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Web Exclusive! Enjoy an excerpt from "The Beatles' Story on Capitol Records" by Bruce Spizer

Dive into the fascinating story of how the Beatles almost didn’t make it big in America, and how Capitol records very nearly wasn’t the record label to benefit when the Fab Four finally hopped across the pond and hit America on Feb. 7, 1964.

We hope you enjoy these excerpts from Bruce Spizer’s popular book, “The Beatles’ Story on Capitol Records — Part One: Beatlemania & The Singles.”

These excerpts — “The Beatles Are Coming” and “They’re A Bunch of Long-Haired Kids. They’re Nothing” — go into the fascinating story of how the Beatles almost didn’t make it big in America, and how Capitol records very nearly wasn’t the record label to benefit when the Fab Four finally hopped across the pond and hit America on Feb. 7, 1964.

The Beatles (from left) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison.

The Beatles (from left) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison.

The Beatles Are Coming

Shortly before Christmas Eve, 1963, Billboard distributed its Dec. 28, 1963, issue. The bottom right corner of page 6 and the bottom left corner of page 8 of the magazine contained the same 2-1/8” x 1-5/8” ad proclaiming “The Beatles Are Coming!

Below the text was a full head of hair and the Capitol logo. At the time the ad ran, most Americans did not know who or what the Beatles were; however, stories of the group’s success in their British homeland had found their way into American magazines.

In mid-November 1963, two major American weekly news magazines, Time and Newsweek, ran short articles on the group. The Nov. 15, 1963, issue of Time contained a story about Beatlemania titled “The New Madness.” Time observed: “Though Americans might find the Beatles achingly familiar (their songs consist mainly of ‘Yeah!’ screamed to the accompaniment of three guitars and a thunderous drum), they are apparently irresistible to the English.” The group was described as a “wild rhythm-and-blues quartet” that had sold 2,500,000 records. The story reported that “crowds stampede for a chance to touch the hem of the collarless coats sported on stage by all four of them.”

Time informed the American public that: “Although no Beatle can read music, two of them dream up half the Beatles’ repertory. The raucous, big-beat sound they achieve by electric amplification of all their instruments makes a Beatle performance slightly orgiastic. But the boys are the very spirit of good clean fun. They look like shaggy Peter Pan, with their mushroom haircuts and high white shirt collars, and on stage, they clown around endlessly — twisting, cracking jokes, gently laughing at the riotous response they get from their audience. The precise nature of their charm remains mysterious even to their manager.”

Newsweek’s first Beatles story, titled “Beatlemania,” appeared in its Nov. 18, 1963, issue. The magazine reported that the Beatles “wear sheepdog bangs, collarless jackets and drainpipe trousers” and that “all four sing… and sing... and sing.” After stating that the “sound of their music is one of the most persistent noises heard over England since the air-raid sirens were dismantled,” Newsweek described their music and performances as follows:

“Beatle music is high-pitched, loud beyond reason, and stupefyingly repetitive. Like rock ‘n’ roll, to which it is closely allied, it is even more effective to watch than to hear. They prance, skip, and turn in circles; Beatles have even been known to kiss their guitars. The style, certainly, is their own. ‘They don’t gyrate like Elvis,’ says one young girl. ‘They stamp about and shake and, oh dearie me, they just send the joy out to you.’ “

Although over a dozen references to the Beatles were made in Billboard during 1963, primarily in its international section, the first major story on the group did not appear until Dec. 14, 1963. Its page three article, “Capitol Has New Beatles Bashes,” reported that Capitol had completed negotiations with EMI for exclusive distribution of future recordings of the Beatles. The article announced Capitol’s plan to release “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in mid-January and the label’s claim that the single had over one million pre-release orders when it was issued in England on Nov. 29, 1963. The magazine’s international section stated that the group was flying to New York on Feb. 7, 1964, for its debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” two nights later and for interviews by the New York press. Billboard further reported that the group would fly to Miami for a five-day vacation and appear on “Ed Sullivan” on Feb. 16.

