How The Fab Four Captivated America

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Rowlands-author-photoBy Penelope Rowlands
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. 

The Beatles had just blown into town, and, all over New York City, girls like me were … screaming! People who weren’t in New York City 50 years ago can scarcely imagine what it was like. Local disc jockeys had whipped us kids into a frenzy about the band’s upcoming arrival. We obsessed over photographs of John, Ringo, George and Paul. We memorized the songs — “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and more. Our parents, expressing their disapproval, only encouraged us all the more.

Let’s face it, by the time The Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport, we were insane.

My Beatlemaniac phase might have faded into memory if it weren’t for a New York Times photographer named Jack Manning who snapped a photo of a group of us outside their hotel, with me at the screaming center. The image became “somewhat iconic,” in the words of one of the girls beside me. It has since been published around the world.

I didn’t even know the names of the screamers at my side, but, years later, after I wrote about the Beatles and that photo for Vogue, one of them reached out to me on Facebook. Talk about screaming! I was stunned. We became fast friends, and I’m now in touch with two of the others, too.

MORE ‘CBS NEWS 50 YEARS LATER: THE BEATLES AT THE ED SULLIVAN THEATER

Curious about how others remembered Beatlemania, I interviewed these girls along with dozens of other fans — some famous, some not — for a book, which also includes essays by some notable writers. It was fascinating to hear what they had to say.

Legendary disc jockey Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow explained that the U.S. musical scene had been in a steep decline. “Nothing exciting was happening in American music,” he told me. For Bob Dylan, this new British band pointed “the direction where music had to go.” Bruce Springsteen, hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio for the first time, remembered, “It stopped your day when it hit. Just the sound of it and you didn’t even know what they looked like.” Cyndi Lauper, only nine-years-old when the Beatles arrived, credits them with helping her to “learn harmony and the structure of songs.”

And Billy Joel was unequivocal: “The single biggest moment that I can remember of being galvanized into wanting to be a musician for life was seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

He was not alone — nearly forty percent of the country joined in the experience. On that cold winter night, half a century ago, a time when, as Morrow says, “we needed new energy,” 73 million of us tuned in to CBS — and found it.

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Penelope Rowlands Beatles Cover

Penelope Rowlands has written The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember, which documents the group’s arrival in both written texts and oral histories. Algonquin Press, Feb 2014.