In the autumn of 1963, Beatlemania was a raging epidemic in Britain, and it was rapidly spreading across the European continent. But in the United States, where the likes of Bobby Vinton and Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs sat atop the pop charts, John, Paul, George and Ringo could have walked through Grand Central Terminal completely unnoticed. It wasn’t Grand Central that the Beatles were trying to walk through on this day in 1963, however—it was Heathrow Airport, London, where they’d just returned from a hugely successful tour of Sweden. Also at Heathrow that particular day, after a talent-scouting tour of Europe, was the American television impresario Ed Sullivan. The pandemonium that Sullivan witnessed as he attempted to catch his flight to New York would play a pivotal role in making the British Invasion possible.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that the Beatles were still unknown in the United States. Their manager Brian Epstein had tried and failed repeatedly to convince Capitol Records, the American arm of their British label EMI, to release the singles that had already taken Europe by storm. Convinced that the Merseybeat sound wouldn’t translate across the Atlantic, Capitol declined to release “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You” and “She Loves You,” allowing all three to be released on the minor American labels Vee-Jay and Swan and to languish on the pop charts without any promotion. Desperate to crack the American market, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a song explicitly tailored to the American market and recorded it just two weeks before their fateful indirect encounter with Ed Sullivan. That song was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Ed Sullivan had his staff make inquiries about the Beatles following his return to the United States, and Brian Epstein arranged to travel to New York to open negotiations. And in what surely must rank as one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of professional talent-management, Epstein convinced The Ed Sullivan Show to have the Beatles as headliners for three appearances rather than as a one-time, mid-show novelty act, and he then leveraged that contract into an agreement by Capitol Records to release “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in the United States and back it with a $40,000 promotional campaign.
As a result of the chance encounter at Heathrow on this day in 1963, and of Brian Epstein’s subsequent coup in New York, the Beatles would arrive in the United States on February 7, 1964, with a #1 record already to their credit. The historic Ed Sullivan appearances that followed would lead to five more in the next 12 months.