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It was the song that launched Beatlemania, kick-starting the "British Invasion" and, in effect, the entire glorious musical revolution of the 1960s. And by an almost too-good-to-be-true stroke of happenstance, the song that first allowed the Beatles to reach a friendly hand out across the Atlantic to a new fanbase in America was called…"I Want to Hold Your Hand."
It wasn't the "best" Beatles song, by any means, but was fun and friendly (a "joyous rocker" (source), in the words of biographer Bob Spitz) and in terms of its historical impact it may have been as important as any pop song, ever.
Back home in the UK, the Beatles were already quite popular. By the time "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in November 1963, the band had already hit #1 on the British charts with three different songs. ("I Want to Hold Your Hand" became the fourth, spending five weeks at the top of the UK chart.) But while the song certainly added to the Beatles' growing reputation in their homeland, it's truly momentous impact could only be seen on the other side of the Atlantic, where it helped transform the band from complete unknowns into the biggest sensation that rock n' roll had ever seen.
The Beatles formed in 1960 and by 1962, they'd become a major pop sensation in the UK. Their manager, Brian Epstein, began to dream of breaking the band into the even larger American market. But he was reluctant to send them on a tour of the U.S. before first cracking the American charts with a hit single; otherwise, they risked performing in half-empty clubs before American fans who'd never heard of the band.
However, the two smalltime American record companies that then had a contract to sell Beatles albums in the U.S. (Vee-Jay and Swan Records) had found no success in selling the Beatles. For the time being, Beatlemania remained a purely British phenomenon.
But then the band encountered an almost ridiculous stroke of good fortune. Ed Sullivan, the host of the immensely popular American TV variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show, happened to be passing through London's Heathrow Airport at the very moment that the Beatles were flying in upon their return from a tour of Sweden. It was like nothing he'd ever seen; the airport concourse was the scene of pandemonium as hundreds of teenage girls crowded the halls waiting to greet the band. Sullivan wondered if they were waiting for the Queen; instead, he was stunned to discover that the objects of their affections were four mop-topped young musicians from a funny-sounding band he'd never heard of.
Impressed, Sullivan ordered his producer to figure out who these guys were and to try to book them onto his show. Soon, Epstein and Sullivan reached an agreement that the Beatles should headline three nights on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, several months in the future. Exciting times…but for the moment, the band still hadn't established any ability to sell records in America.
But "I Want to Hold Your Hand," recorded in October 1963, would change all that. Using his deal with Sullivan as leverage, Epstein got the band signed to the major-label Capitol Records, which planned to release the song as a single a few weeks before the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The hope was that the record would be getting at least a little radio airplay by the time the band took stage. Epstein also arranged for CBS News to air a short promo segment on the group to help build hype.
Unfortunately, the piece was scheduled to air on November 22nd, 1963—a date which now lives in infamy as the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. The Beatles getting bumped off the TV news was the least of the consequences unleashed by Kennedy's murder. For the moment, with America deep in mourning, the Beatles would remain anonymous.
But not for too long.
A few weeks later, hoping to help lighten the nation's somber mood, legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite aired the segment during his evening news coverage. In Silver Spring, Maryland, a pleasant suburb just outside Washington, D.C., a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert was watching. And she liked what she saw. She wrote a record to her favorite DJ, Carroll James of DC radio station WWDC, asking, "Why can't we have music like that here in America?" James agreed and got a friend who worked for a transatlantic airline to arrange for a flight attendant to bring over a British copy of the Beatles' new UK single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
A few days later, on December 17th, James got his hands on the record…and invited teenager Marsha Albert into his studio to introduce its first American airplay. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said in a quiet, nervous voice, "for the first time on the air in the United States, here are the Beatles singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.'" Listeners immediately began phoning into the station, begging the DJ to play the song again and again and again. The first signs of Beatlemania had struck the nation's capital.
Out in Los Angeles, Capitol Records was stunned to learn that the Beatles were blowing up on DC radio. The record wasn't even for sale yet. Conventional wisdom in the industry said that new singles should never be released during the holidays, so Capitol's plan had been to launch "I Want to Hold Your Hand" halfway through January.
After initially considering a lawsuit to stop the song's premature radio play, Capitol President Alan Livingston instead decided that Capitol should roll with the public's enthusiasm over the record rather than fighting it. Livingston demanded that the single be rush released ASAP. Capitol managed to get the disc into record stores nationwide by a few days after Christmas. It sold more than a million copies—a staggering number in those days—in its first two weeks of release, and shot the Beatles to the #1 spot on the U.S. pop charts by mid-January…just the time when Capitol had originally hoped it would begin gaining a bit of radio airplay.
The timing proved perfect for the band's early February appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. When the Beatles' plane touched down in New York, a mob of thousands of Beatlemaniacs was waiting. (There was also a near-riot of delirious fans outside the Beatles' hotel.) On February 9th, 1964, the Beatles finally made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was one of the most hotly awaited television performances of all time. 50,000 people applied for a chance to win a ticket to occupy one of the studio's 228 seats to witness the performance live.
More staggering, some 74 million people—about 40% of the entire population of the United States at the time—watched on TV. The band performed four songs: "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," and, closing the show, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." At times, you could barely hear the band playing over the uproarious screaming of near-manic female fans, but the performance captivated the entire nation.
Beatlemania had officially and undeniably arrived. Within a month, the band held all of the top five spots on the Billboard Hot 100...at the same time. From there, the rest is rock and roll history.