On Dec. 13, 1963, the CBS Television Network issued the following press release:

“The Beatles, wildly popular quartet of English recording stars, will make their first trip to the United States Feb. 7 for their American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show’ Sundays, Feb. 9 and 16 (8:00-9:00 PM, PST) on the CBS Television Network. Their first appearance will be done at Studio 50 in New York, and their second at the Hotel Deauville in Miami, Fla. The fantastic popularity of the Beatles in England has received considerable attention not only in British newspapers but also in the American press. Their first record release is scheduled for January.”

For Capitol, the timing could not have been any better. Not only would the Beatles be coming through the airwaves of American radio stations spinning their new single on Capitol Records, but the Beatles were actually coming to American in person. And, to borrow from a song from the hit musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” the Beatles were going to be on “Ed Sullivan,” “Coast to coast with America’s favorite host.”

The “Ed Sullivan Show” appearances were lined up by Beatles manager Brian Epstein during his November 1963 visit to New York. Having previously reached an agreement with Sid Bernstein for the Beatles to play two shows at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, Epstein was looking for other American bookings. During his stay, he met with Sullivan. By mere chance, Sullivan had witnessed the crowd of screaming fans at London’s Heathrow Airport greeting the Beatles upon their return from a Scandinavian tour. Although Sullivan wanted the group on his show, he was reluctant to give in to Epstein’s demand that the Beatles receive top billing. After all, in November 1963, the group was still unknown in the U.S. Sullivan and Epstein negotiated for four days, finally agreeing to three appearances by the Beatles with top billing at a reduced rate. Epstein also lined up a concert at the Washington Coliseum in the nation’s capitol.

The significance of the “Ed Sullivan” appearances is that they enabled the Beatles to showcase their visual appeal. In a world without MTV, DVD, laser discs, satellite dishes, cable TV or home video tape machines, Americans in 1963 and early 1964 had little opportunity to see the Beatles. Other than a short feature that aired on “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” and similar broadcasts on NBC TV’s evening news show “The Huntley-Brinkley Report and on the ABC evening news, the Beatles had not appeared on American television in 1963. And since American teenagers were neither devout readers of Time and Newsweek nor evening news television junkies, it’s safe to say that most of America’s youth had not seen and knew very little about the group in December 1963, when Capitol told America that “The Beatles are Coming!”

Although Capitol hoped that America’s youth would embrace the Beatles, not everyone was looking forward to the group’s arrival on American soil. An editorial in the Dec. 30, 1963, edition of Baltimore’s Evening Sun lamented:

“’The Beatles are coming.’ Those four words are said to be enough to jelly the spine of the most courageous police captains in Britain… Since, in this case, the Beatles are coming to America, America had better take thought as to how it will deal with the invasion… Indeed, a restrained ‘Beatles, go home’ might just be the thing.”

The fact that a great metropolitan newspaper recognized that the Beatles might cause mass hysteria in America was certainly encouraging news for Capitol. The group’s upcoming visit to America had the potential to be a big event. All Capitol had to do was give it a little publicity, get the record played on the radio and manufacture and distribute sufficient copies of the record to satisfy consumer demand.

The first step was simple. Let the public, the press, disc jockeys and the music industry know “The Beatles Are Coming!” Obviously, the placement of two small teaser ads in a trade magazine would not be sufficient to get the word out. Capitol had much bigger plans. The label had five million stickers printed with the message. The 2” x 3” stickers are white with bright orange print. They featured four heads of hair and the words “The BEATLES are coming!” And in early 1964, they were plastered all over America by individuals aided and abetted by Capitol representatives.

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“They’re a bunch of long-haired kids. They’re nothing.”

The CBS Television Network press release quoted in the preceding chapter is noteworthy for its statement that the Beatles first record was scheduled for January release. That information was technically incorrect. By the time Capitol had signed the band in November 1963, three Beatles singles (shown above) had already been released in the United States. Although Vee-Jay, an independent Chicago-based label specializing in R&B and gospel music, touted its 45s as “Singles of Significance,” neither “Please Please Me” (VJ 498) nor “From Me To You” (VJ 522) made a significant impact in America upon their initial release. As for “She Loves You” (Swan 4152), the record was virtually ignored in the United States upon its release in September 1963 on the small Philadelphia-based Swan label. Its failure, the group’s third straight U.S. flop in as many tries, gave the appearance that the record would be the Beatles’ swan song in this country. And, but for the persistence of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and the group’s undeniable talent, things might have turned out that way.

