Did a president's death inaugurate a musical revolution?
The 50th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, November 22, 2013, inevitably puts that tragedy back into the headlines. It also brings to mind a question I often pose to friends: Was the meteoric rise of Beatlemania in the States influenced by the nation's somber mood following the president's death? Of course it's an unanswerable query but fascinating to explore.
The early 1960s music scene is often unfairly characterized as bland; littered with Bobbys, Rickys and Frankies. What's often overlooked is Phil Spector creating his "Wall of Sound," Berry Gordy assembling his Motown empire, and artists like Del Shannon, the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison writing and recording their own top-shelf material. Regardless, the Beatles and the British Invasion that followed, certainly brought freshness to the American Pop charts.
Two days after Kennedy's death Jack Ruby stunned the world by murdering JFK's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. As though the prevailing mood wasn't already dark, Ruby's killing was the first homicide on live television. (Of course Oswald's death, and Ruby's in early 1967, continue to fuel conspiracy theories to this day.) Sorrow was ubiquitous. People of all ages and political persuasions found themselves emotionally charged. For the first time, TV stations offered continuous coverage, including Kennedy's funeral. Many rock radio stations temporarily suspended commercials in deference to the public's sensitivities. As the Christmas season approached, even Phil Spector took action by pulling his recently issued A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records album, fearing people were not in the mood for cheery holiday songs.
In 1963, prior to the assassination, there had in fact been released of Beatles records in the US. These were on smaller labels and garnered minimal interest at the time. Major label Capitol Records, with its ties to the Beatles UK parent label EMI, had first right of refusal for issuing their records here. Through the years, Capitol had had little-to-no success with British artists and routinely passed on EMI's offerings. As a courtesy though, a Capitol producer named Dave Dexter had the job of reviewing EMI's records but continued to insist they were not suitable for the American market. He rejected three Beatles singles in 1963, "Please Please Me," "From Me To You" and "She Loves You." Swan and Vee Jay Records picked them up but none made any impact earlier in the year. To be fair, other major US labels allegedly also turned down songs like "She Loves You." Interestingly, Dexter had passed on records by the Hollies, the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, the Yardbirds and Herman's Hermits among others!
Beatle records that were scoring in England just weren't getting noticed here in 1963. That was until November, when Beatles manager Brian Epstein convinced Capitol Records president Alan Livingston to listen to "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Livingston has said about hearing it that he liked it, thought the Beatles were something different and figured they were worth a shot. Amazingly, Epstein also convinced the label to commit an unheard of $40,000 budget to promote the single.
"I Want To Hold Your Hand," issued in the UK on November 19, 1963, was scheduled for a mid-January American release. That date was pushed up to December 26 after some US disc jockeys began playing taped and imported copies. The record took off like a rocket. Beatlemania had finally crossed the pond
With the pall that blanketed the American public in late 1963, were the Beatles a perfect antidote?