofficial, unlicensed debut, but that it was so popular that it was being played hourly to meet phoned in requests. For a short while they considered having their attorneys send a "Cease And Desist" letter, but realizing potential profits decided to bump release of the American version up.
The single came out the day after Christmas, and hit the airways instantly nation wide. Already feeling a bit more merry after the holidays, the song, with it's simplistic but heart felt romance, a steadily quickening beat and the bands harmonizing struck a deep chord in the nations teens. It's said the the truth speaks for itself, and the pure pop of the tune clearly spoke volumes in it's three short minutes.
The song was a product of the highest charting songwriting duo in music history, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. These two lads from Liverpool had a complimentary writing relationship so powerful that mining into it would prove to be the richest veins of hits in history. Their manager, Brian Epstein was serving as a guru to the band, shaping their public persona while Lennon and McCartney churned out hit after hit.
Ten minutes of BBC television footage found its way onto the Jack Paar Program a few days later, and aroused the nation's curiosity. The song was already climbing local and national charts and the sparks were flying. Lucky viewers heard the frenzied screams of the British girls watch in The Beatles, and got their first look at the squeakily clean uniformly dressed mop topped boys and a fire started to catch. You can watch what Paar's viewers saw below.
By February 1st, Billboard had declared "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" the number one song in America, and the flames were beginning to lick higher and higher. Now our tale's final media maven enters, the celebrated host of the nation's most popular evening variety hour, Mister Ed Sullivan. Sullivan's show was one of the nations most watched, literally dominating the time slot and public consciousness. He was a taste maker, and like the previous two media men mentioned, was keenly aware of how hungry the country was for something fresh and clean.
Sullivan wanted to lead the pack, and signed The Beatles to appear on his show on February 9th, less than two months after the single had its first fateful spin in the nations capitol. It's said that just under half the nations television sets were tuned into The Ed Sullivan show the night The Beatles first appeared on American airwaves. With the way our modern media culture is so diverse and ubiquitous, it's difficult to imagine what an effect such a saturation of the public could have. Watch a little of that performance below.
The flames of "Beatlemania" became a full fledged inferno. A frenzy for any Beatles related product, from music, to dolls, wigs and every sort brought cynical opportunists with lucrative endorsement deals out of the wood work. Within months shelves were filled with items bearing the likeness of the four faces. You literally couldn't go anywhere or do anything without seeing or hearing about The Beatles. But unlike other fads, this one refused to fade, and in a way continues to this very day.
Whether they realize it or not, there are few musicians working today that aren't, in some way or another, influenced by The Beatles. They shaped the future of rock through one of the most well documented musical evolutions ever seen. They transformed from a foursome of wholesome boys to a rebellious long haired, drug championing group idols, and their music followed them every step of the way.
It had all started simply enough. Like millions of times before a needle hit a groove cast in vinyl while it spun on a turn table. This time when the needle travelled that groove the resonance it relayed was actually a signal flare from an encroaching force. This invader would indeed be the first to conquer the United States Of America. They didn't use weapons of war, they used a catchy pop song about chaste teen romance and fresh scrubbed faces. Billions of dollars, dozens of number one songs and a countless followers, all spawned from a moment of tragedy and hope...and a needle on a record.
Here's the song the started the fire. Check out The Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" below.