Although Capitol decided in late 1963 to throw all of its promotion support behind the Beatles, the label initially was not impressed with the group’s music or overseas success. As a subsidiary of Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd. (“EMI”), a worldwide recording organization based in England, Capitol had the right of first refusal on recordings by EMI artists. Capitol had little success in breaking British pop acts in America. A rare exception was Laurie London’s “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” originally issued on EMI’s Parlophone label. When released on Capitol 3891 in 1958, the song charted for 19 weeks, including four weeks at number one. The labels’ experience with Cliff Richard was more typical. Although Richard was a true star in England, neither of his Capitol release charted when released in America in 1958 and 1959.

In 1962, Alan Livingston became president of Capitol Records. When interviewed for the author’s first book, “The Beatles on Vee-Jay,” Livingston explained the arrangement between Capitol and EMI as follows:

“Out of courtesy, cause we had no obligation, I would occasionally take an EMI record, English in particular, and release it in the United States with no success whatsoever. There was just no interest in English artists here. And they would pressure me somewhat, but not too bad, and I’d keep trying something every now and then. We had not success at all, but because of the relationship, I felt we had to screen everything they sent it. I couldn’t just brush it off, so I gave one of my producers at Capitol the assignment of listening to every EMI record that they sent to us. His name was David Dexter. And Dave was a good musicologist, he was a writer, he was a producer, and I trusted Dave’s ears and was not concerned about it.”

Dexter, who was in his mid-to-late-40s, grew up with big band music and jazz and was not particularly fond of rock ‘n’ roll music. He routinely rejected EMI recordings as not being suitable for the American market.

Capitol’s skepticism toward British acts led the label to pass on Frank Ifield, who was enjoying a number one hit in England on EMI’s Columbia label with “I Remember You.” Capitol reasoned that if British pop star Cliff Richard couldn’t sell in America, then why should it be any different with Ifield. EMI wanted the song released in America, so it transferred the licensing rights to Frank Ifield’s master recordings to its unofficial New York-based subsidiary, Transglobal Music Co., Inc., requesting that the company find an American label to issue the single. Paul Marshall, a New York attorney who represented EMI and Transglobal, approached another one of his clients, Vee-Jay Records, to see if the company was interested in releasing the record in the United States. Vee-Jay was an independent label located in Chicago that primarily issued R&B and gospel records. By the early 1960s, some Vee-Jay artists were achieving considerable success on the pop charts and Vee-Jay was looking to expand into the lucrative pop market. For a label with limited resources, leasing a number one hit record from England was a low-risk, low-cost way to enter the pop market. The move paid off for Vee-Jay and EMI as “I Remember You” became a number 5 hit in the fall of 1962.

At the same time Frank Ifield was making his mark in America, the Beatles debut record, “Love Me Do,” was released on EMI’s Parlophone subsidiary on Oct. 5, 1962. As the song was only a moderate hit in England (peaking at number 17), it was no surprise when Capitol showed an interest in the disc. However, when Dave Dexter and Capitol turned down the group’s second single, “Please Please Me,” George Martin was bitterly disappointed. He firmly believed that the record was going to be a big hit and could not understand why EMI would not order its American subsidiary, Capitol, to issue the disc in America. EMI’s explanation that Capitol was completely autonomous did little to reduce the friction between Martin and EMI.

When interviewed for “The Beatles Records on Vee-Jay,” Paul Marshall recalled being told by EMI that the Beatles management was frustrated over Capitol’s refusal to issue Beatles records. EMI transferred the rights to the Beatles recordings to Transglobal with instructions to get the new single released in America as quickly as possible to appease the Beatles management. Marshall offered the song to Vee-Jay. As the label had profited from the Frank Ifield deal, Vee-Jay felt it had nothing to lose by picking up the Beatles.

