By the time John, Paul, George, and Ringo walked off the steps of Pan Am Flight 101 to New York, manager Brian Epstein's makeover of the four boys was complete.
Gone were the teenagers with ducktail haircuts who wore leather jackets while cursing and eating onstage. They now had matching mop tops, black suits, skinny ties, and boots as they walked through John F. Kennedy Airport, where they were greeted by thousands of screaming fans.
It was Feb. 7, 1964. Americans were already a generation removed from the golden age of big band. Elvis Presley had released his first single 10 years earlier. The United States was ready for something different, and on that Friday the country welcomed these four musicians who would change the music industry forever.
At their airport press conference, the bandmates quickly introduced the country to their wit and charm with their answers to reporters' questions.
Reporter: Have you decided when you're going to retire?
John: Next week.
John: No, we don't know.
Ringo: We're going to keep going as long as we can.
George: When we get fed up with it, you know. We're still enjoying it.
Ringo: Any minute now.
Fan: Would you please sing something?
Reporter: There's some doubt that you can sing.
John: No, we need money first.
Reporter: What do you think of Beethoven?
Ringo: Great. Especially his poems.
The boys were then whisked away in limos and taken to the Plaza Hotel. On Saturday, John, Paul, and Ringo explored Central Park and rehearsed for their upcoming television performance while George stayed in the hotel, recovering from a fever.
What was then the largest audience in television history—more than 73 million viewers—tuned in to see the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Sunday night, their first American television appearance.
With the two-beat pickup of “All My Loving,” the British Invasion had arrived. Beatlemania was alive and well, and here to stay.
Fifty years to the weekend, Beatles fans will gather at the Grand Hyatt Hotel for the 40th annual Fest for Beatles Fans to celebrate the Fab Four's arrival in the United States.
In 1974, Mark Lapidos, founder of the Fest, met with John Lennon to explain to him his idea of a fan celebration for the 10th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival. Lennon told Lapidos, “I'm a Beatles fan too,” and even donated an autographed guitar for a charity raffle.
“It started out as a one-convention idea in '74,” Lapidos said in an interview at the beginning of January. “We made the cover of Rolling Stone and we started getting letters from all over the country. We decided to branch out, so we went to the West Coast—Los Angeles and San Francisco—and Chicago in 1977 and every year since, and we're going back there in October.”
After the band signed a licensing agreement in 1983, The Fest for Beatles Fans began selling merchandise and is now the world's largest Beatles shop. The company is also organizing NYC Fabmania Week, starting Feb. 3, during which restaurants and stores hold Beatles-related activities.
This year's Fest will be at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, once called the Commodore Hotel—the venue of the first Fest. As always, there will be dance parties, music contests, lectures, and ballrooms full of vendors selling Beatles memorabilia. The convention will also feature a star-studded lineup of guests.
British Invasion musicians Chad & Jeremy will perform, as will Peter Asher, half of the British pop duo Peter and Gordon. The duo's hit, “A World Without Love,” was written by Paul McCartney—Asher's sister's boyfriend at the time. Lectures will include “Meditation and the White Album,” to be led by Scottish musician Donovan and Prudence Farrow—the inspiration for “Dear Prudence,” the song Lennon wrote when the Beatles traveled to India to study meditation.
New to this year's fest is a recreation of the Cavern Club, the underground venue in Liverpool where the Quarrymen became the Beatles in the late 1950s. Lapidos said the Cavern exhibit will be geared toward younger fans as it will host up-and-coming musicians, fashion designers, and DJs, all inspired by the Fab Four.
“The Beatles were the most popular entertainment phenomenon of all time—the biggest, the best. They cannot be topped or equaled—the world is different now,” Lapidos said. “Young people get the message of peace and love. It really is the greatest music I've ever heard.”
That popularity shows in the sheer amount of Beatles-related events scheduled for the coming days. Among them is one in nearby West Harlem that will allow fans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' New York arrival.
On Feb. 6, the Apollo Theater will hold “Twist & Shout: NYC Celebrates the Beatles,” a concert that will feature Dionne Warwick and, among others, Kitoto Von Hebb, daughter of Bobby Hebb, a singer-songwriter who toured with the Beatles in 1966.
“Music back then was about the music, was about a message, was about what was in the heart,” Von Hebb said. “Back then—music of the '60s—times were changing so drastically, and artists needed to express themselves. Everybody knows about the Beatles. They changed the face of music, and so they should definitely be celebrated.”
For many Beatles fans, time has not lessened their fascination with the innovative band that continues to stay relevant in 2014.
“What's interesting to me is that more than 50 percent of my listeners are under 25,” Ken Dashow, host of the radio show Breakfast with the Beatles on Q104.3, said in January. While many are impressed by their meteoric rise to fame in America, it is the Beatles' staying power that Dashow finds most interesting. “The third generation loves them as much as the first. And that's just stunning to me,” he said.
In the years after 1964, the Beatles and their music drastically evolved. They went from tailored black suits to the brown suede jackets of “Rubber Soul,” from the mop top to the mustache, from Buddy Holly covers to original masterpieces. But they always kept the familiarity that has made it possible for fans to refer to them as simply John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
“The difference with the Beatles and every other band is that in three years they went from she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,' to the song Tomorrow Never Knows,' which begins, Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying,'” Dashow said. “They grew so fast, by leaps and bounds—every album the band did changed with the times and it became where the world was almost following them, instead of them following the world, and now we have experts following them. It was a remarkable thing.”
Listeners today continue to form new relationships with the Beatles.
The summer before ninth grade I saw the cover band Strawberry Fields perform at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square. I didn't know anything about the Beatles—I couldn't even name one song—but seeing their music performed live made me want to find out more.
That was when my fascination started. In high school, I listened only to the Beatles, constantly read about them, watched “A Hard Day's Night” and “Help!” once a week (I can still recite most of the dialogue), learned how to play all of their songs on guitar and piano, decorated my locker with their pictures, and collected Beatles T-shirts (I think I have about 12 now). My family band, the Waffles, has even performed Beatles cover songs at restaurants, a hospital, and assisted living centers.
It's hard to believe that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were together for less than a decade. In that time, they expanded upon their original format of two guitars, a bass, and drums and took album recording production to a place it had never been.
The record-breaking attendance at their Shea Stadium concert was a model for future stadium concerts. When I saw Paul McCartney perform at Citi Field in 2009, I was as thrilled to see him as any teenager would have been at Shea in 1964.
Fifty years later, London tourists continue to re-enact the Abbey Road album cover, Paul McCartney's performances continue to sell out, and fans continue to return to the Fest to celebrate the band whose music appeals to all generations.
“They were the most important musical force of the second half of the 20th century, very simply,” Dashow said. “Imagine a pop group or a rock group that is being celebrated by the entire world 50 years from now. It will never happen again.”
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