Nineteen sixty-four. It was the year of the great divide, the unambiguous end point of the Nifty Fifties and the dawn of the Swinging Sixties. It was the year of the Warren Report and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president to deploy troops into South Vietnam without congressional approval. It was an epic year that lives on in memory in so many ways.
In Berkeley, under the informal leadership of a coalition of University of California student activists, the Free Speech Movement set in motion an unprecedented decade-long struggle to end an unpopular war that divided the nation. The struggle to abolish institutional segregation and the abuses of Jim Crow in the South took on greater urgency amid the protest of a new and increasingly vocal generation born after World War II. The times, as it has often been said, were indeed “a changin’.”
The message echoed across the land. It foretold a great social revolution among young people asking the hard questions, invalidating old ideas, and reinventing our popular culture in such a way that rattled established values, attitudes, and the nineteen-fifties conventionality of an older generation—the Baby Boom parents.
It all happened so fast. Four mop-topped lads from Liverpool invaded America and changed the world we thought we knew in profound and remarkable ways.
Three key Beatles dates signaled the arrival of the Swinging Sixties:
• December 10, 1963, when Walter Cronkite—not Ed Sullivan—introduced The Beatles to a nationwide audience during an evening broadcast of the CBS Evening News. The segment drew attention to the showmanship of the band and the fanatical devotion of British teens that appeared, to the reserved Mr. Cronkite, to border on mass hysteria.
• January 31, 1964, when, after only a few weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and the WLS Silver Dollar Survey in Chicago, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” zoomed to the top of the rock ’n’ roll charts. Nine days later, The Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Beatlemania” overtook the nation. Ed Sullivan, the stone-faced former Broadway gossip columnist, dismissed The Beatles as a “novelty act,” but the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, inveigled the doubting Sunday night toastmaster to commit to airing three taped appearances on consecutive weeks in the winter of ’64. Suddenly and inexplicably, the “Fab Four,” clad in their pipe-stem trousers, pointy shoes, and London “mod” haircuts, were headliners from coast to coast and around the world.
• September 5, 1964, was the other key date. The Beatles, after bypassing Chicago on their whirlwind trip to New York City in February, played the International Amphitheatre in the midst of a dizzying, nonstop national tour that kicked off on August 19th at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. It was The Beatles’ first full-blown tour and the schedule called for thirty-two shows in twenty-three cities. If the pace was grueling and the boys homesick, the financial reward was sweet. At the Indiana State Fair, the quartet carted away $85,231 for two sets. When The Beatles left Milwaukee and headed for Chicago, they had just been paid a staggering rate of one thousand dollars per minute for a thirty-minute performance. Inquiring minds at the Internal Revenue Service demanded to know if they were a foreign corporation and therefore exempt from paying U.S. taxes, pegged at forty-two thousand dollars. The 1964 tour earned the group the equivalent (in today’s dollars) of $7.5 million.
It was the Labor Day weekend in Chicago, marking the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year. “A Hard Day’s Night” continued its long run at the Woods Theatre downtown, and thousands of youthful Beatles worshippers—teen-aged girls, mostly—had spent much of their summer vacation cajoling, contriving, and pleading with their parents to purchase scarce concert tickets priced at $5.75 each. Scalpers demanded the unheard-of sum of forty dollars per ticket. “Outrageous,” complained Chicago-area dads who just wanted to please their precocious daughters. The scalper price was under-the-table and non-negotiable. Some were lucky and got to go; most were denied.
Not since Elvis Presley breached the gates of the Windy City in 1957 had there been such a rock ’n’ roll frenzy as this. Opinions were sharply divided. Jealous of the obsessive attention showered on John, Paul, George, and Ringo by the girls, adolescent boys naturally found much to scorn. They vented their displeasure in a series of letters to the “Beatle Editor” of the Chicago American, the afternoon paper whose star columnist, the middle-aged, middle-of-the-road square Jack Mabley, had been assigned the frightening task of introducing the lads to thirteen thousand screaming youngsters inside the amphitheatre.
“(Charles) Darwin would turn green at the sight of those mutated floor mops, otherwise known as The Beatles,” griped Daniel Sobieski in his letter of protest. “Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t good for nothing. NASA could always send them up to the moon to make sure it’s safe for the astronauts, or you could put whiskey kegs around their necks and send them to the Alps!”