Under the terms of a Jan. 19, 1963, licensing agreement with Transglobal, Vee-Jay obtained the exclusive right to issue “Please Please Me” and its flip side, “Ask Me Why” in the United States. The five-year agreement required Vee-Jay to pay Transglobal a royalty payment of 10 percent of the suggested retail list price of each record sold. An important addendum to the agreement gave Vee-Jay the right of first refusal of all recordings by the Beatles, exercisable within 30 days of receipt of the master recordings.

Pursuant to the agreement, Vee-Jay issued “Please Please Me” and “As Me Why” on VJ 498 in February 1963, and “From Me Too You” and “Thank You Girl” on VJ 522 the following May. Although Vee-Jay received master tapes for the Beatles first album, Please Please Me and took initial steps to manufacture an album called Introducing The Beatles, the label did not release a Beatles album during the summer of 1963. AS detailed in “The Beatles Records on Vee-Jay,” this was primarily due to Vee-Jay’s precarious financial situation, which resulted from company president Ewart Abner using a few hundred thousand dollars of company money to cover his gambling losses.

When Vee-Jays’ owners learned of Abner’s misdeeds, they reluctantly terminated his services. Although trade magazines were kept in the dark, music industry insiders were aware of the reason behind Abner’s termination and Vee-Jay’s desperate financial situation. The company owed several hundred thousand dollars in taxes, royalties and bills. Upon learning of the popular Abner’s demise, Paul Marshall resigned as counsel for Vee-Jay.

Vee-Jay’s cash-flow problems forced the company to prioritize its obligations. Because neither Frank Ifield nor the Beatles were considered critical to the company’s survival, Vee-Jay failed to send royalty statements or payments to Transglobal regarding sales of Ifield and Beatles records. This prompted Transglobal to send Vee-Jay a letter demanding immediate payment of royalties owed. When Vee-Jay failed to respond, Transglobal sent Vee-Jay a telegram demanding that the label “immediately case manufacture and distribution of any and all records containing performances of Frank Ifield or the Beatles.”

Transglobal considered the Aug. 8, 1963, telegram a unilateral termination of its licensing agreements with Vee-Jay for Frank Ifield and Beatles records. This action was probably taken due to EMI’s far that Vee-Jay would soon be out of business. EMI wanted to be sure that Ifield and Beatles records would be available for leasing to a company capable of manufacturing and promoting their songs.

The termination of the licensing agreements with Vee-Jay once again gave Capitol the right of first refusal for Ifield and Beatles recordings. Around this time, Alan Livingston started getting calls from London about the Beatles success. He also began reading about them in the British music press. This prompted him to bring up the Beatles at a weekly staff meeting. Livingston recalls:

“So at one meeting, I said, ‘Dex, what about the Beatles? I read a lot about them, they’re doing well in London.’ He said, ‘Alan, they’re a bunch of long-haired kids. They’re nothing. Forget it.’ I said ‘OK.’ I trusted Dexter. And I had no interest in British product at that point. And so a few weeks went by and I began to get nervous because of the British press, I could tell they were doing really well, so I said, ‘Dex, what about the Beatles?’ And he said, ‘Alan, forget it, they’re nothing.’ I said, ‘OK.’ And so we turned them down.”

Dexter’s actions appear humorous when one examines the facts surrounding his decision to pass on the Beatles in August 1963. After Transglobal terminated the license agreements with Vee-Jay, Dexter was sent copies of the two latest British releases by each artist — “I’m Confessin’” by Frank Ifield and “She Loves You” by the Beatles. After listening to both songs, Dexter was confident that one would be a hit and arranged for a full-page ad in Billboard. Amazingly, Dexter chose “I’m Confessin’” and recommended that Capitol pass on the Beatles for a third time. Dexter later said that his dislike of the harmonica playing on “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” influenced his decision to turn those records down. But “She Loves You” had no harmonica. Perhaps he didn’t like all that “yeah, yeah, yeah” stuff.

The Beatles were not the only EMI British act turned down by Dexter. Also rejected were Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, The Hollies, The Dave Clark Five, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and The Yardbirds. Dexter did, however, recommend one British band prior to Capitol’s signing of the Beatles. The label released Freddie & The Dreamers’ “I’m Telling You Now” (Capitol 5053) in the fall of 1963. At that time, America was not ready for Freddie, so the record failed to chart. When the song was reissued in early 1965 on Tower (a Capitol subsidiary named after the famous Capitol Tower building at Hollywood and Vine), it spent 11 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, including two at the top.

