The Beatles and America
As with many of their other early singles, the US proved more resistant to the charms of the moptops. However, the UK success of She Loves You had enabled Brian Epstein to convince Capitol Records to issue the song.
Capitol had intended to issue I Want To Hold Your Hand in early 1964, to coincide with The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. However, the release date was brought forward due to ecstatic reactions from radio listeners.
Alexander Kendrick, the London bureau chief for CBS News, had put together a news story and interview about The Beatles’ success in Britain, to be shown in the United States. A short version was broadcast on 22 November on the CBS Morning News show, but a longer version due to be broadcast that evening was postponed due to the Kennedy assassination.
The full five-minute item was eventually shown on 10 December. Among those watching was Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland. Albert wrote to Carroll James, a DJ for WWDC-AM, a station based in Washington, DC, begging him to play The Beatles on his show.
It wasn’t so much what I had seen, it’s what I had heard. They had a scene where they played a clip of She Loves You and I thought it was a great song… I wrote that I thought The Beatles would be really popular here, and if he [James] could get one of their records, that would really be great.
The Washington Post, 16 January 2004
Carroll arranged for a copy of the new single to be shipped over from Britain, and Albert was invited to introduce the very first play. This she did on 17 December, with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time on the air in the United States, here are The Beatles singing I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
The song was a huge hit with listeners, and was picked up by DJs in Chicago and St Louis. Although Capitol at first threatened to seek a court order banning its airplay, they eventually decided to rush-release the already-prepared single two weeks ahead of schedule.
I Want To Hold Your Hand was released in the US on 26 December 1963, with I Saw Her Standing There on the b-side. The response was instant: 750,000 copies were sold in the first three days, and 10,000 copies were sold each hour in New York City. Capitol were overwhelmed by the demand, and enlisted Columbia Records and RCA to press extra copies.
The single began its 15-week chart run on 18 January 1964, and reached the number one spot on 1 February. It remained there for seven weeks, before being replaced by She Loves You. I Want To Hold Your Hand was also included on Meet The Beatles!, the group’s debut album in the US.
One night we arrived back at the hotel from the Olympia when a telegram came through to Brian from Capitol Records of America. He came running in to the room saying, ‘Hey, look. You are number one in America! I Want To Hold Your Hand had gone to number one.
Well, I can’t describe our response. We all tried to climb onto Big Mal‘s back to go round the hotel suite: ‘Wey-hey!’ And that was it, we didn’t come down for a week.
The Beatles capitalised on their American chart success with a triumphant series of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first of which took place on 9 February 1964.
We were booked to go to America directly after the Paris trip, so it was handy to have a number one. We’d already been hired by Ed Sullivan, so if it had been a number two or number 10 we’d have gone anyway; but it was nice to have a number one.
We did have three records out in America before this one. The others were on two different labels. It was only after all the publicity and the Beatlemania in Europe that Capitol Records decided, ‘Oh, we will have them.’ They put out I Want To Hold Your Hand as our first single, but in fact it was our fourth.
The appearance consolidated Beatlemania in America, and a series of singles topped the charts throughout much of 1964. By April the group held the top five positions, and their back catalogue was plundered by labels keen to satisfy public demand.
I Want To Hold Your Hand began the British Invasion of America; following The Beatles’ success, groups including The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits all found chart success during 1964 and beyond.
Among The Beatles’ admirers was Bob Dylan, who said of them: “They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.” Famously, Dylan thought the middle sections of I Want To Hold Your Hand contained the words “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide”.
The misunderstanding came to light when Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana on 28 August 1964.
Brian and the Beatles looked at each other apprehensively. “We’ve never smoked marijuana before,” Brian finally admitted. Dylan looked disbelievingly from face to face. “But what about your song?” he asked. The one about getting high?”
The Beatles were stupefied. “Which song?” John managed to ask.
Dylan said, “You know…” and then he sang, “and when I touch you I get high, I get high…”
John flushed with embarrassment. “Those aren’t the words,” he admitted. “The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…’”