By Bill Crandall
This is part of a series of essays to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first American television appearance on CBS’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It culminates with CBS News Live Experiences’ “50 Years: The Beatles,” a live, interactive multimedia event at The Ed Sullivan Theater on Feb. 9.
Tweeting out YouTube and Spotify links wasn’t an option for band managers in 1963. So The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein went with a different approach to get America to see and hear his remarkable band – he lobbied television networks. And, as the word “Beatlemania” began spreading across British newspapers, CBS News’ London correspondent Alexander Kendrick decided to take a look.
The Philadelphia-born Kendrick, who preceded Dan Rather as the network’s London Bureau Chief, was a man better equipped for military than musical invasions: he covered the Russian front in World War II. His Beatles’ report came in characteristically highbrow: “Besides being merely the latest objects of adolescent adulation and culturally the modern manifestation of compulsive tribal singing and dancing, The Beatles are said by sociologists to have a deeper meaning. Some say they are the authentic voice of the proletariat…”
Kendrick’s story from what he called “Beatleland” included the band playing “She Loves You” in the British seaside resort of Bournemouth. Panning the crowd, CBS cameras captured screaming teens in what he described an “epidemic” that has “seized the population, especially female.” Backstage, The Beatles were philosophical about their rising fame. When asked if they feared that fans would tire and move on, George Harrison replied, “It’s not worth missing your sleep for, is it?”
The piece debuted on the CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace on November 22, 1963. Slated to run again that night on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, it was preempted by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Weeks later, on December 10th, Cronkite re-aired Kendrick’s report. Ed Sullivan called him immediately – setting in motion The Beatles on CBS again February 9th, 1964, with a record audience of 73 million viewers. Cronkite also helped his teenage daughters Kathy and Nancy attend the dress rehearsal. “I don’t think up ’til that time they really cared very much what their father did,” Cronkite later recalled, “but I suddenly was a hero in their eyes.”
Unfortunately, Cronkite’s CBS Evening News, The Beatles and assassination would again intersect. On December 8, 1980. Cronkite lead the broadcast with John Lennon’s death, “The death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news from Poland, Iran and Washington tonight…”
Bill Crandall is a contributor to CBS News Presents and the former Head of Digital Content for Rolling Stone. A Beatles fan from birth (his middle name is Jude), Crandall once interviewed Sir George Martin about the making of each of the Beatles’ No. 1 singles.