When Capitol rejected “She Loves You,” George Martin was furious. HE remembers getting a curt reply from Capitol that the label did not think the Beatles would do anything in the American market. Transglobal was once again directed by EMI to find a company to release a new Beatles single. Livingston and Marshall confirm that Transglobal tried unsuccessfully to place the Beatles with several companies. According to Livingston, “they sent them to Decca, RCA-Victor, Columbia Records, A&M and every record company they could get to, they got to them all and every one of them turned them down.”

After receiving no interest from any of the majors, Transglobal placed the single with Swan Records, a small Philadelphia-based label. Swan was selected because of its close ties with Dick Clark, who hosted the popular “American Bandstand” TV show, which was broadcast nationwide from Philadelphia. It was hoped that the exposure of the song on the show would break the Beatles in America.

In the book “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” Clark recalls featuring “She Loves You” on the Rate-A-Record segment of his show in September 1963. The disc averaged a mediocre 73 score. According to Clark, “When the kids saw a photo of the four long-haired lads, they just laughed.” The band’s appearance and the song’s “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain were totally foreign to what American teens were used to seeing and hearing in 1963. Thus, the record failed to generate the stock response of “I gave it a high rating because it had a beat and you could dance to it.” It also failed to generate any airplay or sales in most U.S. cities.

The licensing agreement between Transglobal and Swan was much more limited than the Vee-Jay agreement. Swan had the exclusive U.S. rights to issue the songs “She Loves You” and “I’ll Get You,” but only as singles. The term of the Swan agreement was for two years rather than five. Unlike the Vee-Jay agreement, Swan was limited to two songs with no option for future Beatles recordings.

At first, Dexter appeared to have made the right choice in selecting “I’m Confessin’” over “She Loves You.” While the Ifield single reached number 57 on the charts, the Beatles single on Swan did not chart until it was reissued in January 1964. Upon its reissue, “She Loves You” topped the charts for two weeks after spending the four weeks in the second spot behind “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and selling over one million copies. But in the fall of 1963, the Beatles were not happening in the United States.

In early November, Dave Dexter was sent an advance copy of the Beatles upcoming single “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Incredibly, Dexter failed to hear the single’s potential and recommended that Capitol pass on the Beatles for a fourth time! Brian Epstein couldn’t believe what was happening with Capitol. Totally frustrated by EMI’ explanations and Capitol’s stock answer that the disc wasn’t suitable for the American market, Epstein decided it was time to get personally involved and take his cause to the top of the Capitol Tower. Alan Livingston recalls:

“I’m sitting in my office one day and I got a call from London from a man named Brian Epstein, how I didn’t know. I took the call. And he said, ‘I am the personal manager of the Beatles and I don’t understand why you won’t release them.’ And I said, ‘Well, frankly, Mr. Epstein, I haven’t heard them.’ And he said, “Would you please listen and call me back.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ and I called Dexter and said, ‘Let me have some Beatles records.’ He sent up a few and I listened. I liked them. I thought they were something different. I can’t tell you in all honesty I knew ho big they’d be, but I thought this is worth a shot. So I called Epstein back and said, “OK, I’ll put them out.’ Smart man, Epstein, he said, ‘Just a minute. I’m not gonna let you have them unless you spend $40,000,’ (that was a pound translation) ‘to promote their first single.’ You didn’t spend $40,000 to promote a single in those days, it was unheard of. For whatever reasons, I said ‘OK, we’ll do it,’ and the deal was made.”

Anxious to get feedback on the label’s new signing, Livingston sought the opinion of his wife, Nancy Olson: “I brought the record home and played it for my wife Nancy, who has an excellent ear and followed the popular scene very carefully. I said, ‘I want you to listen to this, I think it’s gonna change the music business.’ And she said, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Haaaaand,’ are you kidding?’ So I thought, maybe I made a mistake. We put the record out. I never got through the $40,000. The record exploded. And the rest is history.”

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