On February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and started the phenomenon which became Beatlemania. But two months before, in December 1963, the virtually unknown band was featured on the CBS nightly News with Walter Cronkite. It was their first introduction to the American public.
On November 22, 1963, CBS was set to air a segment on some shaggy-haired British musicians named John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who were filmed in a Bournemouth, England concert before screaming fans. There was a brief interview segment, too. The four minute film appeared on the CBS Morning News with Mike Wallace but before it could be shown on the Evening News, CBS canceled all regular programming for the day after Walter Cronkite broke in with news that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas.
After three weeks, Cronkite thought that the American public was ready for some lighter news stories. On December 10, during his nightly news broadcast, Cronkite ran the segment that had been shelved earlier.
The Beatles had just been signed to a contract with Capitol Records (after being rejected four previous times) and none of their songs had as yet been played in the U.S. Ed Sullivan was watching the broadcast and phoned Cronkite after the show. He had already signed,what he perceived to be a novelty act, to three appearances on his show starting in February, through the sheer persistence of their manager, Brian Epstein. But a 15 year old girl watching the CBS piece on tv in Silver Springs, Maryland inadvertently propelled the Beatles to a meteoric rise in popularity. Impressed with the band’s music, Marsha Albert writes a letter to her local disc jockey at WWRC in Washington, D.C. She asks Carroll James, “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?”
Though he has never heard of the Beatles, James gets a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sent to him by a friend in England via a BOAC stewardess, five days after he receives the teenager’s letter. The night of December 17, Marsha Albert, is invited to the radio station and introduces the record by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, for the first time on the air in the United States, here are the Beatles singing, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
By the next day, record stores were flooded with requests for the song. When Capitol Records in Los Angeles hears that the record that they haven’t even released yet is getting heavy air-play on the east coast, they threaten the Washington radio station with a lawsuit. But luckily, cooler heads prevailed and Capitol decides to rush the record into print and it is released the day after Christmas. Because of Christmas vacation, kids are able to stay home and listen to the radio. The record had been hand delivered to prominent radio stations across the country and was being played heavily.
By January 10, 1964, one month after Walter Cronkite ran a four minute film about some little-known boys in a
British band, the Beatles were becoming a phenomenon. In the two week period since the December 26 release of their record, they sold an astonishing one million copies in the United States. Capitol records started sending out “The Beatles are Coming!” promotional stickers in preparation for the lads’ upcoming appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Within three weeks of its release, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” goes to #1 on the Billboard charts. By the time they make their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles had an enthusiastic audience of 73 million people.
In an incredible string of events, the Beatles leaped into America’s consciousness and have never left. The late Walter Cronkite admitted to being proud of his contribution in paving the way for the Beatles’ initial success in the U.S. The news man wanted to soothe and cheer a tragedy weary nation and in doing so, sped the success and influence of the Beatles through the country and helped propel them into music history.
Sources: The Huffington Post, Martin Lewis: “Tweet the Beatles!”