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As we mourn the passing of the remarkable Walter Cronkite — my mind goes back to the first time I met him — and how I learned about his unheralded, but crucial, role in the breakthrough of the Beatles in America.
For the title of this essay is true in its broadest sense. Walter Cronkite set in motion the 1960s equivalent of the Beatles going viral.
A full two months before Americans “met the Beatles” on the Ed Sullivan Show — Americans met them on Cronkite. He made the decision that “tweeted” (via TV in those days) the Fab Four to the American masses — and triggered the series of remarkable events that led to 73 million people tuning in to see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday February 9th 1964.
Yes I know that the popular misconception is that the Bea
tles achieved their U.S. breakthrough because of the Ed Sullivan Show. But that is actually completely erroneous. Think about it… How could four totally unknown foreign kids command a then record-breaking TV audience of 73 million — which was 40% of the US population? The equivalent of a TV audience today of 123 million.
The answer is that the Beatles weren’t unknown in the U.S. by February 9th 1964. They had already been #1 on the U.S. charts for three weeks when that first Sullivan show aired. And that was almost entirely because they had been “tweeted” across America by Walter Cronkite on his TV news broadcast on a chilly winter night in 1963.
It was a chilly winter night 37 years later that I had the privilege of meeting this legendary broadcaster. Monday November 13, 2000. It was in New York City at the Manhattan Center. The Creative Coalition was honoring Cronkite and my pal Paul Shaffer with awards for their contributions to the arts. I was there lending a hand in the production of a musical tribute to Paul — a performance by one of Paul’s musician heroes — jazz great McCoy Tyner. Once I had ensured that McCoy was happily set-up for his performance — I made my way to the VIP reception where Walter Cronkite was holding court as a procession of well-wishers came by to pay their respects. I waited as folks such as Christopher Reeve, Richard Belzer, Ron Reagan and William Baldwin trooped by and greeted this American icon.
When my turn came to be introduced, I found myself immediately charmed by his twinkling eyes and warm presence. I asked him his recollections about the Beatles and he told me of a telephone conversation he’d had with Ed Sullivan after Sullivan had seen the Beatles on his news broadcast two months before their arrival in the US. I wanted to hear more — but awards show receptions aren’t conducive to long conversations — so I made way for the next admirer — intrigued by what he’d told me.
Three years later I found myself working with friend and fellow Beatles aficionado Steven Van Zandt on a grand salute to the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. — which we dubbed The Fab Forty. I’m a well-known Beatle-nut, but you can never know too much about the Fab Four, so as part of my research for our grand event I voraciously re-read every published account of that 1964 trip. I found myself increasingly fascinated by the incredible set of events that led to the Beatles’ US breakthrough.
One new book titled The Beatles Are Coming did a very effective job of piecing together the story and it inspired me to write an essay at the time that distilled all the known research and recently unearthed facts of this momentous event in pop culture.
It helped bring into focus for me that — alongside Beatles manager Brian Epstein — one of the true heroes of the Beatles’ initial success in America was undoubtedly Walter Cronkite.
I remember conveying this revelation to Walter Cronkite’s dependable longtime right hand — Marlene Adler. Steven and I were about to throw a raucous Beatles 40th anniversary party at New York’s Hard Rock Café. I instinctively knew that our bash would not be a setting where the then 87-year-old broadcaster would be comfortable. Too loud… Too crowded…
So instead I sent him a copy of the DVD that had just been released of all the Beatles performances on the Sullivan show with a note that congratulated him on his essential part in the story. Marlene told me that “Mr. Cronkite” as she unfailingly called him, was indeed incredibly proud of his role in the Beatles’ breakthrough in America. As he had every right to be.
I realize that Walter Cronkite’s role in the Beatles’ breakthrough is still comparatively under-sung. So I have dusted off my essay from five years ago, tweaked it a little — and I present it here as my little tribute to the late — but in Beatles terms incredibly early – Walter Cronkite.