My eleven-year-old self thought the entire exercise a colossal time-waster when more pressing matters were at hand. That summer the Chicago White Sox were locked in a nail-biting, three-way pennant chase with the Yankees and Orioles. It was mortal combat against the Yankee “Evil Empire,” but sadly and tragically it ended unhappily for the South Siders on the last weekend of the season. But the fandom consumed all parts of Chicago.
School administrators and nervous teachers reacted with a mix of caution, negativity, and yes, even acceptance. At Joliet East High School, Principal James Risk permitted WLS to pipe in Clark Weber’s morning show over the public address in order to “make the students think a little more positively about school,” but only before the start of class.
In Mrs. Bailey’s fifth-grade classroom at Onahan School on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side, the girls scribbled “I love the Beatles” five hundred times on sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper when the teacher wasn’t watching and sent it off to the contest promoter promising a “Beatle Prize” to the school submitting the most entries.
At Pierce Elementary School in Andersonville, Denise and Ellen Janda hung on every word in the fan magazines. They kept a scrapbook of news clips, worshipped at the altar of George Harrison, and would have to wait another year until the Liverpool long-hairs returned to Chicago to play Comiskey Park. “For my thirteenth birthday [in 1964], my parents promised me a bike,” Denise recalled. “But I wanted their first two LP albums instead, ‘Meet the Beatles!’ and ‘Introducing the Beatles’ for $2.99 a piece at the Sears record department. My parents got off cheaply.”
Chicago braced for the invasion of The Beatles by imposing Kremlin-like security at the key checkpoints: O’Hare and Midway airports and the amphitheatre. Fearing a riot of one hundred thousand screeching teenagers, Colonel Jack Reilly, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s longtime director of special events, canceled preliminary plans for a civic center reception and took elaborate precautions to “protect” the city by appointing a mobilized task force.
After reading published accounts of mobs of fans descending on the airports and hotels of other American cities, Reilly decided to covertly “sneak” the quartet into Chicago following their concert and a wild melee in Milwaukee the night before. It was shaping up to be a real cloak-and-dagger caper.
At which airport would their chartered four-engine Electra aircraft touch down? Colonel Reilly kept them guessing. Early reports suggested that it would be O’Hare at 4:30 in the afternoon. The unsubstantiated rumor drew a vanguard of five hundred teens to the terminal. The last-minute change to Midway Airport, however, left the befuddled O’Hare fans in an uproar and angered Ringo Starr, who, according to one account, telephoned the presidents of the Chicago fan clubs to alert them to Reilly’s bait-and-switch tactic. The police detail at O’Hare breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Thank God they are going to Midway,” said Lieutenant Harry A. Smith.
At approximately 4:40, the Electra taxied down the runway at Midway to the Butler Aviation terminal. There to greet the boys were five thousand fans and sixty police officers. Some hoisted banners reading “Ringo for President!”; 1964 was, after all, an election year. Others wore Beatles sweatshirts and Beatles buttons. All were in a highly festive, emotional state of mind.
They screamed and jumped up and down, hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes. About a dozen emboldened teenage girls scaled the four-foot high cyclone fence and made a desperate, mad dash for the waiting limousine there to whisk the lads off to the Stockyards Inn and a scheduled press conference with bemused members of the media. A battery of wheezing, uniformed police officers carrying billy clubs chased them down seconds before they overtook the limo. The Beatles waved to their fans and disappeared inside. The girls just kept screaming.
The iconic Stockyards Inn, a Halsted Street landmark since 1934, had welcomed President Dwight Eisenhower, movie stars, and scores of foreign dignitaries in its better days. Strictly white table-cloth. Martinis, shaken, not stirred. The arrival of The Beatles—well, that was quite a departure from the dignity and decorum of the place.
Stately and regal, and adorned by three hundred oil paintings in wood-paneled dining rooms, the Stockyards Inn seemed an unusual venue for a media blitz such as this one. Pity the poor dining patrons, looking forward to a late lunch or early dinner of prime rib slathered in horse radish sauce, who had to be turned away.
