NEW YORK (PIX11) – It wasn’t the biggest story of 1964, but it was one that transformed the music culture of an entire generation.
I was one of 200 reporters and photographers at Kennedy Airport that cold Friday afternoon in February, awaiting the arrival of four working-class lads from Liverpool who were about to “invade” the very country that inspired them to become musicians. The piercing screams of 3,000 adoring, wide-eyed fans standing on the observation deck, overpowered the whine of jet engines as Pan Am Flight 101 landed at 1:35 pm.
There was a crescendo of shouts, “We want the Beatles, We Want the Beatles,” and more shrieks when the doors of the plane opened and Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon emerged waving to the crowd.
“They’re a strange looking lot,” I thought. What with those funny-looking mod suits and pudding bowl haircuts, they could have been aliens from another planet. Beatlemania had come to America.
One would have thought the Fab Four would be accustomed to the hysteria that previously greeted them in Sweden, France, Germany and Britain. But they were nervous about their U.S. visit. On the flight over, Lennon was said to have fearfully quipped, “We won’t make it.” But they arrived as conquering heroes, just six days after the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It sold a quarter of a million copies in just three days and immediately became the number one single in the nation.
There was pandemonium, a near riot as the thousands of fans pressed forward, trying to catch a glimpse of their heartthrob musical quartet. Fifty years later, I can still hear their screams ringing in my ears. They were electrifying. I had never seen anything like this before. I’d seen the bobbysoxers screeching for Frank Sinatra and fans howling for Elvis. But this was a different time and a different crowd. The Beatles represented something the nation desperately needed—a diversion, just 77 days after the assassination of President Kennedy. Beatlemania was also a welcome respite from news of the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights battle in the South.
There was a frenzy among reporters to get close enough to the Beatles to ask a question at a press conference they held inside the terminal. Some of the questions were inane, like, “Are you a little embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?” George Harrison shot back, “We love it.” A reporter fired off this one, “A psychiatrist recently said you’re nothjng but a bunch of British Elvis Presleys,” to which Lennon responded, “He must be blind.” But it was Ringo, I believe, who got the biggest laugh. “How do you find America?” a reporter queried, “Turn left at Greenland,” Ringo quipped without missing a beat. They were upbeat, they were poised, they were charming. They were the Beatles.
I followed the Fab Four into Manhattan where they stayed at the Plaza Hotel. As their limo pulled up, several thousand fans shrieking at the top of their lungs were kept behind barriers by police, who did all they could to hold the crowd back.
I managed to get in the path of the arriving entourage, close enough to thrust my microphone in front of Ringo. “How’s the reception?” I shouted as he raced past me. “Marvelous, fantastic,” was his quick response. Non-fans, who just happened to be there, were stunned by it all. Some had never heard of the Beatles. “Who are they?” exclaimed one woman who said she was there just because she saw a crowd and was curious. A waiter who I later interviewed described the boys as “strange, but polite.” He said they had a desire for unusual cocktails, like scotch and Coca Cola.
Two days after their arrival the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Seventy-three million people tuned in, about 40% of the U.S. population. They were paid $10,000 for three appearances on the show. A couple of days later the group gave their first concert in the U.S. at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C. 20,000 fans went wild.
The next day they gave two back-to-back performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Police had to close the streets in the area because of the frenzy created by thousands of fans. Agent Sid Bernstein later told me that it was on “gut instinct” that he booked the concert a year earlier, long before most Americans even heard of the Beatles.
In just a matter of days the Beatles had truly conquered America. I met them again later that year when they returned for a 32 city tour. I greeted Ringo and George as they got off the plane in New York. They were gracious and told me how they were overwhelmed by the way they were received in this country.
As I look back at my notes yellowing from the passage of time, there is a notation that one reviewer had panned the Beatle’s performance on the Sullivan show, claiming “Musically, they were a near-disaster.” Oddsmakers at the time, doubted that they would ever amount to anything big.
By the time the Beatles disbanded and went their separate ways in 1970, they had produced an unprecedented 18 albums, and 30 top singles. Their music today is as popular as it was that cold day in February when I stood on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport to witness the arrival of four mopheads from Liverpool who rocked the city of New York and changed an entire generation.