HOW WALTER CRONKITE HELPED THE BEATLES CONQUER AMERICA
The story of how the Beatles first became successful in America is a fascinating tale – filled with astonishing coincidences. And more than a little help from Walter Cronkite… It’s a story that very few people know.
They went from being virtual unknowns to mega-star status in just six weeks. On Christmas Day 1963 – practically no one in the US had ever heard of them.
By Sunday February 9th 1964, interest in the Beatles was so intense that a record audience of 73 million viewers tuned in to see the group’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. (That was a staggering 40% of the US population at the time. The equivalent today of an audience of 123 million.)
How did it happen? Was it the music alone? The novelty of the haircuts? A nation yearning for something uplifting after the tragedy of President John Kennedy’s assassination? A brilliant marketing scheme by their record company?
All of those elements played their part. And there was definitely a marketing campaign prepared by Capitol Records. But the Beatles also owe their initial success to a series of extraordinary events triggered by a decision made by Walter Cronkite.
It was a decision that resulted in a major TV segment about the Beatles airing on his CBS news broadcast on December 10th 1963 – two full months before the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That TV segment inspired an enthusiastic 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Maryland to do something that caused the record company’s entire carefully-calibrated timetable to be suddenly thrown out of the window and be brought forward by three weeks – much to the benefit of the Beatles.
This narrative explains the entire story in chronological sequence.
April 1st 1963 – October 31st 1963
In this 7-month period the Beatles go from being comparative unknowns in the UK to the most successful entertainers in British history. They become a phenomenon selling millions of records. They also conquer Europe.
But the Holy Grail of American success eludes the Beatles. Though there have occasionally been British records that have climbed the US charts – no UK act has ever achieved sustained success. So US record companies are naturally skeptical about the Beatles. Capitol Records – the US affiliate of the Beatles’ UK label (EMI) – itself rejects the Beatles four times during 1963 – despite their British success. Two small independent American record companies (Vee-Jay and Swan) release Beatles records – but with no success. At this point their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin are beginning to despair. Then fate takes a hand…
Friday October 31st 1963
A chance encounter changes the Beatles’ fortunes forever. Influential American TV variety show host Ed Sullivan is traveling to London Airport and his arrival is delayed by a riot of youngsters who are there to welcome the Beatles home from a tour of Sweden. Sullivan is intrigued by the fervor for this British rock ‘n’ roll group with the strange haircuts – and considers booking them for his show. Though at this point he probably envisions them making a single appearance as a quaint novelty act. A group of long-haired kids from stuffy old England having the temerity to try and play America’s own music…
Tuesday November 5th 1963
Beatles manager Brian Epstein travels to New York for a previously-scheduled business trip. He arranges to meet Ed Sullivan on Monday November 11th and Tuesday November 12th. Though the group has no American record deal or prospects – Epstein persuades Sullivan to book his group for what will be an unprecedented three consecutive appearances on the show. Even more remarkably – without making a firm commitment on the point – Sullivan agrees to consider Epstein’s passionate insistence that his unkn
own artists should headline the three shows. The first two shows are set for Sundays February 9th and 16th. (The third show is subsequently scheduled for February 23rd)
Mid-late November 1963
Epstein telephones the President of Capitol Records in Los Angeles and asks why the label keeps rejecting his group. Intrigued about a group whose recordings he has never heard (the rejections have been by a subordinate) the label president – Alan Livingston – decides to appraise the Beatles’ latest record. He listens and then decides to over-rule his staff and sign the group. Skillfully using the promotional opportunity he has created of the three upcoming appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show – Epstein persuades Livingston to commit to a substantial promotional budget to launch the group. He convinces Livingston to spend $40,000 – a gigantic sum in those days for promotion. ($40,000 is the equivalent today of $250,000)
Saturday November 16th 1963
Determined to spark American interest in their upcoming US debut, Beatles manager Brian Epstein persuades Alexander Kendrick – head of the London bureau of CBS News – to shoot a news story for America about the phenomenon of Beatlemania that has engulfed Britain. So on this day – CBS sends a news crew to the quaint British seaside resort of Bournemouth where they film a Beatles concert and thousands of screaming teenage fans. They also grab a few soundbites from the Beatles. It will be the first major TV news story and interview with the Beatles to air in the USA. The film is edited in London and flown to New York to be broadcast.
