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Go back in time to 1963, before The Beatles hit it big in America

In 1963, America’s Civil Rights Movement was in full swing — albeit with as much tragedy as there was triumph. President Kennedy was assassinated. And the British Invasion began in earnest. Here’s a look back at 1963, the year The Beatles were on the brink of their American breakthrough.

By Gillian G. Gaar

On Jan. 1, 1963, The Beatles flew to London from Hamburg, Germany, having just completed a two-week run of shows at the Star Club. Their first single, “Love Me Do,” released the previous October, had been a modest success, reaching No. 17 on the U.K. charts, and they were hoping that the follow-up, “Please Please Me,” set for release on Jan. 11, would fare better.

They could hardly have guessed that “Please Please Me” would be the spark that lit the fuse that would result in their busiest year to date. By Dec. 31, 1963, The Beatles released four singles, three EPs, two albums; appeared on radio 49 times and on television 35 times; and made 287 additional live appearances. Paul McCartney turned 21. John Lennon became a father. Both were hailed by the London Times as the Outstanding Composers of 1963.

For most Americans, the Big Beatle Year is 1964, when the group took the country by storm. But there would not be a 50th anniversary celebration if the Beatles hadn’t become stars in their native Britain in 1963. And The Beatles achieved their stardom the old-fashioned way — they worked for it. What’s amazing is the consistently high standard of work they created during a year of intensive activity.

Consider the recording of their debut album, “Please Please Me.” In February 1963, the band joined a tour opening for British singer Helen Shapiro. After opening on Feb. 2, the first leg ran from Feb. 5 to 9. On Feb. 11 — after a day off —the Beatles entered EMI Recording Studios and kocked out 10 songs in just over 10 hours. (The facility wasn’t known as “Abbey Road” until the ’70s, after the Beatles released the album of that name.)

Beatles Vee Jay 581 Please Please Me

This promo single of The Beatles "Please Please Me" (Vee-Jay 581, 1963) graded in EX (sleeve)/NM (record) condition sold for $500 via Heritage Auction Galleries."Please Please Me" was recorded in 1962 and originally released in the U.K. with "Ask Me Why" on the flip side. The next year, the U.S. released version had "From Me To You" as the flip side. It was 1964 when the record finally took off on these shores, reaching No. 3 in the early days of U.S. Beatlemania. The promo copy is 8 to 10 times more scarce than the common commercial version, and this blue and white label promo copy is nearly twice as rare as the black and white label copy.

“Please Please Me” is neatly bookended with two of The Beatles’ most classic recordings, opening with McCartney’s lively rocker “I Saw Her Standing There” and closing with Lennon’s bravura performance of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.” The cover songs were drawn from the band’s substantial repertoire, with an emphasis on girl groups (the Shirelles’ “Boys” and “Baby It’s You”) and R&B (Arthur Alexander’s “Anna”). Of the other new original numbers, “There’s a Place,” is the strongest, hinting an introspection that would surface in future songs. As Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn put it, “There can scarcely have been 585 more productive minutes in the history of recorded music.” The band’s first two singles were used to fill out the album.

By the time the “Please Please Me” album was released on March 22, the “Please Please Me” single had topped the charts — at least some of the charts. “Melody Maker,” the “New Musical Express,” and “Disc” all had “Please Please Me” at No. 1, but the single only got to No. 2 in “Record Retailer.” And as it’s turned out, “Record Retailer” is today used as the “official” source for nationwide charts, so “Please Please Me” is listed as only reaching No. 2 — explaining why it’s not on the “1” album.

“Please Please Me” was also the first Beatles single released in the U.S., on Feb. 7. The Beatles’ U.K. label, Parlophone, was a subsidiary of EMI, and it offered the band’s releases to the U.S. subsidiary, Capitol. But Capitol passed on both “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” so the latter single was released on Chicago-based Vee Jay. It failed to make an impact.

