By late 1963, The Beatles—guitarists John Lennon and George Harrison; bassist Paul McCartney; and drummer Ringo Starr—were already a household name in the United Kingdom and much of Europe. More than 15 million viewers had tuned in to their performance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium,” and the band was regularly playing sold out shows to legions of swooning teenage fans. But while they had staked their claim on the top of the singles charts in England, The Beatles still struggled for recognition across the pond. Their first two U.S. singles—the jaunty “Please Please Me” and the catchy “From Me to You”—had flopped, and Capitol Records, the American arm of their label, EMI, appeared uninterested in promoting a foreign band. The lads from Liverpool would finally catch a break in October 1963. While passing through London’s Heathrow airport, American television host Ed Sullivan noticed hundreds of excited teens waiting to see The Beatles return from a tour of Sweden. Sullivan had never heard of the shaggy-haired quartet, but after learning about their fanatical following, he felt they had the potential to be as big as Elvis Presley. A few weeks later, Sullivan booked the group to appear on his popular television program.
Armed with a gig on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” The Beatles finally gained traction in the United States. Capitol Records agreed to back their upcoming record, and CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported on the Beatlemania phenomenon in England. In early December, a 15-year-old Maryland girl named Marsha Albert saw the group on the news and wrote her local radio station asking, “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” When a DJ tracked down a copy of their still-unreleased single “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the song became a massive hit. Capitol Records had to scramble to get the single onto record store shelves, and it went on to sell 1 million copies in a matter of days.
By all accounts, The Beatles still had no idea what was in store for them on February 7, 1964, when they took off from London bound for American shores. Lennon remembered thinking, “Oh, we won’t make it,” while Starr recalled feeling “a bit sick” with anticipation. But when they touched down in New York, the group found themselves greeted by a flock of 3,000 ecstatic, screaming fans—many of them teens playing hooky from school. The band was stunned. “Seeing thousands of kids there to meet us made us realize just how popular we were there,” Harrison later said. In their first press conference, The Beatles appeared relaxed and upbeat. Clad in matching suits, the band fired back at the sea of reporters with cheeky quips that the New York Times later called the “Beatle wit.” “We have a message,” McCartney declared in between questions about the band’s name and their mop-top haircuts, “buy more Beatles records!”
From the airport, The Beatles were each tucked into their own limousine and whisked away to the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Safe from the rabid fans camped out on the streets below, they spent the evening chatting on-air with local radio DJ Murray the K while the brothers Albert and David Maysles—the same filmmakers who later chronicled The Rolling Stones in the 1970 film “Gimme Shelter”—rolled camera for a documentary. The next day brought another round of interviews and photo sessions, but the band also squeezed in a sightseeing tour of New York. Ever the music aficionados, The Beatles insisted on passing through Harlem to catch a glimpse of the famed Apollo Theater.
The band arrived at CBS-TV’s Studio 50 on Sunday, February 9 and prepped for their “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance with a filmed sound check. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., Sullivan would finally introduce John, Paul, George and Ringo to America with the now-famous words, “Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!” As a packed house of giddy teenagers looked on, the group launched into renditions of “All My Loving” and “Till There Was You” before driving the crowd into a frenzy with the catchy “She Loves You.” The Beatles returned later that evening for a second set featuring energetic versions of “I Saw Her Standing There” and their number one hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” both nearly drowned out by screams of joy from female audience members. Television ratings for the appearance proved astronomical. According to the Nielsen Company, a record-breaking 73 million viewers tuned in to watch The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan”—nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population at the time. Some newspapers still tried to dismiss the British hit-makers as a passing fad, but the numbers didn’t lie: Beatlemania had taken the United States by storm.
Riding the wave of their star-making turn on “Ed Sullivan,” the Beatles left New York on February 11 for Washington D.C., where they played their first-ever American stage show at the Washington Coliseum. By now, their popularity had reached dizzying heights. Businesses were selling novelty Beatles wigs and clothing, and the band couldn’t travel without being mobbed by hordes of breathless music lovers. In Washington, their management team had to distract fans with decoy Beatles wearing wigs just to allow the group time to reach the stage. When they later took a train back to New York, their rail car had to be switched to a separate platform to bypass swarms of waiting kids. Some fans came to blows jockeying for a better position in the crowds, and police were forced to contend with teenagers rushing their barricades just to get a chance at touching their heroes. During a gathering in Washington, an overzealous teenage girl even snuck up behind Starr and cut off a lock of his hair as a souvenir. He later remarked that all the attention made him feel like, “something in a zoo.”
Following a pair of shows at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, The Beatles headed south to appear on another episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show” being filmed in Miami. On February 16, they took the stage for their second live television appearance, playing six songs before a rapturous crowd of 2,600. All told, an estimated 70 million people also gathered around TV sets to watch at home. The band spent the next few days taking in the sand and surf around Miami with a small army of photographers and newsmen in tow. They also posed for a now-famous photo op with the boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), who was in town for a championship bout with Sonny Liston.
The Beatles would finally leave America a few days later, arriving back in London to a crowd of some 10,000 fans who greeted them like they were generals back from campaign. The “British invasion” of America, as Walter Cronkite had called it, had ended in conquest. Five Beatles songs were entrenched in the Billboard Hot 100—including the top two slots—and their televised performances had broken ratings records. In only two weeks, the band had made an indelible mark on American pop culture. Their shaggy hair, witty interviews and loose, exuberant sound had proven irresistible, and a wave of British bands would soon follow in their footsteps. The Beatles had stepped onto the tarmac at JFK International Airport on February 7 as an overseas oddity, but they left on February 22 as genuine superstars.