Friday November 22nd 1963
It is customary then – as now – that TV news divisions amortize their costs by airing filmed news stories in more than one show. CBS News would often air a film segment on its mid-morning CBS Morning News – and then repeat it that night for the different audience that would watch the CBS Evening News. The Beatles film story airs on this day on CBS Morning News – hosted by Mike Wallace. Just two hours later President Kennedy is assassinated and all normal programming is suspended. There is no CBS Evening News that night – and the film can containing the Beatles segment is put away on a shelf…
Wednesday December 4th 1963
Capitol Records issues a barely-noticed press release announcing that it has acquired US rights to a young British music combo called The Beatles. Following conventional wisdom that it is pointless to issue new product in the holiday season – the Beatles’ first Capitol release “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is scheduled for Monday January 13th. The Beatles are set to make the first of their three Ed Sullivan Show appearances just three weeks later – on Sunday February 9th
In those days – even the most successful new record would usually take a minimum of 6-8 weeks to climb the charts. So the most optimistic expectation of Capitol Records (at the time the release date was chosen) was that the first Beatles record MIGHT reach the Top 75 by February 9 – the date of the first scheduled Ed Sullivan appearance. And then those three Ed Sullivan appearances might then help propel the Beatles’ record further up the chart.
There was certainly NO expectation that the Beatles might reach #1 by the time of their arrival in America. That would have been an insanely ludicrous aspiration. Nor that there might be any airport welcome, screaming fans or record-breaking TV audience. None of that would be remotely likely to happen in the short 3 weeks between the scheduled record release date and the date of the first Sullivan appearance. The forthcoming Ed Sullivan Show appearances are perceived as a device that may help make Americans become aware of this brand new group. That it might actually turn out to be a platform for the group to head into the stratosphere (having already reached #1 in America) is such an impossibility that it is just not on anyone’s radar.
Tuesday December 10th 1963
Just as TV executives in 2001 waited for an appropriate passage of time to elapse after 9/11 before resuming normal programming – so TV news executives in 1963 waited for the right time to introduce lighter stories to relieve the deep post-assassination gloom. On December 10th – CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite feels that a nation recovering from the tragedy might be warmed by a light-hearted story. He recalls that there had been a fun film story from England about some long-haired musicians that had been shelved a few weeks earlier because of the tragic events in Dallas. He decides to air the story that night. It is a fateful decision for the Beatles…
Watching Walter Cronkite present the 4-minute story about the Beatles on the CBS Evening News that night is a 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her name is Marsha Albert. And the chord that the Beatles strikes inside her – is about to accelerate the coming Beatles invasion to warp speed…
Wednesday December 11th 1963
Excited by the music of the Beatles that she experienced on the CBS Evening News – Marsha Albert writes to her local deejay – Carroll James, a disc jockey at Washington’s WWDC radio station. She asks: “why can’t we have music like that here in America?”
Thursday December 12th 1963
DJ Carroll James receives the letter. He too had seen the broadcast on CBS Evening News. He has never heard of the group. And he is oblivious to the fact that an American record company is planning to release a record by this British group in a month’s time. The radio station policy is to try and please its listeners. So he resolves to find a disc by the Beatles. Since they are a success in their British homeland – he phones a contact in the DC offices of the British national airline (then named “BOAC” – now named “BA”.) The friend arranges to have a member of the BOAC flight crew (then named “stewardesses” – now named “flight attendants”) bring a copy of the latest Beatles record to Washington. A stewardess brings a Beatles disc to Washington two days later.