March 5 found the band back in the studio, recording “From Me to You,” which had just been written the week before, while on the Shapiro tour. Released April 11, it was a chart topper on every U.K. chart. In the U.S., the single was released on Vee-Jay on May 6. It failed to crack the Top 100.

Beatles Parlophone promo poster

This Near Mint promotional poster for The Beatles features a familiar pose for the Fab Four. It was issued by Parlophone Records circa 1963-64 and fetched $437.50 via Heritage Auctions.

But the Beatles had little time to worry about their lack of progress in the states. On March 9, the band headed out on another package tour, only to end up replacing the ostensible headliners, Tommy Roe and Chris Montez. The same thing happened in May, when the group began a tour on the 18th headlined by one of their idols, Roy Orbison. The crowd’s response was such that The Beatles again were placed at the top of the bill, but Orbison was gracious about making the switch. In the 1980s, Orbison found equal footing with Harrison in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

Another sign of The Beatles’ growing stature came when the band was given its own radio series, “Pop Go the Beatles,” with the first episode recorded May 24 and broadcast June 4. There were a total of 15 episodes in the series, which had the Beatles performing a number of songs they never recorded for their records, including Chas Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” Arthur Alexander’s “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” which makes their radio appearances especially entertaining.

And if collectors but knew it, there were some rarities being created throughout the year. In the U.K., the “Love Me Do” single carried the songwriting credits “John Lennon-Paul McCartney.” But the name order was reversed on subsequent releases: the “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You” singles, “Twist and Shout,” “The Beatles’ Hits,” “The Beatles (No. 1),” EPs and “Please Please Me.” The same was true of the U.S. “From Me to You” single (and subsequent Vee-Jay releases in 1964). These were the first in a series of variations that would keep future collectors busy sorting them out for years to come.

There was no rest between the package tours. Manager Brian Epstein kept The Beatles on the road as much as possible, squeezing in recording sessions along the way. On July 1, the band recorded the single that later became its first million seller, “She Loves You.” The single, released on Aug. 23, was destined to become the best-selling British single of all time — until it was surpassed by the release of McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” in 1977.

Beatles prototype poster Heritage Auctions

This original 1963 English prototype poster for The Beatles features each band member in performance. But the kicker? Each Beatle signed the poster by his corresponding image. It brought $20,315 via Heritage Auctions.

“She Loves You” was The Beatles’ most invigorating single to date, kicking off with a great burst of drums from Ringo Starr, and with the trademark “Yeah, yeah, yeah” of the chorus. In the U.S., the single was released on the Swan record label on Sept. 16. But even a good review in Cash Box couldn’t help it to chart.

The band began work on its second album in July, with recording dates held between July 30 and Oct. 23. The album that eventually would be called “With The Beatles” was a remarkably assured and mature work in comparison to the “Please Please Me” album. It features some of Lennon’s best-ever covers (“Please Mr. Postman,” “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” and the ferocious closing track, “Money.”) while Harrison acquits himself nicely on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and The Donays’ “Devil in His Heart.” The album also features Harrison’s first foray into songwriting, “Don’t Bother Me,” which follows the killer opening trio of Lennon’s “It Won’t Be Long” and “All I’ve Got to Do,” and McCartney’s “All My Loving.”

The album’s cover, shot in August at the Palace Hotel in Bournemouth, where the Beatles were playing a week of shows, was decidedly “arty” in comparison to the high-spirited “pop idol” look of the “Please Please Me” album. Photographer Robert Freeman had the Beatles facing the camera with neutral expressions on their faces, which are cast in half shadow.

“I couldn’t have one of them smiling, or all of them smiling,” he explained. “I just went for a kind of relaxed, natural look.” All of them are wearing black turtlenecks, making them look like serious art students.

The end of an era came Aug. 3. It marked the last time The Beatles played the Cavern. Though they’d once been regulars at the Liverpool club — the first known footage of the band performing live was shot at the Cavern almost a year before — they hadn’t played at the venue since the previous April. The Beatles wouldn’t have appeared this night either, except Epstein hadn’t been able to get them out of an Aug. 2 date in Liverpool, so he decided they might as well get some other work in the area.

