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Beatles offered Americans something we needed

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Published:   |   Updated: February 8, 2014 at 03:23 PM

As much as anything else, it was their timing that made them so impactful. For had they come along even three months earlier they might have been lost, much like some of their music was, amid the gloom of one the darkest periods in this country’s history.

But by, Feb, 9, 1964, America wasn’t just ready for The Beatles, it needed the Beatles.

Still in mourning following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and rattled by the U.S. military’s ever escalating involvement in the Vietnam war as well as the fears generated by the ongoing Cold War, Americans needed something fresh to smile, laugh and feel good about.

Fifty years ago on Sunday, Ed Sullivan provided it by offering us the Beatles.

At the time, America was no stranger to musical phenomenon. The country had already witnessed the euphoric rise of artists such as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley, but the Beatles were different. They were better at least in part because there were four of them, one seemingly for every taste.

Paul, the cute bass player, was every girl’s dream date. George, the nimble-fingered lead guitarist, was the shy, quiet type; John, the quick witted rhythm guitarist, was the strong, tough leader, and Ringo, the short drummer with the big nose and the beatnik-like name, was the adorable misfit.

But these were no beatniks. After Sullivan’s introduction three minutes into the show sparked a cacophony of screams and Paul’s “One, two, three, four …’’ countdown to the start of “All My Loving’’ many in the estimated crowd of 73 million viewers were stunned by what they saw on their TV screen.

Yes the hair, tickling the back of their shirt collars and falling over the tops of their ears, was appallingly long for the time, but they were clean shaven and wore matching suits with knotted up ties, not the turtlenecks and jeans that so many were expecting from a band with the word beat in its name.

And not only did they smile, but they bowed, in unison, after virtually every song, quietly acknowledging their audience’s approval. By the time George deftly manipulated his way through the solo of their second song, even some of the parents of the mesmerized teenagers had been drawn in by their magic.

“Wait, I know that song. It’s ‘Till There Was You,’’ the one that Meredith Wilson wrote for the end of Act 2 of his Broadway musical, ‘The Music Man.’ Hmmmm, maybe these long-haired Beatles are something more than just a rock and roll band after all.’’

It was all part of the plan. Originally added to their repertoire in the hopes that it would get the girls to swoon over Paul, the Beatles inserted “Till There Was You’’ into their playlist for their first Sullivan appearance hoping to show off their versatility and win over some older fans.

It didn’t necessarily work. Most parents still the Beatles were the beginning of the end of civilization as we knew it. But the kids, they were hooked. And by the time the Beatles finished their two-song second set with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,’’ they had gone viral.

Even today, the Beatles first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” stands as a defining moment not just in entertainment history, but in history itself. It drew what was then the largest TV audience ever assembled and did so thanks in part to then CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

On Dec. 10, 1963, Cronkite aired a report from Britain about the Beatles on the “CBS Evening News.” The report included a brief segment that showed the Beatles performing “She Loves You,’’ which a 15-year-old girl from Silver Springs, Md., named Marsha Albert took particular notice of.

Startled by the song’s energy, Albert wrote a letter a couple days later to Washington radio station WWDC asking if the song or something like it could be played by the station. As legend has it, WWDC disc jokey Carroll James quickly obtained a copy of “I Want To Hold Your Hand’’ from a British Airways flight attendant and in mid-December began playing it on the station.

Almost immediately, radio stations in Chicago and St. Louis began playing taped versions of the song, the great popularity of which prompted Capitol Records to release the single the day after Christmas, which was two weeks earlier than it had originally planned.

Even then, Capitol wasn’t sure how well the record would do. After all, three previous U.S. Beatles releases on smaller rival labels — “Please, Please Me’’ (VeeJay), “From Me To You’’ (VeeJay) and “She Loves You’’ (Swan) — hadn’t done a thing either on U.S. airwaves or in U.S. record stores.

But with so many kids home from school listening in on their new transistor radios, “I Want To Hold Your Hand’’ quickly rose up the charts, reaching the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 1, which was just six days before the Beatles first stepped on U.S. soil.

As usual, their timing was perfect. Fueled by the success of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,’’ the Beatles were greeted at JFK airport — and on a school day no less — not just by an estimated 3,000 fans, but by hundreds of news reporters and photographers.

Later that evening the Beatles watched the TV reports of their arrival on the evening news and roughly 48 hours later they pulled America out the doldrums by kick starting a cultural revolution that didn’t stop until it had changed the entire world.

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