Tuesday December 17th 1963
Having received a copy of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” from England – Carroll James decides that its US premiere should be introduced by the young girl who had requested the record. He contacts Marsha Albert and invites her to the WWDC studios. She introduces the record with the words “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.'” (An audiotape of this historic moment has survived and can be heard here)
The oft-used expression “the phones lit up” does not begin to describe the reaction that WWDC experiences. Listeners phone in repeatedly to request the song. Carroll James and the radio station react by placing their solitary copy of the record in heavy rotation. The frequent playing of the record elicits even more listener response.
Wednesday December 18th 1963
Listeners start bombarding Washington record stores with requests for a record and artist that none of the stores have even heard of. The grassroots reaction has begun…
Thursday December 19th 1963
Executives at Capitol Records HQ in Los Angeles discover that a major Washington radio station is giving very heavy airplay to an imported copy of a record not due for release for another month. Anxious that this breach will damage its carefully timed game-plan – the first reaction of the record company is to request that the station STOPS playing the record! When the station indignantly refuses – the record company even hires an attorney to threaten a “cease and desist” order on the defiant station. Fortunately for the record company
– and the Beatles – a wiser decision is made…
Friday December 20th 1963
Capitol Records President Alan Livingston ruminates that since record companies spend most of their time trying to get radio stations to PLAY records – that threatening a lawsuit to try to STOP a station playing a record is foolish. He makes a radical decision. Though the Beatles’ record is not scheduled for release for another 3 weeks – and record companies never release new product in the period between Christmas and New Year – Livingston thinks that the incredible reaction in DC to the disc warrants the most unconventional of approaches. He orders that the record be rush-released on the very earliest date.
Because the manufacturing elements are already at the factories in preparation for the mid-January release – the company is able to effect the release in just one short week. Christmas leave for the staff of Capitol Records is canceled – and the machinery goes into overdrive.
Thursday December 26th 1963
The day after Christmas, radio promotion men from Capitol Records commence delivering the disc to radio stations in-person. The reaction is instantaneous. In New York City for example – the records are delivered at approx. 9am. By midday, three of the most influential radio stations (WMCA, WABC and WINS) are playing the record as incessantly as the Washington station. Major stations in other cities rapidly follow suit.
A crucial benefit of the spur-of-the-moment decision to rush-release the record the day after Christmas is about to manifest itself. During the Christmas vacation kids are out of school and at home – able to listen to the radio all day. That winter, most schools do not recommence till Monday January 6th – so for ten consecutive days that shook the American world – kids hear “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on their radios. (Had the record been issued on January 13th as originally scheduled – kids could not have heard the record at anything like the same frequency.) The impact on America’s kids of exposure to so much intense airplay of the Beatles soon becomes apparent. Record sales take off like wildfire. The speed is beyond anything conjured up by the phrase “going viral”
Friday January 10th 1964
Just two weeks after its first release – sales figures indicate that the Beatles have sold over ONE MILLION records in the US. It is a staggering number by a previously-unknown artist. Especially from another land. Clearly the kids are reacting instinctively to something in the music. The Capitol Records marketing campaign hits full stride now. Millions of stickers bearing the legend “The BEATLES Are Coming!” are distributed. But the campaign does not CREATE Beatlemania. It simply fans the flames of what is already there. It builds on a genuine grassroots reaction to what kids are hearing on their radios…
Thursday January 16th 1964
On this day executives at leading industry trade journal Cash Box compile the sales statistics for the record charts that will appear in the next issue of the paper. The Beatles have leapt from #43 to #1. After being on sale for exactly three weeks – the Beatles are top of the American charts! The issue of Cash Box goes on sale on Saturday January 18th (with a cover date of January 25th) The rival trade publication Billboard lists the Beatles at #3 for the same week – and at #1 the following week. The word is officially out. The Beatles are obviously an unprecedented phenomenon.