A full show had already been booked for the evening, but the Beatles were readily added to the bill. The overflow crowd spilled into the street, and the heat and condensation inside was such that the equipment shorted out during The Beatles’ set. While the problem was being repaired, McCartney broke into a rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which the Beatles recorded in December 1966 for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

But The Beatles weren’t especially happy to have returned to their one-time stomping grounds. Billy Kinsley, a member of The Merseybeats, who were also on the bill, remembered McCartney saying backstage, “I told you we shouldn’t have come back.”
August also found The Beatles branching out into the media, when The Beatles Book launched. Created by publisher Sean O’Mahony, The Beatles Book came about after he featured The Beatles in his magazines “Pop Weekly” and “Beat Monthly” and realized that interest in The Beatles was such that the band could sustain a magazine of its own.

Beatles Wolverhampton Heritage Auctions

This 5-1/2-by-9-1/2-inch handbill for a 1963 Beatles concert captures the spirit of the times. It sold for $1,375 via Heritage Auctions.

The first issue had profiles on each Beatle, as well as Epstein and producer George Martin. Other features included “This Month’s Beatles Song” (the lyrics of “Love Me Do”), and a “Beatle News” page, featuring such short items as a story about the band’s van catching on fire, and that Linda Bailey of Stevenage had sent the group a greyhound as a present. The print run of the first issue was 110,000 copies; at its peak, that figure climbed to 350,000 copies.

Although The Beatles had been getting more media coverage as the year wore on, they received little national coverage aside from the music press. That changed for good after the group’s appearance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium” on Oct. 13. The show was Britain’s top-rated variety program, and it was broadcast live from the Palladium theater in London’s West End theater district. (Brian Epstein would later set up management offices next door.) It was a clear sign that the group had truly arrived.

“There was nothing bigger in the world than making it to the Palladium,” said Starr, who also recalled how a friend of his mother’s would encourage him as a young musician by saying, “See you on the Palladium, son. See your name in lights.” Now, it was about to come true.

Throughout the day, fans had gathered outside the theater, turning out in such force The Beatles were forced to remain inside all day. The fans’ screams could be heard inside the theater, and a few fans even managed to break through the police barricades and run into the auditorium before being escorted outside. Starr later admitted that he was so nervous, he threw up before taking the stage.

The band made a very brief appearance at the beginning of the show before being whisked away; the show’s host, Brian Forsyth, then teased the audience by announcing, “If you want to see them again, they’ll be back in 42 minutes!” The band played a four-song set (“From Me To You,” “I’ll Get You,” “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout”), then joined the rest of the evening’s performers on the show’s revolving stage, where everyone gathered at the program’s end to give a final wave to the audience. As Forsyth noted, “That night, we could have gone round 50 times, and those young fans would have kept screaming.”

By then, an estimated 2,000 fans had gathered outside the Palladium, and the news media wrote about the frenzy that followed when The Beatles tried to leave. “Screaming girls launched themselves against the police, sending helmets flying and constables reeling,” was one typical report, written by the Daily Herald. And the Daily Mirror summed up the night’s events in a single word: Beatlemania. The phrase stuck.

On Oct. 17, The Beatles recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The song was written in the basement of the family house of McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher, where McCartney and Lennon often wrote songs using the Ashers’ piano. The song has an irresistible buoyancy, especially when the vocals make an exhilarating climb on the lines “I can’t hide, I can’t hide.” There was much excitement in the U.K. about the single; the day after its release was announced, there were more than half a million advance orders. That figure surpassed one million by the time of the song was released in the U.K. on Nov. 29 — the first British single to do so.

