On Feb. 7, 1964, just 76 days after the death of President John F. Kennedy, the Beatles first touched down on American soil.
For a grief-stricken nation dealing with a heavy heart, the four young British interlopers provided a reason to smile.
Singing joyous songs such as "She Loves You," "All My Loving," and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," shaking their moptop hairstyles, and winking at swooning fans, the Fab Four crossed the pond at a critical time in American history, according to Martin Goldsmith, author of the just-published The Beatles Come to America (Wiley, $19.95).
"Had the President not been assassinated, the Beatles still would have swept America," he said, "but coming on the heels of that tragedy, the country was hoping for a way to emerge from its gloom."
A few weeks earlier, the Beatles had scored their first No. 1 hit in the United States when "I Want To Hold Your Hand" topped the charts on Jan. 16. By the time the Liverpool lads landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, the stage was set for Beatlemania.
The band made its U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show at 8 p.m. Feb. 9, performing five songs for an audience of 73 million - then the largest viewing audience in television history.
"They changed the world," said John Rockwood, a Toledo musician and president of Blue Suit Records. "I remember where I was when Kennedy got shot, and I know exactly where I was when the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show: I was lying in bed with my sisters watching on a black and white TV.
"And it was so cool. Suddenly everybody in the world decided they wanted to be in a band," Rockwood recalled. "Me and my three buddies, we couldn't even play an instrument, but we started having band meetings, stopped getting haircuts, and bought Beatle boots."
"They came at a dramatic time in that century," singer Cyndi Lauper said in an interview. "Civil rights was happening then, the Vietnam War was looming, rock and roll was taking a different turn. People began thinking they could change the world."
Goldsmith, a director of classical music programming for XM Satellite Radio, said it wasn't only the youth who were touched by the Beatles; the band's impact crossed generational lines.
"It wasn't that you had to be 13 or 14 years old," he said from Washington. "What you had to have was a certain sensibility. A great composer like Leopold Stokowski had it. He was 81 when he said of the Beatles: 'The boys and girls of this age are young men and women looking for something in life that can't always be found, a joie de vivre. Life is changing all the time. We are all looking for a vision of the ecstasy of life. I am, too.' "
Goldsmith said veteran author John Updike told him that the Beatles brought a sense of joy and hope comparable to "the sun coming up on Easter morning."
Another famous composer, Leonard Bernstein, said the Beatles' music "wasn't only the province of the young, it was the province of the people whose hearts and ears were open to this kind of music," Goldsmith said.
In researching The Beatles Come to America, the author said he scoured newspapers from around the country for their coverage of the band's U.S. debut.
It was an era before rock journalism was taken seriously, he said, and most newspapers sent writers who had covered entertainers like Mitzi Gaynor and Montovani to review the Beatles.
"The media at the time were really concentrated on superficial things like their
hair and their accents," Goldsmith said. "It's just amazing how condescending they could be."
The New York Herald Tribune, for example, wrote of the Beatles' first performance on Ed Sullivan that "without their shaggy-dog moptops and their sensational buildup, they would be four nice boys with a total of one weak voice and one weak beat that rolls more than it rocks."
The New York Times review said the Beatles "borrowed the square hairdo used every morning on television by Captain Kangaroo."
The Washington Star reporter said that "if it weren't for the screams of the audience, they would have put me to sleep," and the Washington Post denounced the four musicians as "imported hillbillies who look like sheepdogs and sound like alley cats in agony."
The snooty, close-minded reviews are laughable in hindsight, considering the Beatles' longevity and influence, but they had a serious downside at the time, according to Goldsmith.
"Eventually that sort of thing contributed to the 'generation gap' of the 1960s," he said. "Those of us who loved the Beatles heard what we heard, and then we opened the newspapers and read what they said, calling the band 'wailing weirdies' and such, and there was a disconnect."
Also in early 1964, he said, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was quoted in the U.S. media talking about rebellions in a faraway country called Vietnam.
"At the same time our elders are telling us we should pay no attention to the Beatles and that they're no good, they're also telling us it's a good thing to go to Vietnam and get shot at," Goldsmith said.
"I think the media got the two most important calls of the time wrong - the Beatles and Vietnam."
During their brief American visit, the Beatles played one concert at the Washington Coliseum in D.C., two shows at Carnegie Hall in New York, and two performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, first in New York and the next Sunday in Miami. (The Beatles appeared a third week on Sullivan, but it was taped during their two previous performances.)
Tickets to the Washington show sold for $2, $3, and $4, Goldsmith said, and to get into Carnegie Hall the top ticket was $5.50.
"Their first U.S. visit was just incredibly galvanizing," Goldsmith said. "We had never seen or heard anything quite like it. It was tremendously exciting, tremendously moving. And it was something that helps to define the age. "
Lou Rawls, the 68-year-old vocal star who performed in Toledo last month, opened for the Beatles when they performed at Cincinnati Gardens in August, 1964.
"I met them before, when I was in England on a promotional tour," Rawls said in a recent interview. "Their people took me to that club in Liverpool, the Cavern Club. It was a typical rock club."
He said he knew right away that the Beatles had something special.
"Yeah, they were great," Rawls said. "And they were good guys."
The Beatles were impressed because Rawls personally knew a lot of their musical idols.
"It was a funny thing because they were asking me if I knew Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Little Richard, Bo Diddley; these were the guys they more or less patterned themselves after.
"And when I was in the gospel field, we were traveling the same routes [that the American rock pioneers] were traveling. We could do our concerts in church on Sundays and we'd see them in the clubs on Saturday night."
Although the Beatles broke up in 1970, Americans have never really gotten over their case of Beatlemania.
In 1996, the year that three Beatles anthology albums were released, the band sold 20 million CDs, according to Capitol Records.
In 2000, the Beatles topped the charts again with "1," featuring 27 of their No. 1 hit singles, and in November Capitol Records issued an innovative package called "Let It Be .<0x00A6>.<0x00A6>. Naked," stripping the orchestration from the group's final studio album.
After 30 years of working in the field of classical music, Goldsmith is convinced that the Beatles will take their place beside Beethoven and Mozart.
"If the definition of classic or classical is something that lasts a long time, then the Beatles are as classic as it gets. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were superb composers and I confidently predict that people will be listening to the Beatles 100 years from now, 200 years from now, 400 years from now," he said.
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