Friday January 17th – Thursday February 6th 1964
For the next three weeks – three crucial weeks – Beatlemania explodes in America. Newspapers and magazines write reams of analysis of the phenomenon. Late-night TV hosts make jokes about them. A nation still aching from the gaping, emotional wound of President Kennedy’s assassination finds a diversion. And the media reflects all this. Even though there is no MTV, no cable TV, no Internet – everyone in America knows that The Beatles Are Coming!
Friday February 7th 1964
The day finally arrives. Thousands of screaming kids waving banners descend on the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome the new conquerors. The day is dubbed B-Day to signify the Beatles Invasion – which will soon become a British Invasion.
Hundreds of cynical New York journalists crowd into a packed conference room at the airport to fire questions at this new teenage phenomenon. The universal attitude at the beginning of the press conference is that the peculiarly hirsute Beatles and the hysterical reaction to them at the airport is just another teen fad – like the Hula-Hoop. Questions are fired at the Beatles expecting them to be the stereotypical pop singers who will grunt laconic, monosyllabic answers. No one expects the exuberant, witty, self-deprecating charm of the Beatles. Gales of laughter greet their good-natured attitude. By the end of the televised press conference the Beatles have won over the toughest room in America – New York’s press corps. After that – the rest of the nation is a breeze…
Sunday February 9th 1964
The Beatles perform six songs live on The Ed Sullivan Show. The show had received 50,000 ticket applications. Only 728 lucky people get tickets. 73 MILLION people watch on TV. A staggering 40% of the population. (Equivalent today to an audience of 123 MILLION.)
If the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had been released as originally scheduled on January 13th – at a time when America’s kids were back at school – it is virtually impossible that the record could have been heard enough to generate the unprecedented momentum that drove the record to a million sales and the top of the charts in just three weeks…
If the Beatles had not been at #1 by the day they arrived in America (let alone #1 for three crucial weeks BEFORE they arrived in America) then there would never have been thousands of screaming teenagers to greet them at Kennedy Airport or outside the Plaza Hotel in NYC. Or hundreds of media scrambling to cover the Beatles at their JFK press conference. Without that hoopla – there is absolutely no chance that a record-breaking 73 million viewers would have tuned in that Sunday night.
The Beatles would still have succeeded in America. Of that there is no doubt. Their exuberant music and giddy optimism was an unstoppable force. But the sheer SPEED and MAGNITUDE of their breakthrough owes much to the unusual set of circumstances outlined above.
The heroes of this story? (apart from the Beatles of course)…
BRIAN EPSTEIN – the manager who would not take no for an answer. And who convinced Ed Sullivan to book his unknown group for three consecutive appearances as headliners. Then persuaded Capitol Records to sign and promote his band. Today he is an almost forgotten hero. You can help remedy that by signing the petition to have Brian Epstein inducted into the ‘Non-Performers Section’ of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
WALTER CRONKITE – the news anchor who wanted to cheer up America after the Kennedy assassination – and chose just the right tonic for the nation.
ED SULLIVAN – the TV host who didn’t ‘get’ the music but who instinctively understood the phenomenon – and gave it the unprecedented platform it deserved.
MARSHA ALBERT – the 15-year-old schoolgirl from Dublin Drive, Silver Spring, Maryland – who cared enough to write a letter to her local deejay…
CARROLL JAMES – the deejay who cared enough about a letter from a listener to arrange that an airline stewardess would bring him a record from London. And then refused to back down when a record company attorney
instructed him and his station to stop playing the record.
ALAN LIVINGSTON – the record company president who signed a band already rejected four times by his own company – and who had the instinct to radically change an entire marketing campaign just 5 days before Christmas.
The rest is history…
Acknowledgment: This overview of the Beatles’ American breakthrough draws on information in an excellent book titled “THE BEATLES ARE COMING! The Birth Of Beatlemania In America” by Bruce Spizer. (498 Press)
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