The band also recorded its first Christmas record at the same session. The recording was planned to make up for the fact that membership applications for The Beatles’ fan club were taking so long to be processed, the band’s publicist, Tony Barrow, suggested that sending everyone an exclusive recording would help to make amends. He gave The Beatles a basic script to work from, but they also ad-libbed freely, sounding thrilled and excited about their new-found success. The recording was pressed on a flexi-disc in a first run of 30,000 copies, with a second pressing of 35,000 copies. The Beatles issued a similar recording every year through 1969. In 1970, a 12-inch vinyl record was put out containing all the recordings. It remains one of the group’s most collectable records, especially as none of the Christmas recordings have been officially released.

On Oct. 23, The Beatles flew to Sweden for their first foreign tour, a quick week-long jaunt. The band’s radio appearance on Oct. 24 and TV appearance on Oct. 30 on the show “Drop In” rank as some of their best performances of this period — with the bonus that the audience isn’t screaming throughout, as occurred in Britain. The Beatles returned to the U.K. Oct. 31 and promptly launched the band’s first headlining tour of the country on Nov. 1.

On Nov. 4, The Beatles played its most prestigious show: The Royal Variety Show, held before members of Britain’s royal family and broadcast on television on Nov. 10. The charity event vaulted the group into the upper tiers of Britain’s show business establishment.

The Beatles had been approached about appearing on the show the previous August, but they considered turning it down, as the upper-crust audience at such events wasn’t the demographic the band generally appealed to. But Epstein knew that the publicity would be invaluable, so the group agreed to appear. Queen Elizabeth, pregnant with her fourth child, could not attend; the royal family was represented by Princess Margaret; her husband, Lord Snowdon; and the Queen Mother.

The Beatles were seventh on the bill out of a total of 19 acts, which also included Marlene Dietrich and Wilfred Bramble (who later co-starred with the Beatles in their first feature film, “A Hard Day’s Night”).

The Beatles hit an energetic note right from the start, playing “From Me To You” as the curtains swept open. McCartney offered a friendly “Good evening — how are ya? All right?” after the first song; then the band performed “She Loves You” and “’Til There Was You.” The Beatles could also hear themselves playing for change, which makes this an especially engaging performance to watch.

The Beatles saved the best for last. “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help,” Lennon announced, then paused for effect. “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry?” His quip struck just the right note — enough of a tease to be funny without being disrespectful, and it generated good-natured applause and laughter. The band then played “Twist and Shout,” bowed to the audience and the royal box, and left the stage.

The reviews were unanimously positive. Even the Queen Mother gave them the royal seal of approval, saying: “They are so fresh and vital. I simply adore them.” The Daily Mirror’s review, simply titled “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,” readily captured the giddy, innocent spirit of the time. “You have to be a real sour square not to love the nutty, noisy, happy, handsome Beatles. If they don’t sweep your blues away — brother, you’re a lost cause. If they don’t put a beat in your feet — sister, you’re not living.”

By remaining their cheeky, lovable selves in front of the aristocracy, The Beatles effortlessly charmed their way into the nation’s hearts.

The Beatles’ fall tour officially ended Dec. 13. Eight days later was the first preview for a special holiday production, “The Beatles’ Christmas Show,” which had the band topping the bill and appearing in comedy sketches between acts (Liverpool acts Billy J. Kramer and Cilla Black also appeared.) The first two previews, in Bradford on Dec. 21 and Liverpool on Dec. 22, were concert-only shows, without the sketches. The London run from Dec. 24 to Jan. 11, 1964, featured the full production. All 30 shows sold out.

By the time the Christmas show closed, plans were well under way for The Beatles to finally capture the biggest prize of all: success in America. Epstein had flown to New York Nov. 5 to finalize a deal for The Beatles to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on three consecutive Sundays in February 1964 (two live and one taped performance).

The band’s records had, so far, performed poorly in the U.S. Epstein was determined to get them released by Capitol, and he appealed to the label’s president, Alan Livingston, who finally agreed to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on Capitol on Jan. 13, 1964.
But interest in the group was already beginning to rise. U.S. deejays began playing the record in December, and demand grew to the point that the single’s release date was moved up to Dec. 26. It was a sign of things to come. GM