By December 1963, England had enjoyed nearly a year of Beatlemania. The Fab Four – George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr – had sold millions of records for EMI's Parlophone imprint. The group’s first single, “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You,” briefly dented the U.K. Top 20 in October 1962, but their next 45, “Please Please Me,” formally ignited Beatlemania in their homeland, reaching the Number Two spot.
It was followed in 1963 by three consecutive chart-topping British singles: “From Me to You” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They conquered the U.K., even inducing a classical music critic from the Sunday Times to declare them “the greatest composers since Beethoven.” Moreover, they were the greatest rockers since the composer of “Roll Over Beethoven” – Chuck Berry.
Still, success in America remained elusive for manager Brian Epstein and his young charges, as Capitol – EMI's American label – refused to release the Beatles' first four British singles, one label executive noting, "We don't think the Beatles will do anything in this market." Everything would change with "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Written by Lennon and McCartney, and recorded in October 1963, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" found the songwriting duo trying to capture an American gospel sound. Hoping the track's attempt at stateside aesthetics may persuade Capitol to rethink its position on the Beatles, Epstein met with the label's director of eastern operations, Brown Meggs, in early November 1963 in New York, armed with a demo version of the song. The result of the meeting was a scheduled American release date of January 13, 1964 for "I Want to Hold Your Hand." That same trip to New York included a meeting with a popular American tastemaker who'd experienced Beatlemania firsthand during a talent-scouting trip to England: Ed Sullivan. Epstein left New York with a signed deal to put the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show for two consecutive live telecasts on February 9 and 16.
In Britain, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" saw its official release on December 5, 1963, reaching Number One the following week. It held the position for five weeks. Soon thereafter, American DJs began spinning the import single and the immediate, positive response prompted Capitol to not only bump up the release date to December 26, but also increase the press run from 200,000 copies to one million. A media blitz followed, as reporters from the Associated Press, CBS, Life, New York Times and more were assigned to cover the Beatles. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" reached Number One on the Billboard charts on February 1, 1964, and remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
After boarding a Pan Am flight traveling from London's Heathrow Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, the Beatles landed on American shores on February 7, 1964. They literally stood the world of pop culture on its head, setting the musical agenda for the remainder of the decade. With a Number One single in America, the twenty-somethings arrived to find more than 3,000 screaming fans waiting for them.
The Beatles’ buoyant melodies, playful personalities and mop-topped charisma were just the tonic needed by a nation left reeling by the senseless assassination of its young president, John F. Kennedy, two months earlier. Even adults typically given to dismissing rock and roll conceded that there was substance in their music and cleverness in their quick-witted repartee. Between the lines, and without obvious disrespect, the Beatles announced the ascendancy of youth – and the inevitable coming of a generation gap as a result.