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February 7, 1964. The Beatles land in NYC on their way to perform on the Ed Sullivan show in front of an audience of tens of millions.
This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
It’s February 7th, 1964 at New York’s recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport.
As Pan Am Flight 101 approaches the runway, four musicians from the north of England sit in their first-class seats and gaze out of the windows. Throughout the flight, they’ve been laughing and joking as if they’re on a carefree holiday.
But now, as the plane touches down at JFK they share nervous grins, each knowing how crucial the next few days will be. These “lads from Liverpool” wear matching suits and their distinctive mop-topped hairstyles are also identical. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr together form the Beatles.
And over the past year, they've taken their native Britain by storm, enjoying three number-one hits, `She Loves You,’ `I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and `From Me To You.’ They are the most popular band at home, especially with teenage girls. Hours earlier, when they left Heathrow airport in London, the Beatles waved goodbye to a screaming crowd of 3000 hysterical fans. According to one reporter, the girls screamed so loudly that they drowned out the sound of the jet engines. The phenomenon has been described as “Beatlemania” but, until very recently, this craze has not crossed the Atlantic. For a long time, US radio shows were reluctant to play Beatles' songs but in the past few weeks that changed. The band is now finally seeing encouraging signs that they might be able to sell some records in America too.
Once the plane taxis to a stop, their manager Brian Epstein tells the boys he has arranged a press conference in the airport. The Beatles put on their matching black coats, ready to meet some American journalists. But when they step out through the plane doors, they are immediately struck by the most extraordinary welcome.
Overlooking the airport from a long observation deck are over 4000 screaming American fans, even more than the British crowd at Heathrow. It's mostly girls but the band can see plenty of boys too, unzipping their jackets and showing off Beatles T-Shirts.
Seeing the massive crowd, the band beams with delight. As they descend the aircraft steps on their way to the press conference, they smile and wave to their American fans. One especially excited fan holds up a homemade banner reading “BEATLES 4 EVER”. And indeed, the Beatles will change the face of pop music forever, going on to become one of the most popular, and culturally significant bands in music history; and their conquest of America started when John, Paul, George, and Ringo first brought Beatlemania to the United States on February 7th, 1964.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 7th, 1964. Beatlemania Hits America.
In the Pan Am Lounge at JFK airport, standing beside his bandmates and in front of several tall microphones, George Harrison waits for the crowd to settle down. Hundreds of bustling, quarreling journalists from news outlets all over America have crammed into this plush room for the Beatles' press conference. At 21, George is the youngest member of the Beatles. He lights another cigarette before the questions begin. And out of the corner of his eye, he sees their manager Brian Epstein glaring at him in disapproval. On the flight over, George had complained of a sore throat but had continued smoking anyway. Mr. Epstein had risen from his seat and, in his icy posh accent, issued a stern warning: “In two days' time, you boys are playing your biggest TV show yet. And if you can’t sing, it will be because of those cigarettes. Take my advice, put it out!”
George and his bandmates have been working with Epstein since 1961. Back then, they were a somewhat scruffy ensemble performing in Liverpool’s Cavern Club. But Epstein saw potential, and he insisted they adopt a new, clean-cut style. His suggestion was extremely effective at helping the Beatles stand out. And his promotional genius has lead to this moment: performing on CBS’s “The Ed Sullivan Show”, one of the biggest variety shows in America.
But despite his sore throat, smoking relaxes George. If he’s going to appear cool during the press conference, he feels he needs another cigarette. So he avoids eye contact with Epstein, and he watches his fellow bandmate Paul McCartney introduce the Beatles to the American press.
"PAUL: Paul, Ringo, George, John. (Impersonates an American accent Jahn)"
One of the journalists starts off by asking if they will sing something. In unison, the Beatles all shout “No!” John then quips that they won’t sing unless someone pays them.
Epstein smiles. Despite being annoyed by George’s smoking, he’s pleased with how happy and confident his boys appear on camera. Ringo especially is very funny, making the whole room roar with laughter at his Elvis impersonation. Paul is also quite charming, seeming genuinely enthusiastic about how “fantastic” the fans' welcome was, and how they’d “never seen anything like it.”
The reporters rib the boys about their hair, one of them suggesting that their signature mop-tops are perhaps wigs. Then, the reporter asks which of them are actually bald.
"RINGO: All of us. GEORGE: I’m bald. PAUL: Don’t tell anyone, please. JOHN: And deaf and dumb too."
Another reporter asks if they plan to get haircuts while in America.
