I Want to Hold Your Hand
The Beatles’ debut in America was not on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York, but on WWDC radio in Washington
The year was 1963, and the place was Washington, D.C. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the country with his “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. A few months later, the unthinkable happened when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and the nation recoiled in horror and grief. For three days, people sat in front of their television sets, watching the memorial services for the fallen president unfold in front of the White House, the Capitol, through the avenues of the city and finally to the cemetery at Arlington. It’s hard to believe that all of this happened almost 50 years ago.
To illustrate just how long ago this was, take a look at prices. The average American home sold for less than $20,000 and a gallon of gas cost 30 cents. In the pop music world, Elvis was the undisputed King, and teenage girls swooned by the thousands when he came on stage. But popular music fans in this country were barely aware of a new musical group called The Beatles, who were taking Great Britain and Europe by storm.
A Washington teenager named Marsha Albert heard about this group and couldn’t figure out why we weren’t listening to their music here in America. She wrote a letter to DJ Carroll James of WWDC radio and asked him to play their records. When he asked around, the DJ found out that while Capitol Records had the rights to release their music here, the president of the company didn’t think “foreign bands” did very well on this side of the pond. Even worse, when Capitol asked for the scoop on The Beatles, a music critic told him that they were “a bunch of long-haired kids” and to forget about them. And so Capitol Records put the group on the back burner. That is, until the DJ and the teenager took matters into their own hands.
Carroll James found a friend who knew a British stewardess who agreed to bring a Beatles record back to the U.S. with her. And so, at 5:15 p.m. on December 17, 1963, the 15-year-old Marsha Albert announced on WWDC, “Ladies and gentlemen, appearing for the first time in America, the Beatles singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The radio audience response was overwhelming and James said his switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. He played the recording all week and the listeners loved it. Capitol heard about the phenomenon and decided to bring the record out on Dec. 26. It went to the top of the charts. In fact, it became the fastest selling single in recording history and eventually went on to occupy all five of the Top Five positions on the Billboard charts, something which hasn’t been duplicated or surpassed since.
In February, the Beatles arrived in New York to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, where an unprecedented viewing audience of 73 million people tuned in to see the group. But their first live concert was here in the District at the Washington Coliseum. They couldn’t fly into National Airport because of a snowstorm, so they had to take the train to the then-dilapidated Union Station, where a screaming group of 2000 teenagers waited in the snow behind police barricades to welcome them. They drew a full house at the Coliseum, where tickets, by the way, started at $3.50 apiece.
The Beatles went on to dominate the popular music scene around the world for an amazing two decades, and Washington gets the credit for giving them their first introduction to what turned out to be a huge American audience, thanks to a determined teenager and an enterprising DJ.