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Monday, April 6, 2015

Capitol sees the light

For me, and for most Americans of a certain age, this is where it started - with this record.  Cultural historians point out that the nation was still in a state of shock following the assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963.  The ideals of many a youth had been shattered by that fateful event and an overall sense of gloom threatened to persist throughout the winter when, seemingly out of nowhere, a song of joy and innocence and irrepressible exuberance exploded over the airwaves.  How had this happened?

The convergence with JFK's death was mere coincidence, of course, but the groundwork for the Beatles finally breaking through in America had been laid weeks earlier in what was arguably the greatest series of moves of manager Brian Epstein's career.  In late October, he finalized a deal with United Artists for the boys' first feature film.  On November 5th, the day after the famous Royal Command Performance, he flew to the US to meet with Ed Sullivan, who had witnessed the group's Heathrow Airport reception only days earlier.  After securing three appearances for the Beatles (as headliners!) on Sullivan's show, he met with Brown Meggs of Capitol Records and played the newly-recorded single I Want to Hold Your Hand.  Capitol could no longer argue with the band's incredible success and it was agreed that they would release the single on January 13th, 1964, though there were still serious doubts as to whether it would perform well on the US charts.

Those doubts were crushed when a radio station in Washington, DC, at the request of a fan who had seen a clip of the Beatles on the Jack Paar Show, managed to obtain a copy of the UK single via the British Overseas Airways and it became an exclusive hit on the station.  Copies soon made their way to stations in Chicago and St. Louis, and a groundswell was underway.  Capitol quickly decided to move up the US release date to December 26th and contracted the pressing plants of RCA and Columbia in addition to their own to keep up with the sudden and unexpected demand.  It is reported that in the first few days after its release, the record was selling at a rate of 10,000 copies an hour in New York City.

The single as it appeared in the US was not the same as that issued in the UK, however.  Right from the start, the bigwigs at Capitol made sure that things were done their way.  For some reason, they did not want to initially present the group as balladeers and so Lennon's superb three-part harmony B-side This Boy was replaced by McCartney's rocker I Saw Her Standing There (still unissued in the US on the Vee-Jay album Introducing ...the Beatles).  This was easily accomplished since Capitol, through its parent company EMI, now had the rights to the group's entire back catalog.

The record hit number one on February 1st, more than a week before the Beatles even set foot in America.  It was merely the first of twenty chart-topping singles for the Fab Four in this country.

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