By Stephen Pate – Performing to a television audience of 73 million on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first of 3 performances by The Beatles changed the history of music and life for most Baby Boomers. Historic Hysterics: Witnesses to a Really Big Show New York Times.
As a 15-year-old boy in the Naval port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada I got to see it all from a distance but experienced it up close and personal. At the time, my career as a music journalist had just taken off. I was a music critic, rather unbelievably for my age, and immediately recognized how unique and exciting The Beatles were.
Fifty years later I am still here along, sadly, with only two of the original four members of The Beatles but count myself quite lucky to have been along for the ride. I may have grown up differently without The Beatles but they were, along with Bob Dylan, the two strongest musical influences in my life. And isn’t music everything?
The Beatles would have arrived earlier in North America in 1963 except another important event intervened. In 1963 The Beatles were a huge success in England, with near riots at their concerts over what the British press called Beatlemania.
On November 4, 1963 their fame had gotten them a Royal Command Performance with the Queen Mother. John Lennon with cheek told the rich people to rattle their jewelry while the poor people in the cheap seats clapped along.
The Beatles combination of musical talent, energy, humor and intelligence was noticed by everyone in England. A promotional filmed story was sent to America to be broadcast on the last week in November 1963.
At the same time, I had just landed my first job as a journalist, writing record reviews for The Halifax Mail Star. For a person of my age, I had a deep knowledge and interest in music: rock and roll, jazz, folk, and American popular music. Thanks to my journalist father I could also write in a journalistic style. The record reviews in Down Beat and Hi-Fi Stereo Review magazines were my inspiration.
My family was musical. My father had been a jazz drummer until arthritis stiffened his wrists so he gave me a guitar and drum kit. My uncle played in Don Messer’s early band and taught my mother the ukulele. A family treat was a movie musical like Oklahoma or South Pacific. I spent far too much time learning to play drums, guitar and singing but it was almost everything to me.
In 1956 when I was 7, my older brother discovered Elvis and rock and roll. He convinced me to spend my allowance buying Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry records. By the 1963, rock and roll seemed stale. Elvis, back from the army in Germany, was interested in movies. Little Richard gave up rock for religion and Chuck Berry lost his glamour after a stint in jail. Probably the biggest act in rock and roll back then were The Beach Boys, who I disliked for ripping off Chuck Berry and being bland.
My column covered rock, jazz, pop and the emerging folk music scene. While the newspaper thought I would appeal to teenagers, I wanted to have a broader audience of readers. On November 22, 1963, I was at Eaton’s where they agreed to loan me Ian and Sylvia’s record “Four Strong Winds” for my first review.
On the television in the music department, we watched the news in horror. President Kennedy had been shot. My record column had to wait and so did The Beatles news story. For a week after the assassination, everyone sat glued to the black and white TV sets, mesmerized and depressed by the death of President Kennedy. It cast a pall over everything.
But life goes on and two weeks later my first column was published in the paper. An American TV station eager for some good news broadcast the story about The Beatles in December 1963 and the wheels started in motion to bring them to the United States. The following Huntley Brinkley report was dated November 18, 1963 but it was largely ignored until they re-broadcast it.
When the year turned 1964, there was a need for something upbeat to dispel the pall of disillusionment and depression in America. How could someone kill the President?
The Beatles were the answer because they were fresh, energetic, very funny and the music was infectious. The strange thing was, of course, it was American rock and roll with a British accent. However, The Beatles were not afraid of Black music while radio stations in Canada and the US were mostly racially segregated.
In Halifax, we only got an hour or two a day of the most bland rock and roll imaginable. There’s that word again – bland one of my clichés about music pre-Beatles. CHNS was the only radio station in Halifax to play rock and roll and you would never hear James Brown there. Halifax was racially divided with Blacks near the bottom of the social ladder. If you wanted to hear really good music, which meant R&B, you had to slip down to the Black neighborhoods where you could catch some rhythm and blues.
All that changed in February 1964 with the Ed Sullivan Show broadcast. I knew who The Beatles were before they arrived on TV but it was a thrilling moment I will likely never forget. Some people say it didn’t matter to them but to hundreds of millions of people it mattered. The Beatles had 7 years to create their musical heritage and my life as a writer started like the shot out of a cannon.
For the inside the music business story about The Beatles arrival 50 years ago, check out How the Beatles Went Viral: Blunders, Technology & Luck Broke the Fab Four in America.
The Beatles tell their own story in The Beatles Anthology.
By Stephen Pate, NJN Network