"GEORGE: I had one yesterday. (Huge laughter) RINGO: You should have seen him the day before."
Epstein can already tell this trip is going to be a success. America is falling in love with the Beatles for the same reasons he did when he first saw them that first night in the Cavern Club. Not only are they good-looking and wonderfully talented, but they are all so easy to like, and they seem to like each other.
"REPORTER: What about this talk that you represent some kind of social rebellion? JOHN: It’s a dirty lie! (Big laughter)"
As soon as the press conference is over, the Fab Four, as they’re sometimes called, are ushered out of the airport and into a limo with their manager. But as they start to drive away, a new horde of screaming fans crowd the car, desperate to get a glimpse of the Beatles. Eventually, the driver manages to steer through the mass of teenagers. And from there, they head for Manhattan.
The Beatles have never been to America before, except George who came to visit his older sister in Illinois the previous year. During that trip, he also visited New York where he explored record shops and saw live music. But he wasn’t famous then and so his experience was wildly different: there were no press conferences or screaming fans. Now, as the car cruises through the New York streets toward the iconic five-star Plaza Hotel, George gazes out the window and wonders if he’ll ever get the chance to walk anonymously through the city again.
But George doesn't have too much time to dwell on celebrity. Before arriving at the Plaza, Brian Epstein has some amazing news for the boys. During the press conference, he learned that 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ has reached the top of the Billboard charts in the US. Beatles cheer and congratulate each other. With very few exceptions, British acts almost never make it to number one in America.
Still, their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show is bound to be the crowning glory of their first American tour. But a problem is developing that threatens to ruin the entire trip. Tomorrow morning, when George Harrison wakes up in his luxurious bed in the Plaza Hotel, he will be barely able to talk, let alone sing or play lead guitar. He will be struck down by a sudden and severe fever that will jeopardize the band’s American tour, and threaten their American television debut.
It’s February 8th, 1964, outside the Plaza Hotel in New York.
A young woman named Louise Caldwell pushes her way through a wild throng of screaming Beatles fans toward the hotel entrance. She’s trying to reach the doormen so she can talk to them about getting her up to George Harrison’s suite. The task seems impossible as almost every girl outside is trying to break inside the hotel to get up to George Harrison's suite. But Louise is not a typical Beatles fan. She is George’s older sister.
Louise is 12 years older than George and extremely protective of her baby brother. Despite having lived in America with her husband since the mid-fifties, she is the band's biggest champion. For the past two years, she’s been petitioning US radio stations to play Beatles' singles and phoning Brian Epstein in London with regular updates on their progress in the American market. Today, she has traveled to New York in order to visit her brother before his performance on the Ed Sullivan show tomorrow. But then she got a call from a frustrated Epstein saying George is sick. He has a sore throat and may not be able to perform. Louise immediately volunteered to nurse her baby brother back to health.
Epstein gave clear instructions to the doormen to let Louise up to George’s room. But first, she has to get through the crowd and reach the doormen. So Louise shoves, elbows, and muscles her way to the entrance. After giving her name, the doorman lets her inside and shows her to the elevator that will take her to the Presidential suite.
Inside, she finds George alone in bed. His three bandmates have gone to Central Park for a photoshoot. Louise is shocked by her brother’s pale and sweaty appearance. And it’s obvious from his slurred, unfocused words that George has taken a lot of medication. Unless he gets better fast, Louise struggles to see how he’ll be able to appear on live television tomorrow. She has to get to work.
She pulls out a thermometer and places it in George's mouth. When she removes it a minute or two later, she is unsettled to see he has a temperature of 104. She places a wet cloth against his hot forehead while George watches a news report on TV about Beatlemania. As she nurses him, Louise compliments George on the band’s number-one single. But George's head just lolls toward Louise and he tells her in a feint, croaky voice that he is grateful she’s here. With a smile, he adds that she seems to be the only girl in New York who can function normally around him.
That afternoon, the three other band members arrive at CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse tomorrow’s show. Once again, they find their car surrounded by love-struck teenage fans fighting to get a glimpse of the band. They are quickly ushered out of the vehicle and into the building where the production staff welcome them to Ed Sullivan’s studio. One staff member apologizes that Ed himself isn’t here today but promises he is very much looking forward to meeting them during the show. But then the staff member grows concerned when he notices one of the four Beatles is missing. Epstein is quick to explain that George is suffering from a very minor cold but will be ready to play by this time tomorrow. In the meantime, their trusty road manager Neil Aspinal will play lead guitar during rehearsals.
