Before “Sullivan”: How The Beatles Cracked America


Through the years, Paul McCartney has built a Beatles legend regarding the band’s introduction to America. He’s said on numerous occasions that he and John put a stake in the ground with manager Brian Epstein in advance of their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, stating:

“We’re not going to America till we’ve got a number one record.”

Although there’s a very good chance that this sentiment was a desire of the band, the truth was that the Beatles were committed to that appearance way before. The Beatles would eventually reach #1 in the USA (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”) in February of 1964, (BEFORE their Sullivan appearance). However, in the late fall of 1963, the Beatles executed a determined crusade to crack America.

This story begins with George Harrison. Just as “She Loves You” was climbing the UK charts, destined to be the catalyst for Beatlemania in their home country, he fulfilled his state-side dream and jumped on a plane in September 1963 to visit America. Bunking down in Benton Illinois with his sister Louise (who had immigrated there with her husband and children) it was just 5 months before George would be introduced to the USA via the Ed Sullivan Show.

Enjoying his time in the midwest, he made sure he included American record shopping (“I went to record stores. I bought Booker T. and the MG’s first album, Green Onions, and bought some Bobby Bland, all kinds of things”).  This was also the period when George purchased James Ray’s record, “I Got My Mind Set On You.”  It would be another 24 years for George to record his last #1 hit with that very song.

Harrison returned to England to report to the band and manager Brian Epstein what he’d seen and heard in America. The news was not good. He proclaimed that “They have everything over there, and don’t know us.”

Ringo picks up the story in discussions with the 1995 Anthology project: “George was the only one of us who’d been [in America] before and he’d been into the record shops there and asked, ‘Have you The Beatles’ records?’ We had three out on other labels [Vee-Jay and Swan], but nobody had them, or even heard of us. We were used to being famous by then [in the UK and parts of Europe], so we were worried about that!”

With that assessment, the Beatles simply kept their steamroller of appearances going on their side of the Atlantic. As their popularity could not be contained to just the UK any longer, Epstein crafted an important tour of Sweden, that included radio and TV appearances.  Although their 9-show tour proved a big success in building a Scandinavian following, it was when they returned home to England that they hit pay dirt.

Their arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport on October 31 took the authorities by surprise. As this was the first time the Beatles had left their homeland since gaining country-wide fame, airport management was faced with the first of something called “Airport Receptions” for a pop band. The airport was crawling with young hysterical fans, all there to get a glimpse of their returning heroes. The mass confusion caused delays for the usually well-run airport. These flight delays affected one Edward Sullivan, who just so happened to be in town (with his wife) on business. But the airport agitations peaked his show-biz senses, and he quickly inquired as to who these guys were. Within a week, Brian Epstein was dispatched to Sullivan’s office in New York.

We now know that Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises organization signed a contract on November 18, 1963, for the Beatle’s performance at CBS-TV Studio 50 on Sunday evening February 9th, 1964.  For that appearance, the Beatles were paid $3,500 (with the contractual words: “Fee to be evenly divided among 4”). According to the document, the organizations sponsoring that show would be Lever Brothers (consumer goods), Pillsbury (baking products), Whitehall (washing machines), and Lorillard (tobacco products).

The document reveals that the Beatles would record an additional performance to be shown at a later date (February 23rd) along with a live follow-up appearance (of which they would NOT be the top of the bill; that went to Mitzi Gaynor) the following week on February 16 at Miami’s Deauville Hotel. Since this contract was signed a week before “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was released in the UK (November 29), there is no way the Beatles were holding the line on their proclaimed USA criteria to be #1 before appearing in the country. They were already committed to going.

After a temporary lull in their actions, as the world dealt with the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, and with the Sullivan show under contract, the Beatles camp planned the USA release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for December 26, 1963. It was at that juncture when Epstein and producer George Martin went to work on Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

The irony was that the Beatles’ UK record company, EMI, actually OWNED Capitol Records. Yet their subsequent attempts for Capitol to release and support the Beatles’ previous 1963 singles (“Please Please Me, “From Me To You,” and “She Loves You” – all #1 in the UK), were met with a lack of interest and limited marketing money.

This time, Team Fab decided they would pull out all the stops, aimed at getting EMI brass to “order” a full marketing budget and strategic plan to back “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” With all their success in Europe, George Martin was now able to get the right Capitol promotional people the phone to assure them that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was recorded with a “special US sound in mind.” This was quite a big business fib, but Martin was at his wit’s end.  Once “Hand” had already achieved advance orders in the UK for more than one million, he knew he had gained the right leverage. “Everything we attempted seems to meet a resounding slap in the face. I said ‘Right! Let’s ship Beatle records over to the States and get them sold there!’”

Additionally, Brian Epstein would lean on EMI Managing Director, Len Wood, to take matters into his own hands. Quickly, Wood would be on a plane to New York for meetings with Capitol executives, and with the shadow of the Ed Sullivan Show looming in just a matter of weeks, the marketing department earmarked the unheard-of sum of $40,000 for promotions. Soon, nearly every radio station that catered to pop music audiences was talking about and playing Beatles records. Unprecedented volumes of sponsored Beatle-related contests, giveaways, and chatter came across the airwaves while stations incorporated the band’s name in station’s ID calls (“This is WA-Beatle C”).

The New York metropolitan area radio community estimated receiving three thousand Beatle-related letters a day. But not all radio was friendly. Radio host William B. Williams of New York’s WNEW was notoriously remembered for proclaiming: “They want to hold your hand- a lot of people would like to hold their noses!” The joke would soon be on Williams, as his station’s middle-of-the-road format (think Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney) would change over to “Progressive Rock” by 1967, relegating him to host his “Make Believe Ballroom” on weekends.

By the first week of February 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand went to #1, selling 1.5 million copies nationwide; it would peak at 15 million units sold. The band was told the news while staying at the George V Hotel in Paris and a wild celebration was unleashed. Legend has it that, that night in their suite, each Beatle took a drunken turn riding piggyback on the shoulders of Mal Evans, their giant Road Manager.

Indeed, when they landed at JFK airport on February 7, 1964, the Beatles were #1 in the USA, living up to their proclamation.  And all done without stepping a foot in the USA.

-Steven Valvano

Photo: Getty Images

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6 comments on “Before “Sullivan”: How The Beatles Cracked America

  1. Kendall McCarty

    Correction – I’m sure you meant December 1963 not 1964 for planned US release of I Want To Hold Your Hand. (Paragraph immediately below video)

  2. Steve Valvano

    Wooops… my typo!
    Thanks, SV

  3. WNEW FM went progressive in 1967. That didn’t have anything to do with William B. Williams. It was WNEW AM that went MOR which relegated Williams’ show before the “Make Believe Ballroom” made a comeback in the 1980’s.

  4. Steven Valvano

    Thanks Jeff… the point was this: Here was Williams putting down the new music the Beatles were making from the perceived safety of his radio station…. and the irony would be that he would lose his gig because the entertainment world that he was clinging to was being washed away by that very same new music! -SV


    I wrote a series of blog posts about this very topic, beginning with this one:

  6. Kathryn Andersen Stromberger

    Actually, they played a film in Jack Paar of the Beatles performing at a concert in the UK. That was before Ed Sullivan.

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