On Sunday, February 9, 1964, most of the young Beatles fans who tuned in to watch that historic live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show had only been aware of the Fab Four for a month, or so. Only the most avid pop music aficionados knew much about them before their first big hit in the USA, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (B-side: “I Saw Her Standing There”), was released on December 26, 1963. How it came to be released that day is a story for another time.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” took off like a rocket. It hit No. 1 on the American pop chart just eight days before that first television appearance launched Beatlemania in the USA.
On the other hand, the frenzy had been underway for some time across the pond. The feature film that gathered the Beatlemania phenomenon, to present it on the big screen -- “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) -- was conceived and planned out well before the Beatles left England to conquer America, via the CBS Television network. With Richard Lester as their director the rock ‘n’ roll quartet from Liverpool was working on shooting the movie a couple of weeks later.
Prior to that, here's a smattering of history: In August of 1960 the pre-Ringo Beatles arrived in Hamburg to polish their act; in October of 1961 Polydor released "My Bonnie" in West Germany. In November of 1961 the Beatles began playing regularly in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, among other venues. On their first tour of the UK, in early-1963, the Beatles were on an eleven-act bill, headed up the 16-year old Helen Shapiro. They played a lot of live gigs during 1963, sold plenty of records and became the most important musicians in Great Britain before the year was out.
Now folks might ask, who was Helen Shapiro? On November 4, 1963, at the Royal Variety Show, before real royalty, before closing with their cover of “Twist and Shout,” the founder of the Beatles, John Lennon, announced, “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
As for America, the Beatles' timing was perfect. Their peppy, jangling harmonies and harmless sarcasm broke through the fog of depression that had engulfed the USA, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, just a month before the Beatles double-sided hit 45 was released here.
In the gloom of that winter, 50 years ago, this country surely needed something fresh to lift its spirits. Before or since, there’s never been a popular culture explosion to equal the Beatlemania phenomenon of 1964.
The previous fan frenzies over singers in America, such as those that associated with Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and Elvis Presley in the 1950s, had surrounded individuals who sang songs written by tune-smiths in front of sidemen. Beatlemania was something new, it was about a rock 'n' roll band singing in harmony, like gospel singers or doo-wop groups. By featuring the collaborative aspects of the band's sound and image, together with the integral contribution of its two main songwriters, it showed everybody a picture of where pop music was going.