On February 9, 1964, the world changed. Not just the world of music, but everything else as well. That was the day the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and all of America saw them for the first time.
I first heard the Beatles, like most everyone else in the United States, on the radio in early 1964. I had just gotten out of the Air Force, just missed having to go to Vietnam, and was studying in college, working on a degree. I would listen to the radio while I studied and remember the Beatles suddenly being played a lot.
In February of 1964, they seemed to take over the airwaves. They ended up performing on the Ed Sullivan Show nine times over the next several months. Ed Sullivan was one of the highest rated shows on television. I can remember sitting in the living room with my mother watching the show and thinking, “Here was something new” We, in America, had not seen anything like the Beatles before.
The Beatles recorded on EMI Records in Britain at the time. The American equivalent of EMI was Capitol Records. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, wanted the group to break out in America. They had already hit number one several times in England and it was time to show America what it was missing. But, Capitol was dragging it’s feet. It just didn’t think the Beatles would be popular in the the United States. Just shows you how wrong people can be sometimes.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was written in the basement of Jane Asher’s home. Asher was Paul’s girlfriend at the time. John and Paul wrote the song together, just like they did many of the Beatles songs. The song was released in Britain, but was kept out of the number one spot for two weeks because their previous song “She Loves You” was holding down the top spot. In America, it happened just the opposite with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” hitting the top first.
Epstein got the ball rolling when he ran into a representative of the Ed Sullivan Show in a London airport and made arrangements for the group to perform on the show live. They agreed to do two shows, one on February 9 and another on February 16th. (There would be more, later) A disc jockey, Carroll James of radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C. got a copy of a British version of the song and began playing it. James was the first person to play a Beatles song on American radio. As they say, the listening audience went wild.
To quote Fred Bronson, in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, “The impact of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ cannot be under-estimated. Next to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ it is the most significant single of the rock and roll era.” Because of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the entire future of music changed. Almost everyone who came after the Beatles were affected by them in some way.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the Beatles biggest selling single ever, selling over 12 million copies worldwide. It entered the pop charts in America on January 18, 1964 and by February 1, it had reached number one where it stayed for seven weeks, becoming the biggest hit of 1964.
Here is the live performance from The Ed Sullivan Show: