Fifty years after The Beatles’ historic Feb. 7, 1964, arrival in New York, it’s no surprise that for many their early success in America is still best explained as an antidote to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The enthusiasm The Beatles aroused, especially in 1964, was so outsized that it remains hard to attribute it just to their music and personalities.
The problem with such thinking is that it distorts both The Beatles’ talent and America culture in the year after John Kennedy’s death. The Beatles of 1964 were unique, but the joy they embodied was not.
When it came to pop music in 1964, there was plenty to listen to that was upbeat and fun in addition to The Beatles. The year 1964 was, after all, a time when Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was thriving on national television, and the Supremes’ “Baby Love,” The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” were all mega-hits.
Television had a similar range of upbeat programs. Among the top 20 shows for the 1963-64 season were such sitcoms as The Andy Griffith Show, set in timeless, rural Mayberry, My Favorite Martian, with its interplanetary hijinks, and The Beverly Hillbillies, a satire in which the, backwoods Clampetts, suddenly made rich by the discovery of oil on their land, continually prove smarter than their disapproving Beverly Hills neighbors.
Even many of 1964’s top grossing films were essentially dream fantasies. Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews as the nanny who can fly, and My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn as fetching Eliza Doolittle, were among Hollywood’s biggest successes in 1964.
The Beatles were a good fit in this environment, and when on Feb. 9 they made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, they didn’t disappoint. The show received 50,000 ticket requests for a theater with just 728 seats, and that Sunday night 73 million viewers, a record at that time, tuned in to watch The Beatles.
Unlike Bob Dylan, who a year earlier cancelled his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show when a CBS executive tried to dictate what he sang, The Beatles were accommodating from start to finish. The five songs they performed included one from Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” plus such future standards of their own as “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
In this context it is hard to believe The Beatles benefited uniquely from the nation’s desire to move beyond its memory of the brutal death of Kennedy. What is striking about The Beatles’ first trip to America is how quickly they adapted to the adulation that surrounded them.
At their arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which was renamed for the late president just before Christmas, The Beatles seemed overwhelmed by the teenage crowd and media waiting for them. Only Paul, who is pictured with one arm around John and the other waving to fans, appears caught up in the moment.
Five days later, though, The Beatles were completely relaxed. At a meeting in Miami with Muhammad Ali (still Cassius Clay), then training for his upcoming title fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, The Beatles were uninhibited in their horseplay. For one picture, they line up next to Ali, and when he pretends to hit George on the chin, they all snap their heads back in unison as if the blow had set off a chain reaction among the four of them.
The joke—a corny one— was more like a stunt that high school kids would dream up, and that was the point of it. The Beatles weren’t about to start taking themselves seriously just because they were in the spotlight. Their special appeal, they instinctively understood, was being in on the fun they generated. They didn’t require a tragedy to win over fans.