February 5, 2009

The Beatles in America: We Loved Them, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

"Beatles on TV Wow America," Daily Mirror, Feb. 10, 1964 (Newseum collection)
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"Beatles on TV Wow America," Daily Mirror, Feb. 10, 1964 (Newseum collection)

Beatles press conference at JFK, Feb. 7, 1964 (Courtesy The Associated Press)
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Beatles press conference at JFK, Feb. 7, 1964 (Courtesy The Associated Press)

The time: 1:20 p.m., Feb. 7, 1964. The place: Kennedy International Airport in New York. The scene: Pandemonium.

When Pan Am Flight 101 from London touched down and four mop-topped English musicians from Liverpool emerged from the plane, they were greeted by 3,000 screaming teenagers, 200 reporters and photographers, and more than 100 of New York’s finest, trying to maintain order. Beatlemania had arrived in America.

Seeing Is Believing

By Ann Rauscher, Newseum exhibits editor

The airing of the "CBS Evening News" segment on the Beatles on Dec. 10, 1963, put into motion an unlikely series of events that contributed to the explosion of Beatlemania in the United States.

A 15-year-old girl in Silver Spring, Md., was so impressed by what she saw on the news that she wrote to disc jockey Carroll James at Washington’s WWDC radio about it. James arranged to have a copy of the Beatles’ latest single flown over from England, and on Dec. 17, he played "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for the first time on U.S. radio.

The overwhelming reaction to the song convinced the president of Capitol Records to release the record in the United States three weeks earlier than planned. By Jan. 17, it was the No. 1 single in America.

Some Beatles historians believe that if the record had come out on its original release date, the song would not have had time to build up enough momentum to create national recognition for the group before their appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and their arrival at Kennedy Airport in New York on Feb. 7 would have gone virtually unnoticed by the media.

The Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — were newsmakers from the moment they stepped on American soil. As fans chanted "We want Beatles!" and photographers snapped pictures, the band members were ushered inside the airport for their first U.S. press conference.

The quartet’s cheeky humor was on full display at the press conference. After a reporter informed them that people in Detroit were handing out "Stamp Out the Beatles" stickers, McCartney said, "Yeah, well, we’re bringing out a Stamp Out Detroit campaign." When asked why they thought their music was so exciting to fans, Lennon replied, "If we knew, we’d form another group and be managers."

But the press coverage of the group’s arrival in New York was not the first time Americans were exposed to the Beatles. Time and Newsweek were among the first U.S. publications to take notice of the Beatlemania craze sweeping England. Both magazines ran articles in mid-November 1963, after the Beatles played a command performance before British royalty in London.

Newsweek called their sound "one of the most persistent noises heard over England since the air-raid sirens were dismantled." Time’s assessment of their music: "Their songs consist mainly of "Yeh!" screamed to the accompaniment of three guitars and a thunderous drum."

Reporters in the London bureaus of the U.S. broadcast networks also witnessed the hysteria and prepared reports on the phenomenon. NBC’s "Huntley-Brinkley Report" aired a four-minute segment on the Beatles the evening of Nov. 18, 1963.

A story on the group ran on the "CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace" the morning of Nov. 22, but the network’s plans to repeat the segment that evening on Walter Cronkite’s newscast fell by the wayside a few hours later, when Cronkite reported the breaking news that shots had been fired at President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas. For nearly four days, all regular programming was canceled as the networks covered the death and funeral of the president.

The Beatles segment finally aired on the "CBS Evening News" on Dec. 10. Less than two months later, Walter Cronkite’s nightly newscast featured the Beatles’ triumphant arrival in New York. CBS viewers saw the Beatles again on Feb. 9, 1964, when the group performed live on "The Ed Sullivan Show," reaching a record-breaking audience of 73 million.

The Beatles revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1960s and became an integral part of popular culture. Even after the band broke up in 1970, the press continued to cover individual band members. When John Lennon was shot and killed in December 1980, news coverage of his death rivaled that of a world leader. Two decades later, the news of George Harrison’s death from cancer in November 2001 made front pages around the world.

Excerpts from TV news coverage of the Beatles’ Feb. 7, 1964, arrival in New York and press conference at Kennedy Airport can be seen in the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery. Newspaper front pages from the group’s first U.S. visit and the death of John Lennon are featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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