On Feb. 7, 1964, the Beatles stepped down the narrow jet stairs of Pan American Flight 101 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York into a mob of thousands of shrieking youngsters who welcomed them to America like conquering heroes.
And, indeed, over the next two weeks, they made three TV appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to record-breaking audiences, gave sold-out concert performances at Carnegie Hall and the Washington Coliseum, triggered saturation-playing of their hit songs on AM radio stations throughout the country, and staged a series of news conferences in which their cheeky humor outwitted and disarmed the press corps in New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami.
Commentators were so lost for words to describe the power of what was happening that they fell back on natural phenomena, using terms such as “whirlwind,” “tidal wave” and “cultural earthquake.”
But the Beatles’ conquest of America, which began 60 years ago this week, was a man-made event. And the man most responsible was the band’s suave, self-confident 29-year-old manager. Brian Epstein seldom gets the credit he deserves, in part because he was gay in an era when British law still deemed homosexual acts a crime, and in part because he was Jewish, which British society largely disdained. But also because the Beatles, who were often coldhearted when it came to money matters, badmouthed his business acumen after his death in 1967.
Still, it was Epstein who discovered them, polished their act and their appearance, and instilled discipline, while preserving the high spirits, humor and musical creativity that made the Beatles so irresistible to teenage audiences. Without his charm, persistence and unwavering devotion, the Beatles would never have emerged from their hometown of Liverpool, let alone Britain, and never would have made it to America.
“Like (with) any success story, everyone wants to take credit,” Robert Precht, Ed Sullivan’s producer and son-in-law, would tell author Gerald Nachman, looking back four decades later. “My take on the whole thing was that it was Epstein who really engineered everything. It was largely his doing — the promotion and radio exposure and where he wanted the Beatles to go. That was all his maneuvering.”
Brian Epstein was managing his family’s thriving record shop in downtown Liverpool when he wandered down to the Cavern, a subterranean music club, one afternoon in November 1961 and first heard the local rock-and-roll band with the strange insect name. He didn’t much care for their music but was enchanted by the insouciant charm and rough-and-ready look of the four handsome young men in black leather.
He was a man in search of a mission. The firstborn son of a family of affluent Orthodox Jewish merchants who owned a chain of five furniture, white goods and music stores throughout the region, Epstein had been expelled from or dropped out of eight private schools before ending his formal education. He didn’t lack for intelligence but was, by his own account, bored and bullied at school and discouraged by teachers and parents from pursuing his creative interests in drawing, dress design and stage acting. By age 16, he was back in Liverpool, working as a salesman in the family business.
He was a delicately handsome man of medium height with sparkling blue eyes, full lips and well-trimmed curly brown hair. He favored bespoke suits and shirts, silk ties and calfskin shoes. He looked and smelled immaculate — like he’d just emerged from a perfumed bath, one admirer noted — and he spoke with the polished oval tones of a BBC Radio 4 news presenter from an Oxbridge university. His adoring mother instilled in him an appreciation for classical art and music, while his father pressed him to embrace a role in the family business. But while he was developing a talent for business matters, the merchant life bored him and he sought several times to escape to London — to clerk at a bookstore, to serve as a British Army conscript, to pursue an acting career at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Yet he always retreated to the family home and business when things invariably went wrong.
It’s possible, of course, to love and honor your parents yet still feel the need to escape their smothering embrace. Especially when you are harboring a secret you know they would find devastating. Epstein’s secret was his sexuality. He was a gay man in an era when homosexuality was considered both a crime and a kind of plague — dangerous, contagious and illegal. And to protect himself from the consequences of being discovered, he led a double life, feigning a respectability he often didn’t feel. He agonized over embarrassing his parents, most notably after his arrest, conviction and probation sentence for importuning an undercover policeman in the men’s room of a north London underground station in 1957, and again the following year when he was beaten and robbed after dark in Liverpool’s largest public park.
Watching the Beatles and observing the electrifying effect they had on young audiences was thrilling to him. “I was excited to find that they had an extraordinary quality and presence that wafted itself across the cellar,” he would recall in “A Cellarful of Noise,” his ghostwritten celebrity memoir. Soon he was telling anyone who would listen: “I am completely confident that one day they will be bigger than Elvis Presley.”
Drawing on the theatrical skills he had developed at RADA, Epstein insisted that they discard their black leather jackets, torn blue jeans and cheap cowboy boots and dress in dark-gray mohair suits and Pierre Cardin-style lapelless outfits. His personal barber trimmed and shaped their pudding bowl haircuts. He ordered them to create a tight song list each night and stick to it — no more taking requests for songs they hadn’t rehearsed, and no more extended solos. He told them to smile while they played — and then solemnly bow to the waist after each song.
What he didn’t do was compel the Beatles to rein in their irreverent and exuberant collective personality. They became postwar British youth personified — proud, unafraid and rebellious, yet several steps short of offensive.
