The Beatles were nervous about coming to America. A solo trip to Illinois in September 1963 had guitarist George Harrison worrying that an American crossover was "going to be hard." Beatles bass player Paul McCartney was skeptical even on the flight over, fretting, "They've got their own groups. What are we going to give them that they don't already have?" Guitarist John Lennon had his own doubts, too. "On the plane over, I was thinking 'Oh, we won't make it,' " he later told Rolling Stone magazine.
The band had already exploded out of Liverpool and was attracting adoring crowds not just in England, but across Europe. But the Beatles had the quirks of an entire industry standing between them and the enormous American market. There was little exchange between the music scenes in Britain and America. The U.S. charts were compiled haphazardly across metropolitan areas, making it even harder for word to spread about a band making waves across the pond. Up until 1963, the Beatles' music was being issued in the United States on second- and third-tier labels. Their initial U.S. singles, released by Vee-Jay Records, were sent to blues, jazz and soul DJs, not to pop music stations. The Beatles didn't stand a chance in America without the push of big-budget distribution and promotion of a mainstream label.
That finally changed when Capitol Records decided to throw its weight behind a full-scale Beatles release in America with "Meet the Beatles" issued Jan. 20 1964. By Jan. 24, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" – which Capitol had been forced to release early as a single in December – had reached No. 1 on the U.S. charts, news that the Beatles welcomed while they were in Paris playing a series of gigs.
If they were still skittish about breaking through to American audiences, the 4,000 young fans awaiting their arrival at New York's JFK airport Feb. 7 for a tour that would include ratings-smashing appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and successful stops in Washington, New York and Florida should have dispelled those concerns. "So this is America," drummer Ringo Starr reportedly said when he stepped off the plane. "They must be out of their minds."
"It justified their belief that they were major. Every British rock ‘n’ roll band before the Beatles had been considered just a simulacrum of American music," says Elijah Wald, a musician, writer and author of a number of books including "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll"
"When they came to America and were treated like the biggest thing in rock 'n' roll, that changed not only their perception of themselves, it changed everybody's perception of them," Wald adds.
The legacy of the Beatles' trip to America was, first and foremost, that they had succeeded where other British pop stars had failed. There were some minor hits from British bands (like "Telestar" by the Tornados), but other major U.K. stars like Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro failed to gain any real traction in the United States, despite having had "Ed Sullivan" appearances of their own.
"The reputation that was out there in Great Britain was that you can't make it in America. They just want to listen to a different kind of music," says Michael Cheney, a professor of communications and economics at the University of Illinois, Springfield, who also teaches a course on the Beatles. "Where the Beatles were different is that music of the Beatles sound came from listening to American records, a lot of the rhythm-and-blues records that came out, Chess Records. They were even into girl groups and Motown."
Concert promoter Sid Bernstein deserves credit for seeing that the Beatles could have American appeal. Bernstein, who died in August 2013 at the age of 95, had been telephoning the Liverpool home of Beatles manager Brian Epstein persistently since March 1963, proposing the band play at Carnegie Hall in New York. Had he not, his spokeswoman Merle Frimark told U.S. News via e-mail, "The music industry as we know it today might have been totally different. An agreement on a simple 'handshake' across the pond changed the music industry forever."
Corrected, 1/24/14: : A previous version of this article misquoted Elijah Wald on the meaning of the Beatle’s success in America. He said, “Every British rock ‘n’ roll band before the Beatles had been considered just a simulacrum of American music.” The article also misidentified Gordon Thompson. He is a professor at Skidmore College.