How the Beatles Went Viral: Blunders, Technology & Luck Broke the Fab Four in America

The Beatles arrive at Kennedy Airport for the first time from London for a 10-day tour on February 7, 1964 in New York City, New York.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Six weeks is all it took for the Liverpool foursome to go from unknowns to the biggest pop stars in the USA. Here's an exhaustive look at how it happened

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D-DAY ARRIVES

In the days leading up to the Beatles' visit, New York stations battled to be the home for teens who wanted up-to-the-minute information on the band's arrival at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport. Regular updates on the Beatles' flight from London were broadcast on each of the city's three top 40 stations, with promises that correspondents would be on the tarmac to greet the Fab Four and provide live coverage. Capitol made sure to provide specific information to the DJs in advance, with scheduled arrival time and gate number. In those pre-airport security days, it was no wonder that fans began to flock to the airport as the Pan Am jet drew closer to the Eastern Seaboard.

At 1:20 p.m. on Feb. 7, the Beatles arrived stateside on Pan Am flight 101, greeted by the high-pitched squeals of approximately 4,000 teenagers, plus more than 200 reporters and photographers and 100 police officers. The crowd was larger and louder than that which Sullivan had chanced upon three months earlier at London Airport. At the famous press conference conducted inside the airport, defying the low expectations journalists had of rock'n'rollers in that era, the Beatles' charisma and wit wowed the skeptical crowd. If anything, it was the reporters who appeared to be the dullards, asking banal questions-"What do you think of Beethoven?"-which the Beatles fielded with their patented cheekiness-"Great," Ringo Starr replied. "Especially his poems."

The press conference done, the band headed to Manhattan, chased by rabid fans shouting at the foursome from the windows of moving cars on the expressway. Upon arriving at the Plaza Hotel, they found thousands more fans waiting for them, once more tipped off to the band's whereabouts by DJs who'd gotten their information straight from Capitol.

The arrival of the Beatles received major coverage on that evening's news. Cronkite's report on CBS showed much more respect than the first time around. "The British invasion this time goes by the code name Beatlemania," Cronkite said. "D-Day has been common knowledge for months, and this was the day." Whether because he felt invested in the band due to his role in bringing them to America's attention, or because the band was about to appear on Sullivan's CBS show, Cronkite was now a believer. In stark contrast, NBC had de facto positioned itself as the anti-Beatles network, and in the spirit of the Edwin Newman piece in November and the Paar broadcast in January, Chet Huntley went out of his way to be demeaning to the group. He explained to his viewers that NBC had "sent three camera crews to stand among the shrieking youngsters and record the sights and sounds for posterity... the pictures are very good, but someone asked what the fuss was about and we found we couldn't answer. So, good night from NBC News." The broadcast ended without Huntley bothering to show any of the footage.

The next day, every newspaper covered the Beatles' arrival. During the course of the band's visit, the New York Times printed at least one article about the Beatles every day. New York's Daily News, which then had the largest daily circulation in America, ran enough photos of the group throughout its visit to cover the bedroom walls of countless girls, top to bottom. A visit by President Lyndon Johnson to the city, which was just wrapping up, was relegated to the newspaper's inside pages.

Throughout their historic Kennedy Airport press conference, the Beatles had been peppered with private questions by a strange man in a straw hat who had squirreled his way to the front of the crowd, sticking his own microphone up to the band at the podium. The man in question wasn't a journalist at all, but rather DJ Murray the K (nee Kaufman) of WINS New York. Murray managed to hijack the band's attention, getting exclusive sound bites for his radio show. Finally, someone shouted, "Would somebody tell Murray the K to cut the crap out?," at which point the Beatles all looked down at him and yelled, "Cut that crap out," with McCartney adding, "Hey, Murray!" in a fake New York accent, granting him the greatest sound bite of all. Thus was born Murray the K's brief career as the Fifth Beatle.

It was something of a fluke that Murray the K was broadcasting on WINS at all in 1964. Having taken over as the station's evening DJ four years earlier, replacing Allen Freed, who was fired in the wake of a payola scandal, Murray had known great success-Tom Wolfe called him "the original hysterical disc jockey" in a famous profile published after the Beatles' visit-until the station was sold to Westinghouse in 1962. The new owner inched its format away from top 40, but was required to keep some of the old broadcasters due to an existing labor contract. Murray's popularity had fallen ever since, and by the time of the Beatles' arrival his ratings lagged behind those of his rivals Jack Spector on WMCA and "Cousin Brucie" Morrow on WABC.

Luckily for Murray, he was close with Veronica Bennet of the Ronettes, whose group had just returned from a U.K. tour where they'd made the Beatles' acquaintance. As soon as the press conference ended, Murray called Bennet (the future Ronnie Spector) and asked if she and the Ronettes would take him to the Plaza to meet the band. Bennet obliged Murray, who managed to exploit the situation to the fullest, becoming the Beatles' unofficial guide to America, getting exclusive interviews and causing a general escalation of Beatles hype among the three stations during the next few days.