Epstein understood that the road to commercial success ran through London. But guitar bands from distant Liverpool were a tough sell to entertainment moguls certain that the only worthwhile show business acts were born or bred in the British capital. After being rejected by both EMI and Decca, conglomerates that controlled some 80 percent of recorded music in Britain, Epstein stumbled across a producer at Parlophone, one of EMI’s lesser labels.
Like Epstein, George Martin, a classically trained musician, was taken by the band’s wit and charisma — so charmed that he allowed them to record their own songs, taught them how to polish and present their work in the recording studio, and was amazed when John Lennon and Paul McCartney started churning out strikingly original melodies with simple, passionate lyrics that mesmerized young female listeners.
By November 1963, they had sold more than 2.5 million records, had their own radio program and drew mobs of screaming teenagers at concerts who pursued them with a fierce and often scary intensity that the British press dubbed “Beatlemania.”
Their progress had been stupendous. But there was an even bigger mountain to climb.
Brian Epstein called it “Operation U.S.A.” In early November 1963, he boarded a flight to New York and booked a suite at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. He brought along Billy J. Kramer, a handsome 20-year-old singer from Liverpool whom he had recently signed and whose career was taking off thanks largely to Martin’s expertise in the recording studio and songs donated by the Lennon-McCartney hit machine. Kramer was there to look good and help charm the parade of New York journalists and music industry promoters invited to have a drink and hear about the sensational new British band.
The uniform response was, “So what?” Kramer would recall in his memoir, “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” They knew that no British pop music group had ever hit it big in America. “They didn’t seem to be overly impressed.”
An old friend from Liverpool introduced Epstein to David Garrard Lowe, a young journalist with Look magazine who was smitten by Epstein’s intelligence and panache. But Lowe’s editor said he would never publish photos of long-haired men in the magazine. “He looked down at the photos like it was nothing,” Lowe recalled in a phone interview.
If Epstein was disappointed, he didn’t show it. “I think that America is ready for the Beatles,” he told New Yorker writer Thomas Whiteside for a Talk of the Town piece that Lowe helped arrange. “When they come, they will hit this country for six.”
Epstein’s main objective was to close a deal for the Beatles to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” America’s top-rated TV variety program. Sullivan was primed for an agreement. He said he and his wife, Sylvia, had been on their way home from a London vacation when their flight was delayed for three hours while thousands of youngsters engulfed the airport runways to welcome the Beatles home from a brief concert tour in Sweden. “Who the hell are the Beatles?” Sullivan reputedly demanded.
Before becoming a television impresario, Sullivan had worked as a sports reporter and a Broadway columnist, and he prided himself on his journalistic instincts. “Because I am a newspaperman, whenever a Page 1 phenomenon occurs — whether it involves an unknown Presley — or the unknown Beatles … my newspaper training instinctively translates a Page 1 story into a Page 1 showbiz attraction,” he boasted in a letter to British entertainment mogul Leslie Grade.
Epstein and Sullivan met on Nov. 11 at Sullivan’s apartment at the Delmonico Hotel. Sullivan had paid Presley $50,000 for three performances in 1956 and 1957 to woo the young Memphis sensation away from rival TV shows. But he only offered the Beatles $7,000 plus airfare and lodging for two appearances, one in New York on Feb. 9, 1964, and a second the following Sunday in a special broadcast from the Deauville Hotel in Miami. Epstein agreed to the terms but insisted that the Beatles get top billing for both shows. Sullivan hesitated. Precht, Sullivan’s producer, told him it would be “ridiculous” to give top billing to an English group virtually unknown in the United States.
When the two men met again for dinner the following evening along with Precht, they agreed to add a third, taped appearance to be broadcast on Feb. 23, after the Beatles had returned to London. The group would receive a total of $10,000. Epstein went home satisfied. “My negotiation was not about the money but the appearances,” he later explained to Tony Barrow, his hard-nosed public relations director, as Barrow recalled in his 2005 memoir. “It’s unheard of for a new band to get three bookings in a row without a string of hit records.”
Sullivan soon was complaining that the smooth-talking Epstein had outsmarted him. “Ed was really upset,” John Moffitt, associate director for the show, recalled in a taped oral history interview. Sullivan told Jack Babb, his talent coordinator: “It’s not the money, Jack. It’s who wants to see them three times? They’re a flash in the pan. They’re hot now, but, you know, we’re going to have to pay them off for that last show.”
As crucial as the Sullivan deal was, Epstein knew he needed more. The Beatles themselves had been insistent — we can’t go to America, they told Epstein, unless and until we have a hit record there. They feared, as did he, they would wind up playing in half-empty theaters or worse. Curiously, their biggest obstacle was their American record company.
Capitol Records was a Hollywood-based company famous for its glittering roster of mainstream entertainers like Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. In 1955, EMI had purchased a 95 percent interest in Capitol. The deal gave Capitol first refusal for the U.S. rights to EMI artists. But while the Beatles were producing hit after hit in Britain throughout 1963, Capitol’s executives declined to release their songs in the United States, reciting over and over the mantra that American audiences had no interest in an obscure British rock-and-roll band. Dave Dexter Jr., the man in charge of monitoring the international market for potential hits, was consistently dismissive of the Beatles, starting with “Love Me Do,” their first British single. “Alan, they’re a bunch of long-haired kids,” he told Alan Livingston, Capitol’s president. “They’re nothing. Forget it.”
