60 Years Ago: The Beatles First U.S. Visit

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The Beatles’ press conference at New York’s JFK Airport, Feb. 7, 1964

From the moment that Pan American flight 101 touched down on February 7, 1964, at about 1:30 p.m. at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (recently renamed for the president who was assassinated the previous November), rock ‘n’ roll music and America became forever changed. The Beatles had arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and play their first U.S. tour.

The band had no idea how America would receive them. But just before touching down, Paul McCartney recalls, “The pilot had rung ahead and said, ‘Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.’” Some 3,000 to 6,000 fans who’d been alerted by local radio stations were gathered, many on the rooftop observation deck of the terminal, most of them girls who were screaming as soon as the jet taxied up.

The media assembled for a press conference was another matter – cynical and out for blood. But the good-natured and witty banter of the Fab Four won them over. “We were funny at press conferences, because it was all a joke,” said John Lennon. “They’d ask joke questions so we’d give joke answers, but we weren’t really funny at all. It was just fifth-form humor, the sort you laugh at at school. The press were putrid. If there were any good questions about our music we took them seriously. We were nervous, though I don’t think people thought so.”

Watch a portion of the press conference

During their limo ride into Manhattan, the Beatles enjoyed listening to New York radio on the transistor radios they’d each been gifted by Pepsi. They marveled at how, in contrast to England’s staid single signal from the BBC, there were a number of stations playing rock ‘n’ roll, spinning not just the band’s favorite artists but their music as well. “We were so overawed by American radio,” Lennon recalled.

More thousands of fans surrounded the Plaza Hotel, where The Beatles and their party found themselves in the lap of luxury in an 11-room suite on the 12th floor of the famed hotel. But it was also like a gilded cell as the avid fans crowded around the Plaza made it nearly impossible for the band to leave the premises, much less do any sightseeing.

That evening the group went to the Ed Sullivan Show studio on Broadway to rehearse and block out their performance – at least John, Paul and Ringo. George Harrison had caught a cold and remained behind to recuperate.

Sullivan’s “cue card guy,” Vince Calandra, famously stood in for Harrison at the dress rehearsal, wig and all. “I had an instant rapport with them,” he told Best Classic Bands.

“John wanted to know about some of the groups that had been here. He said, ‘What about Buddy Holly and the Crickets?’ And I said, ‘John, if you walk two steps to your right, that’s where he stood on the show. I held cards for them.’”

Related: Two months’ later, they held the top 5 spots on the U.S. singles chart

The Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums, expanded in 2023, are available here.

Best Classic Bands Staff

3 Comments so far

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  1. Bob Sled
    #1 Bob Sled 10 February, 2019, 16:55

    Nothing big – just changed everything!

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  2. Janae
    #2 Janae 8 February, 2020, 01:20

    I still remember the excitement I felt, especially when glued to our TV watching them on Ed Sullivan that first time. The next day at school The Beatles were all anyone talked about. That was the beginning of Beatlemania, and my love of them. And I’m still a die-hard fan after all these years!

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  3. Nan
    #3 Nan 8 February, 2020, 17:23

    I was almost 7, my sister 9 and my bro 11. Us kids laid in my parents bed with them to watch the Ed Sullivan show on a black and white TV. A decade or so letter every kid in my high school Was looking for clues on the sergeant pepper band to determine if Paul was dead and then a few years later the Beatles had a whole chapter in my psych 101 book explaining the phenomenon. What a wonderful time to grow up with that music in the background of my life. Still a fan!

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