WMCA managed to spirit Harrison's sister Louise off to its station, where she was persuaded to call him in his sick bed at the Plaza (he had tonsillitis and didn't go to rehearsals for the Sullivan performance) for an exclusive on-air chat. WABC went so far as to rebrand itself "WABeatleC." All three stations had DJs encamped by the Plaza, reporting on any Beatles sighting, and all three battled to see which could raise its audience's excitement the most. But it was Murray whose show became required listening for Beatles fans during the band's New York visit, as a Beatle-or all of them-could appear on the air with Murray at any time. (Murray's newfound popularity was short-lived. After the Beatles returned home, he lasted less than a year at WINS, before it switched formats to become the nation's first all-news station.)

40% OF AMERICA TUNES IN

Every media outlet in the country gave major coverage to the hysteria that was occurring in New York that weekend. And they all made clear that the reason for the band's visit was its scheduled appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday night. By Sunday, there was no one in America in close proximity to a TV, radio or newspaper who could have not known that the Beatles were going to be on Sullivan that night.

On the day of the show, further pandemonium reigned in front of the Sullivan Theatre, egged on by the local top 40 DJs. The show had received 50,000 ticket applications for 728 tickets. Thousands mobbed the streets, shutting off Broadway for eight blocks, everyone carrying their transistor radios and reacting in unison to the prompts of the DJs.

The Beatles were slated to perform five songs on the first Sullivan broadcast: "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Among the other announced guests on the program was the cast of the stage production of "Oliver!," including future Monkee Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger. Jones later recalled that it was the reaction of the girls in the Sullivan audience to the Beatles that made him decide to leave musical theater and pursue a career in rock'n'roll.

Epstein had envisioned the Beatles' first U.S. visit as a means by which the band could conquer America. But by the time of its arrival, America already lay at the group's feet. It's doubtful whether the intensity surrounding the visit could have materialized had the chain of events begun by Cronkite, Albert and James not occurred. Without it, the release date of "I Want to Hold your Hand" would have remained Jan. 13, radio listeners wouldn't have heard the record incessantly during Christmas break, teens wouldn't have tuned in to "The Jack Paar Show" to watch the band perform, Swan wouldn't have rush-­rereleased "She Loves You," the airwaves wouldn't have been jammed with multiple Beatles records in January, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" wouldn't have been No. 1 by the time of the band's arrival, the media frenzy wouldn't have reached a fevered pitch before Feb. 7, and the Beatles would have arrived in New York to do the Sullivan show without the airport scene, the press conference or the screaming fans at the Plaza.

But it all had unfolded as if in a fairy tale, and when the evening of Feb. 9 arrived, the Beatles had the attention of the entire country. (The next week, when the Beatles played the Washington Coliseum, Albert got her own fairy tale ending to the story when she got to meet the Beatles, who showed their appreciation by saying, "Thank you, Marsha," on the air on WWDC.)

During the first half of the 1963-64 season, ­Sullivan's show drew a weekly audience of 21.2 million. And while those numbers didn't make him the overall ratings champ-sister show "The Beverly Hillbillies" was pulling in a whopping 35 million viewers a week-his was, by far, the biggest variety show on the air.

On the night of Feb. 9, 1964, his audience jumped to 73 million, the largest TV audience for an entertainment program in history to that point. In a country with a population of 180 million, that represented 40% of all Americans. Significantly, in 1964, 40% of all Americans were age 18 or younger, with that year acknowledged as the final one of the baby boom. Of those, 35 million were between the ages of 8 and 18. And it would appear that virtually all of them were watching.

The Washington Post went so far as to quip that on the night of the Beatles' Sullivan appearance "there wasn't a single hubcap stolen in America," which was meant as a dig on the character of the Beatles' core audience, but which went on to be accepted as fact when it was reprinted in Newsweek. This urban legend was even repeated as truth in Hunter Davies' 1968 authorized Beatles biography and by Harrison in the Beatles' "Anthology" documentary.

However, soon after the Sullivan broadcast, the Washington Post's Bill Gold followed up to make clear it had been meant as a joke: "It is with heavy heart that I must inform Newsweek that this report was not true. Lawrence R. Fellenz of 307 E. Groveton St., Alexandria, had his car parked on church property during that hour-and all four of his hubcaps were stolen. The Washington Post regrets the error, and District Liner Fellenz regrets that somewhere in Alexandria there lives a hipster who is too poor to own a TV set."

Crime statistics aside, what isn't in dispute is the fact that virtually every young person in America-and plenty of their parents-sat glued to their TV set just after 8 p.m. EST when Sullivan took the stage to introduce the band: "Yesterday and today our theater's been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool, who call themselves the Beatles." Amid the escalating screams from the crowd, Sullivan continued: "Tonight, you're going to twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles. Let's bring them on."

And the '60s began.


Steve Greenberg is founder/CEO of S-Curve Records, and former president of Columbia Records as well as head of A&R at Mercury Records. A Grammy winner as a producer for his work with Baha Men, he has also been nominated in the best album notes category for the Otis Redding and complete Stax/Volt singles boxed sets.

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