The next song on the oldies station begins with the raucous sounds of seagulls. Not only do I instantaneously know what the song is going to be, but as the first words are sung, I nail the key perfectly, cueing in some unknown way from the unmelodic birdcalls. The Tymes are singing "So Much in Love" and so am I, and it is 1963, a fixed point in memory, rooted and grounded by the music of that sophomoric age. This is a metaphorical benchmark, it occurs to me as we stroll by the sea together under stars twinkling high above, and somehow my body pilots the car safely in the present, under overcast skies heavy with snow. The music of that year, not one particular song but taken all together, is embedded in rock with a brass plate, immutable, known, anchoring that time to this and me to that gangly fifteen-year-old who was becoming me.
I haven't set aside one particular year as a benchmark of my own things had a tendency to happen too fast for me to do the heavy lifting and the digging involved but from the vantage point of forty years later, I find that one of the most interesting musical stories from 1963 is the story that didn't happen. Nineteen sixty-three, in America anyway, was the year that Beatlemania...wasn't.
Forty years ago this week, Vee-Jay Records in Chicago issued the Beatles' "Please Please Me", the band's second British hit and by some U.K. charts its first Number One, on a 45-rpm single (VJ 498). Why Vee-Jay? Capitol Records, the American subsidiary of EMI, who owned the Parlophone label for which the Beatles recorded, had first right of refusal on any EMI product to be issued Stateside, and they indeed refused it; said a Capitol exec, "We don't think the Beatles will do anything in this market."
He may have been right, at least at first: Vee-Jay 498 never made it onto Billboard's singles chart, and the follow-up in May, "From Me to You", took two months (as Vee-Jay 522) to climb to an insignificant #116. Del Shannon's cover of "From Me to You", in fact, outdid the original, reaching #77. After seeing two singles stiff an album (Introducing the Beatles, VJ 1062) was in the can, and it would remain there for a while Vee-Jay lost interest, and with Capitol still balking, "She Loves You" wound up on Swan Records (4152) out of New York, where it did not chart.
What happened next is open to debate. What is known is that Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, made a trip to New York in 1963, and accomplished two things: he persuaded Capitol to take the next single, and he arranged for the band to make two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan, who had been caught in a flood of Beatles fans at Heathrow Airport earlier that year, was not exactly enthusiastic but figured the crowd response he'd seen could translate well enough into American; Capitol assigned catalog number 5112 (almost midway between Al Martino's "I Love You More and More Every Day" and the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun") to their new Beatles record, had set a mid-January release date and, expecting maybe a Top 20 hit at best, had ordered 200,000 copies from their Scranton pressing plant.
And on the 17th of December, James Carroll, doing his regular DJ gig at WWDC in Washington, gave a spin to a single his flight-attendant girlfriend had picked up in England. The phone calls started coming in, and the record was put into heavy (as in once per hour) rotation. Word of this got back to Capitol, who were wondering how come something they hadn't released yet was getting airplay, and by the time they'd figured it out, the record (perhaps via tape or acetate) was being heard in Chicago and St. Louis. Suddenly it looked a lot bigger than Top 20. And this being late December, the pressing plant was closed for the holidays. In desperation, Capitol waved around a lot of overtime money, not only to its own people in Scranton but to Columbia and RCA Victor plants in New Jersey, and the initial order ballooned to one million copies.
That single, of course, was "I Want to Hold Your Hand", and Beatlemania in America took hold once it hit the stores the first official US copies appeared on the 26th of December, 1963, and despite what the calendar may have said, it was a whole new year. Vee-Jay and Swan reissued their Beatles singles and saw them chart high; by the first week of April, the Beatles had the #1 record ("Can't Buy Me Love"), the #2 record ("Twist and Shout", issued by Vee-Jay's Tollie label), and #3, #4 and #5 as well. But that part of the story you know.