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What You Don't Know About The Beatles' U.S. Debut

The Ed Sullivan Show

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 9: The Beatles perform during their first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, February 9, 1964. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr are shown. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Paul McCartney;George Harrison;Ringo Starr;John Lennon CBS via Getty Images

“I think one of the cheekiest things we ever did was to say to Brian Epstein, “We’re not going to America until we’ve got a Number One record.” Paul McCartney

Fifty years ago the Beatles conquered America, touching down in New York on February 7, 1964, and making their live U.S. debut two nights later on the Ed Sullivan Show. They seemed to come out of nowhere, but in fact, we knew they were coming. For months before they landed here, the Beatles were all the rage in Great Britain, and America’s top news outlets had taken notice. Among them: NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, the leading network evening newscast of its time, and the forerunner to NBC Nightly News.

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Almost three months before that auspicious arrival in New York, Huntley-Brinkley featured a report by Edwin Newman on the Beatles phenomenon. It was the Beatles’ first appearance on American television: November 18, 1963. The four-minute piece was seen by millions of people across the country. Not the tens of millions that would later see the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan, but still the biggest single audience for the Beatles anywhere outside England up to that moment.

It’s hard to believe, but a copy of that broadcast does not exist in the NBC archives. An audio recording somehow did survive, and was recently discovered in the Library of Congress. It is presented here for the first time anywhere in half a century.

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The Beatles had been gathering momentum in the UK for several years. From their start as a hot local band in Liverpool, they’d become the headlining act on package tours across Great Britain, with a crucial Hamburg residency in between. They caught fire in 1963. Their debut album Please Please Me was released that January, and followed by three successive number one singles: “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You” (in May), and “She Loves You” (in September).

On October 13, the frenzy was given a name: Beatlemania, after the group’s landmark appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. It was Britain’s top-rated entertainment program, the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan show. The Beatles were the main attraction that night -- the closing act -- and their appearance triggered pandemonium, inside the theater and out. They performed four songs before a rapt national television audience estimated at 15 million.

Image: Hysterical fans
February 9, 1964: A group of Beatles fans watch their heroes perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Ten days later, after a hectic series of radio, television and concert appearances, and the final recording sessions for their second album, the Beatles flew to Sweden for their first overseas tour. It was another huge success, and their return to London on October 31 was greeted by more than 1,000 screaming, adoring fans. In the crowd at Heathrow that day: Ed Sullivan, who soon booked the band for his show.

“The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands, and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.”

On November 4, at the outset of another marathon British tour, the Beatles were the main attraction at a Royal Command Performance in London. With the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret looking on, John Lennon famously asked for the crowd’s help: “The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands, and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.” (He’d actually threatened to say, “rattle your f**king jewelry,” but thought better of it.) With that, the band launched into their closing number, a blistering version of "Twist and Shout." The next day, British newspapers were beside themselves. The show was broadcast in Britain on November 10, bringing the Beatles to yet another enormous television audience.

American journalists picked up the story. “Thousands of Britons ‘Riot’ – Liverpool Sound Stirs up Frenzy,” headlined the Washington Post. Time magazine described Beatlemania in vivid detail in an article headlined “The New Madness.” That same week, NBC, CBS and ABC dispatched crews to cover the Beatles performing at the Winter Gardens Theater in Bournemouth. The date was Saturday, November 16, and NBC was the first on the air the following Monday with its report by Edwin Newman. CBS aired a story on its morning show that Friday (with a script by correspondent Alexander Kendrick that was strikingly similar to Edwin Newman’s). CBS’s plans to air a story that evening were scrapped after the assassination of President Kennedy that afternoon. ABC apparently never aired a story.

The news media knew something was happening, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, but didn’t really know what it was.

There was more: Variety ran a story headlined “Beatle Bug Bites Britain.” The New York Times Magazine weighed in with “Britons Succumb to Beatlemania.” Life magazine ran a photo of the Beatles meeting Prince Margaret. And the CBS Evening News finally ran its Beatles story on December 10.

Image: Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1900 - 2002) talking to British pop group The Beatles
November 4, 1963: The Queen Mother talks to the Beatles after a Royal Variety Show at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. George Freston / Fox Photos via Getty Images

It should be said that the tone of most of this American news coverage -- including NBC’s -- was patronizing and dismissive. The news media knew something was happening, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, but didn’t really know what it was. The focus was on haircuts, hype, and hysterical teenage girls. Little attention was paid to the music itself, which as the Beatles themselves proudly pointed out, had deep American roots. Not until later was the moment seen clearly as the beginning of a seismic generational shift, and a sea change in popular culture.

Beatles Backstage
October 14, 1963: The Beatles (top to bottom) Paul McCartney, John Lennon (1940 - 1980), George Harrison (1943 - 2001) and Ringo Starr backstage at the London Palladium. Keystone / Getty Images

What all the news coverage did do was raise awareness of the Beatles, feeding a growing appetite for their music among American record-buyers. Up until then, their hits in Britain had tanked here. But things had changed. The Kennedy assassination had left Americans hungry for something to feel good about. What better than four lovable singing moptops? Eleven weeks after Dallas, the spark of Beatlemania jumped the Atlantic and set fire to a huge American audience.

The Beatles’ next single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (b/w “I Saw Her Standing There”), was promised for American release in January. But demand was so great that the record was rush-released on December 26. The song exploded onto U.S. airwaves, charting for 15 weeks, including a phenomenal seven weeks at Number One. When John, Paul, George and Ringo landed at New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport half a century ago, the Beatles were at the top of the charts, just where they said they would be.

A footnote: The Huntley-Brinkley Report distinguished itself in November 1963 by being the first to put the Beatles on American television. Sadly, that was not the case three months later, when the broadcast inexplicably underplayed the story of their arrival in New York. It’s a shame, because the Beatles actually watched Huntley-Brinkley that night. Documentary footage shot in their Plaza Hotel suite on February 7, 1964 shows the Beatles tuning in to NBC after catching Cronkite on CBS. If they’d watched to the end, they would have heard Chet Huntley trying to explain why America’s premier evening newscast thought the Beatles’ arrival that day was worth covering, but not worth airing! Here’s how Chet signed off that night:

“Well, the Beatles arrived in New York today and advanced almost to the Hudson. The four English musical stars with their pudding-bowl haircuts were greeted by about 4,000 shrieking teenagers at Kennedy Airport and mobbed by another large group of juveniles when they got to the Plaza Hotel. All day long, some local disc jockeys had been encouraging truancy with repeated announcements of the Beatles’ travel plans, flight number and estimated time of arrival. British journalists tell us that the record company had 16 press agents handling the arrival, but we wouldn’t know much about that. However, like a good little news organization we sent three camera crews to stand among the shrieking youngsters and record the sights and sounds for posterity. Our film crews acquitted themselves with customary skill and ingenuity. The pictures are very good but someone asked what the fuss was about, and we found we had no answer. So, goodnight for NBC News.”