What the Beatles Meant to America

Just a few months after JFK's assassination, British pop music sensation the Beatles brought comfort and fun back to America

Photographers surround the Beatles before their first live television appearance on CBS' Studio 50 lot for "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York City on Feb. 9, 1964.
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Irene Katz stood on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue with her friend Laura Jacknick. It was Saturday, Feb. 8, 1964, and they were outside the Plaza Hotel in New York. The 13-year-old Katz had told her parents she was going somewhere to study, but instead the girls hit the pavement at 7 a.m. and remained there, bubbling with anticipation, for nine hours. John, Paul, George and Ringo were in town and staying at the Plaza. Katz held up a sign she’d made: “Elvis is Dead, Long Live the Beatles.”

“It wasn’t to be mean,” Katz says now, of the sign and the Elvis pronouncement. “Elvis was the past generation and it was over. This was new music and everything was different for a new generation of people.” Katz had high hopes, too: “We were looking up, convinced they would see us with their sign. We believed they would fall in love when they saw us.” That didn’t work out, but Katz and her sign became semi-famous, as camera crews shot footage broadcast all over national TV news.

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Four days later, Katz saw the Beatles at Carnegie Hall. “I think I was amazed,” she says, “that these people I’d seen on a screen at home were singing to me. And I really believed they were.”

The wave of Beatles popularity had been surging and cresting in America through the latter part of 1963. The Beatles had created quite a stir in England – masses of screaming girls at concerts, three No. 1 singles, and four No. 1 albums. They even played a Royal Command Performance in London on Nov. 4, in front of the Queen, where John Lennon asked for people in the cheap seats to clap their hands but cheekily told those in the expensive tier to “rattle their jewelry.” The media called it Beatlemania. In America, the Beatles’ crackling, joyous singles were blasting all over AM radio: “She Loves You,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the latter backed with “I Saw Her Standing There.”

But the nation really shook from 8 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964. The Beatles were booked into CBS Studio 50 to play “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That night they introduced the U.S. to “All My Loving,” played “Till There Was You,” (a sweet ballad from “The Music Man”) and “She Loves You.” There was a 35-minute break for other performers – including comic acrobats and the cast of “Oliver” (featuring Monkee-to-be Davy Jones) – and then they came back with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Young girls yelled, swooned and fainted throughout -- girls who are now the grandmothers of teenagers making loud noise for One Direction. That episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show” was watched by 73 million people in the U.S.

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The Beatles were back on the show the following Sunday, playing “She Loves You,” “This Boy,” “All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me to You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” About 70 million people watched at home in the U.S. For their third “Ed Sullivan” appearance on Feb. 23, the Beatles played three songs that were pre-taped on Feb. 9: “Twist and Shout,” “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Fame and Fandom

“What we got in America was pure fandom,” says Ira Robbins, veteran music writer and former editor of “Trouser Press” rock magazine. “It may have been more intense in England, but obviously it was bigger in America and they could sell a gazillion more records.” True: To date, the Beatles have sold 209.1 million albums in the U.S.; in the U.K. they’ve sold 7.5 million, according to data from RIAA, Apple Records and EMI.

“There’s so much there in that ‘Ed Sullivan’ appearance it’s almost overwhelming to me," says Lennon and Beatles biographer and NPR critic Tim Riley. “But there is this thought that they articulated later: ‘We are a rock ‘n’ roll band, we know where we’re situated in rock ‘n’ roll history and we do not want to make the mistake that Elvis made.’ It’s almost articulated in that Sullivan appearance. They’re very defiant. They have a very strong, secure, cocky sense of who they are and where they might be going, of their own potential.”

Updated 1/24/14: The sales figures mentioned in this story were provided by RIAA, Apple Records, and EMI.