The wait staff and busboys braced for a madcap press conference attended by reporters, ingenious reporter impersonators, and members of Beatles fan clubs who had allegedly bribed security guards with gifts to gain entry. The interview, if it was in fact an interview, followed.
Munching on a prime rib sandwich, Paul McCartney said he looked forward to seeing some famous Chicago gangsters in fedora hats and top coats. He would never get the chance. John Lennon complained of a sore throat. George Harrison was asked what he thought of American girls. “They’re the same only they speak foreign—I mean, with a different accent.” A reporter asked The Beatles where they wanted to go after Chicago. “Home,” Lennon replied.
Outside the amphitheatre, the line had already formed. Twenty-four hours before concert time, eight enterprising teenage girls hid out inside the women’s washroom until the arrival of the cleaning crew. Security was at a loss to explain how they managed to sneak past the major checkpoints, but obviously they came prepared to camp out all night with their bags of sandwiches, snacks, and a change of clothes.
The International Amphitheatre—a preferred venue for livestock shows, 4-H Club competitions, prize fights, and national political conventions—was under heavy guard. A phalanx of two hundred thirty police officers, one hundred sixty Andy Frain ushers, forty private detectives, one hundred fifty Chicago firemen, and the doctors and nurses manning the first-aid station expressed their “concern for kids” in the event of injuries or a riot. Nothing quite as terrible as that would occur over the next three hectic hours; although, as a precaution, six fans had to be taken to the Evangelical Hospital for “emotional and physical exhaustion.”
The doors opened at six p.m. and more than thirteen thousand Beatle worshippers swarmed past the ushers. The mood was electric; the throng of fans restive. At 8:30 p.m. Jack Mabley stepped up to the stage to introduce the four opening acts. At that moment, the nonstop, unrelenting screaming commenced.
Mabley, whose musical tastes ran along the lines of the Tommy Dorsey band, crooner Russ Columbo, and Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, later remarked, “I walked out there not knowing if I’d be struck dumb or would manage to stumble through my assignment.” Poor Jack, he could neither hear one word of his welcome remarks nor his introduction of the warm-up acts: the Bill Black Combo with his distinctive Memphis sound, the Exciters, the early sixties soul of Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and songstress Jackie DeShannon.
It is doubtful that anyone else that night heard them amid the earth-shattering noise inside the amphitheatre. At 9:45, DeShannon hustled off the stage to make way for The Beatles, who were forty-five seconds late in arriving.
Mabley, frazzled and in a near panic, wondered what he should do next if they didn’t show. Where were they? He repeated his introduction. “Here’s The Beatles …” and finally the band bolted on stage from an enclosed stairway. “They came in one of the sloppiest entrances I have ever seen,” Mabley recalled. “It didn’t matter. They walked on stage, looked around, found their instruments, and then went to work.”
For the next thirty-four minutes the group performed all their hits, beginning with “You Can’t Do That” and closing with “Long Tall Sally.” In between, sheer bedlam rained down. Flashbulbs popped, and fans showered the stage with teddy bears and jelly beans as a show of affection. Ringo loved jelly beans, you see, but he didn’t appreciate being pelted by them. He used his cymbals like a fly swatter to deflect them away.
Meanwhile, perspiring Andy Frain ushers did all they could to restrain the girls in the balcony from tumbling over the railing.
And then, all too quickly, it was over. The quartet that ushered in the true nineteen sixties were nudged toward their waiting limousine minutes before the girls inside the amphitheatre could scamper over to the parking lots and hunt them down. The Beatles were rushed back to Midway for their gig in Detroit twenty-four hours later. No Chicago gangsters in fedoras to meet and greet along the way. No time for food or a bit of chatter with the awestruck presidents of the local Beatle fan clubs.
For the exhausted Fab Four, there was little time to pause and reflect on the dark side of overnight fame. Their 1964 fans never knew it, of course, but relaxation for these four irreverent, cheerful lads would not be possible without a little help from self-medication, and only then, the reward of calming equilibrium.
Chicago, well, it was just another hard day’s night along the way.
Jack Mabley, acerbic and skeptical, had the last word. “The Beatles are a parody. … Twenty-five years from now The Beatles will just be something that happened a long time ago.”