Neil is their roadie, but he’s also an old friend of George and Paul’s. He has a decent rapport with the band. But as Brian Epstein watches him play guitar during rehearsal, it’s clear he’s no Beatle. Neil is an adequate musician but, for tomorrow’s big show, adequate won’t do. Epstein leaves his boys with the studio crew and heads to the nearest telephone. He makes a series of frantic calls trying to find a replacement guitarist. But deep down, Epstein knows that George is irreplaceable, as are all the members of the band. There are countless musicians in the city, and maybe even a few with mop-tops that would fit in George’s suit. But Epstein understands the real power of his quartet lies in their chemistry. And that's a quality that cannot be replicated.
Exasperated, Epstein calls Louise at the Plaza Hotel to check in on George. Louise tells him that her little brother's temperature is still high and he’s sleeping the fever off. Epstein thanks her and hangs up, fearing that if George doesn’t get better, and fast, their American tour will prove a disaster.
That evening, John, Paul, Ringo, and John’s wife Cynthia are all invited to the legendary 21 Club on West 52nd Street for a swanky dinner hosted by Capitol Records. Afterward, they’re given a car tour of New York’s most famous landmarks.
But George misses all of this. Back in the hotel suite, he lies on pillows wet with his own sweat. He’s desperate to get better. He knows if he misses the chance to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show tomorrow, he will regret it the rest of his life. But George can't manage much of anything right now except drifting off to sleep.
Mercifully, when George wakes up the next morning, he’s feeling better. His temperature has dropped and his sore throat isn’t nearly as painful or swollen. But George doesn’t push his luck. He'll spend the morning resting his voice. To the great relief of his three bandmates and manager, hewill be able to perform. On Sunday, February 9th, two days after they landed at JFK airport, the Beatles will be broadcast into the homes of tens of millions of Americans.
It’s 8 PM on Sunday, February 9th, 1964 at Studio 50 on Broadway.
Live on national television, Ed Sullivan stands in front of a packed studio audience and tries to be heard over deafening screams. The 63-year-old TV personality has been hosting this show since 1955, back when it was called `The Toast of the Town.’ But he doesn’t think he’s ever seen an audience as excited as this before, not even for Elvis. The anticipation for this evening’s show has been unprecedented; there were 50,000 ticket requests for just 728 seats, and now they are all filled and the room is electric with anticipation. With great pleasure, Ed Sullivan makes the now famous introduction.
"ED: Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! (Huge screams)"
Behind him, a curtain pulls back to reveal the “Fab Four” in the center of a circular stage designed with twelve giant arrows pointing at them. They immediately start singing one of their most upbeat songs: `All My Loving’.
Sitting among the many ecstatic fans is Louise Caldwell, with a huge smile on her face. She is proud that George bounced back so quickly, and even prouder to see him shining on stage tonight. But there were still a few hiccups.
Lousie knows that, unlike the rest of the Beatles, George hasn’t rehearsed. She notices that her brother doesn't seem to know where he’s supposed to be standing. He moves awkwardly between Paul and John’s microphones as he provides backup vocals. And he keeps insisting on looking in the wrong camera.
But there’s no doubt that he’s feeling better. He plays and sings beautifully as he wobbles his mop-topped head along with the others. Louise sings along as the teenage girls around her scream their love for her brother’s band.
Backstage, Brian Epstein watches on a small television as his boys slide into the classic show tune `Til There Was You.’ It’s a much more conservative number than some of the tracks they could have chosen, but Epstein knows it’s right for this occasion. After all, the Beatles have already won over the American teenager. Now, he wants to win over their parents with this non-threatening classic. As the Beatles play, name captions appear on closeups of each band member. John Lennon’s caption reads “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED!”
In the second half of the program, the Beatles' songs include two high-tempo pop dynamos, 'I Saw Her Standing There’ and America’s new number-one hit: `I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ By then, Epstein knows his boys have already conquered the American market. After all, they are, in his opinion, the best band in the world.
73 million people reportedly watched the Ed Sullivan Show that night, the biggest audience for any TV show in US history at the time. But America’s love affair with the Beatles is just beginning.
Many commentators will later claim that the reason the band made such an impact was because they arrived in America at a critical moment. Just a few months earlier, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The four “lads from Liverpool” provided America with a much-needed dose of happiness that began when John, Paul, Ringo, and George touched down at JFK, the airport named in honor of the fallen president, on February 7th, 1964.
Next on History Daily. February 8th, 1587. Mary Queen of Scots, the rival of Queen Elizabeth I of England, is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.