“Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time on the air in the United States, here are the Beatles singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.” No, those are not the words of Ed Sullivan introducing The Beatles on his television show. That was the introduction given by fourteen-year-old Marsha Albert who had asked DJ Caroll James of WWDC radio in Washington, D.C. to get a copy of the record to play on his program before the record was available in the U.S. The demand to hear Beatles recordings was increasing rapidly since Walter Cronkite had broadcast a segment about the group on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10th. A stewardess brought a copy from England and James asked Marsha to do the introduction. Capitol records had been promoting the Beatles in the U.S. and had scheduled the group to perform on Ed Sullivan on February 9th, 1964. The record had been designated for release in mid January, but the early unauthorized airplay got such an enthusiastic response that Capitol decided to release it early on December 26th with “I Saw Her Standing There” as the B-side. The invasion of the American music charts by the British had begun.
When over 70,000 tuned into “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9th, 1964, there was a mixture of curiosity and enthusiasm. The band performed in two segments on the show and in both cases the performances were accompanied by constant screaming from the young girls in the audience – the expected reaction by the U.S. teens replicating their British counterparts who had given birth to “Beatlemania” the preceding year. In some ways it was just another typical rock and roll performance. But for many it was more than that. The sound that blasted from the television set along with the visual presentation of these different looking young men posed with their guitars in front of their drummer sitting on an elevated stage behind them was compelling. It was a burst of energy that was The Beatles.
Of itself, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” reaching the top spot on the U.S. chart was newsworthy. The American music market had been a challenge for British artists. Two instrumentals from the UK had reached #1 in the states: “Stranger on the Shore” by Mr. Aker Bilk and “Telstar” by The Tornadoes both in 1962. Also in 1962, a folk singing trio, The Springfields had a #20 record with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Lonnie Donegan was a practitioner of skiffle, a kind of jug band rock and roll popular in Britain in the mid 1950’s. He scored two U.S. hits, “Rock Island Line” (#8) in 1956 and “Does Your Chewing Gum Loose Its Flavor” (#5) in 1961. Frank Ifield had a #1 hit in the UK with “I Remember You“ in the summer of 1962. In hopes of similar success in the U.S., Vee-Jay records signed him from the British EMI company – as a bonus they got the rights to an “up and coming group” … The Beatles (“I Remember You” was a U.S. success, reaching #5). It is notable that these British entries to the U.S. music chart were mostly one hit wonders – none of them had any enduring success in the U.S. While British artists such as Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Billy Fury frequented the UK charts, none of them were heard of in the U.S. At the same time, American artists were well represented on the British charts. In the year before The Beatles (1962), six of the twelve #1 UK records were U.S. imports. Elvis Presley had fourteen #1 hits in Britain from 1957 to 1963. Prior to 1964, the music highway between Britain and the U.S. was mostly a one-way road.
That all changed in 1963 in the UK. Of the nineteen #1 singles in Britain, only one was from the U.S., Elvis Presley’s “Devil In Disguise.” By the end of the year, Beatlemania was running rampant in the UK and the group had posted three #1’s. There had been a couple of attempts at a Beatles release in the U.S. Vee-Jay tried to introduce the states to the Beatles with a release of “From Me To You.” It didn’t make the Hot 100 list. When “She Loves You” went to #1 in the UK, Capitol records (EMI’s American partner which had first refusal rights for release in the U.S.) was still reluctant to issue Beatles records. Swan records stepped in and released “She Loves You” in September. It failed to chart. But in the final months of 1963 the U.S. went from being bemused by the screaming Brits and their mop-topped heroes to being legitimately interested. An advertising campaign to the tune of $40,000 by Capitol records (previously their most spent was $5,000) didn’t hurt. On January 3rd, Jack Paar showed a film clip on his “Tonight Show” of The Beatles singing “She Loves You.” Sales of the Swan disc immediately skyrocketed and it entered the Billboard chart on January 25th. By the time the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was the #1 record in the U.S. “She Loves You” was #2 and would eventually be #1.
In 1964, the 45 rpm single ruled the music market. Labels typically tried to time the release of a record to maximize its salability. If an artist had a hit record, the label wanted to release a new single soon enough to take advantage of the artists popularity, but not too soon as to compete with themselves. There was also a factor of availability – how soon can the artist get back into the studio to produce another single worthy of release. For The Beatles in 1964, these guidelines were out the window. First of all, they already had a collection of hit records which had been on the charts in England for the previous year. Secondly, as noted above, the records were licensed to several different American labels. This led to the simultaneous release of a number of Beatles records in early 1964. It was rare for any artist to have two songs in the top ten at any one time. It was unheard of for an artist to have both the #1 and #2 songs (unless they were a two-sided hit such as Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” / “Hound Dog”). On April 4th, The Beatles occupied the top five places: #1, “Can’t Buy Me Love” (Capitol); #2 “Twist and Shout” (Vee-Jay); #3 “She Loves You” (Swan); #4 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (Capitol); and #5 “Please Please Me” (Vee-Jay).
Other record labels could not ignore the success of The Beatles. They immediately looked at the UK charts to see what was available. The Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over” had knocked “I Want to Hold Your Hand” out of the top spot on the UK chart in January, making them an obvious candidate to be the next British group to “cross the pond.” They didn’t disappoint – when The Beatles occupied the top five spots on April 4th, “Glad All Over” entered the top ten (#10). By the end of 1964, the DC5 had placed six records in the top twenty. Two weeks after the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan, Dusty Springfield’s “IOnly Want to Be With You” entered the Billboard top twenty. It’s release actually predated The Beatles first Capitol records, and perhaps it would have been successful without the Beatle influence, but it does qualify as the first British import to follow The Beatles in the top twenty. If these had been the only other British acts to be successful in the states, it would have been a significant development. But there was much more. The Searchers also entered the top twenty in April with “Needles and Pins.” The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, got two of his other acts on the U.S. charts in the spring of ’64: Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas. In June, Peter & Gordon became the second act of the invasion to score a #1 with “A World Without Love” (a Lennon/McCartney composition). Before the end of the year, two other British groups would score #1 hits: The Animals with “House of the Rising Sun” and Manfred Mann with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” In 1963, out of 194 records that had made the top twenty, one was a British import (“Telstar” by The Tornadoes). In 1964, 35 British imports had placed in the Billboard top twenty (out of 196).
We can conclude that the British Invasion was real. The change in pop music ushered in by “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the result of the convergence of several factors. First there was the talent of the Beatles themselves. Although it might not have been recognizable at the time, subsequent successes pointed to the creativity the Beatles brought to the music world and beyond. Secondly, there was a backlog of hit records by the group that already existed and could be immediately released to the American music buying public. And finally, there was the receptive environment of the American music scene that was ready for an injection of a new dynamic. The teens that were most of the record buying public in 1964 were somewhat of a disillusioned group that had been forced to pay attention to some of the darker sides of life. Their president had been assassinated and the evening news more often than not showed how unequal our society was. They were ready for something to speak to their innate youthful exuberance. John, Paul, George and Ringo did that. And once exposed, those teens couldn’t get enough of it. If you were a teen in 1964 you probably didn’t hear Marsha’s introduction, but you probably did hear Ed Sullivan as the girls began to scream: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles. Let’s bring them on.” And you probably felt that things were suddenly different.