Angry and frustrated, Epstein entered into a distribution deal with Vee-Jay, an obscure, Chicago-based, Black-owned record company, which released “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” to no detectable acclaim. Vee-Jay even misspelled the band’s name on the first single: “The Beattles.” Epstein then licensed “She Loves You” to Swan Records, a small Philadelphia-based label, where it too died a swift death for lack of media attention and airplay.
After he returned to London from New York, Epstein placed a call to Livingston. He told Livingston that “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles’ forthcoming release, had what he called “an American sound,” and he pleaded with Capitol’s president to give it a listen. Livingston would later claim that he heard something attractive in the song and decided to distribute it. He even agreed to Epstein’s demand that he commit $40,000 to publicizing the new single.
“I liked Brian just then on the telephone,” he recalled in a BBC interview published in 2000. “He was a gentleman, and he was persuasive.”
Perhaps so. But a more plausible account came from Paul Marshall, an American entertainment lawyer working with EMI. He said company chairman Joseph Lockwood was keenly aware that Beatles songs were raking in several million pounds in Britain and believed they could do the same in America. Asked once by Time magazine what his favorite records were, Lockwood replied, “The ones that sell.” Capitol’s knee-jerk rejection mystified him. He finally dispatched EMI Managing Director L.G. Wood to New York for a showdown with Livingston. “L.G. wasn’t asking anymore,” Marshall told Beatles biographer Bob Spitz. “He told Alan, ‘You must take it.’”
One factor working in the Beatles’ favor was that the American press and media were finally beginning to take notice of the band as a cultural phenomenon. A small New York Times piece reported on the wild scene at London Airport that Ed Sullivan had claimed to have witnessed in late October. The CBS and NBC nightly news programs quickly picked up on the excitement, albeit with jaundiced eyes. “One reason for the Beatles’ popularity is that it is almost impossible to hear them,” concluded NBC’s Edwin Newman in the first of many network news reports on the band’s soaring success.
The still dubious Capitol execs set a release date of Jan. 12, 1964, for “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and initially planned to press only 5,000 copies. But the American public refused to wait. After watching a four-minute report on Beatlemania in Britain on “CBS Evening News” in early December, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Md., wrote a letter to her local radio disc jockey Carroll James of WWDC-AM pleading, “Why can’t we have this music in America?” James had a stewardess friend working for the British Overseas Airways Corp. bring him a copy of the disc on her next flight to Dulles. He invited Marsha to introduce it on air, then put the record into heavy rotation every night on his evening program. He also distributed unauthorized tapes to disc jockeys in Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. When attorneys for Capitol Records demanded that Carroll cease and desist, he ignored them.
Finally succumbing to reality, Capitol moved the release date from Jan. 12 to Dec. 26 and frantically increased its order. Capitol also ordered 5 million “The Beatles Are Coming!” stickers that it handed out all over the country and commanded its male office staff to wear Beatles wigs at work. But even Livingston later admitted that Capitol’s last-minute spending spree was a minor factor in the Beatles’ sudden success. By Jan. 10, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had sold a million copies and was No. 1 on the Cashbox charts. And Capitol’s release of its “Meet the Beatles” album reached No. 1 by the time the band arrived in New York.
Press coverage mushroomed, aided by some untraditional sources. Life magazine editor George Hunt commissioned a five-page spread in January after his teenage daughter made him stop the car so that she could listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” uninterrupted by highway overpasses.
Far more important was the positive verdict of Top 40 AM radio. New York’s three main Top 40 stations — WABC, WMCA and their aggressive pint-size competitor, WINS, led by the incomparably frenzied “Murray the K” Kaufman — created urgent “Beatles Watches,” playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and every other Beatles cut from the new album or from Vee-Jay reissues that they could get their hands on. When the Beatles left for New York, the three stations counted down the hours until the plane landed at JFK, broadcasting live updates from the besieged airport.
“What sells records is radio,” Capitol executive Brown Meggs told the New York Times. “The Beatles got unbelievable radio play. There wasn’t a single market in the country in which the airplay wasn’t simply stupendous.”
The two weeks in New York, Washington and Miami launched the Beatles to international fame. During the first three months of 1964, they were estimated to have accounted for 60 percent of all the records sold in the United States. They had 19 songs in the Top 40 that year and sold 25 million records.
It was the first American visit that had made it all seem inevitable, Paul McCartney wrote in his recent book, “1964: Eyes of the Storm.” “By the end of February 1964, after our visit to America, and three appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ we finally had to admit that we would not, as we had originally feared, just fizzle out as many groups do. We were in the vanguard of something more momentous, a revolution in the culture.”
And one of his favorite memories, McCartney once told the BBC, was of the man in charge: “Brian in his polka-dot scarf at the back of the crowd, holding himself very proud of his boys.”
Glenn Frankel, The Post’s former London bureau chief, is writing a book about Brian Epstein and the rise of the Beatles.