By Mark Guarino
As Chicagoans celebrate Labor Day this weekend, another milestone will quietly pass which some would say is just as Fab: the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ first arrival in Chicago.
It was 40 years ago Sunday when the Beatles landed by plane at 3 a.m., were whisked to a hotel near O’Hare and driven that night to the International Amphitheater on the South Side to play a 12-song set that lasted under 30 minutes. As soon as they put down their instruments, they were ushered back on a plane, en route to Detroit, to play a show the next night.
Although their visit was brief and regimented, the Beatles had a special connection to Chicago they didn’t share with any of the other 23 cities on their first North American tour. Chicago was home to their first American record label, Vee Jay Records, and Chicagoans were the first in the country to hear the band on the radio.
“Chicago was ahead of the curve,” said Bruce Spizer, Beatles historian and writer of several books including “The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America” (498 Productions). “The Chicago connection was extremely strong.”
Beatlemania was set on boil when the Beatles made it to Chicago, thanks to their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show earlier that year in February. By the time of the Sullivan broadcasts, the group had not had a U.S. hit and because of that, Beatles manager Brian Epstein decided to postpone a full-fledged tour until the fall, when it was assured they would be at the top of the charts.
His prudence was understandable. It may be difficult to believe today, but the Beatles failed many attempts to break into the U.S. market. In England, the group was signed to Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI, an international label group. Epstein and Beatles producer George Martin were eager to find success in the U.S. and pressured EMI to get Capitol, its U.S. subsidiary, to sign the Beatles but Capitol wasn’t interested. Incredibly, they passed on the group four separate times.
Keep in mind this was 1962 and pop was considered a frivolous stepchild to crooners, jazz auteurs and big bands — all priorities for Capitol at the time. Decision makers at the label, notably A&R man Dave Dexter, were swallowed in a culture gap and didn’t understand the new generation and especially how to market to them. (Dexter reportedly felt John Lennon’s harmonica playing on “Love Me Do” was too black.)
Enter Vee Jay. In the ‘50s, the plucky independent R&B label, located at 1449 S. Michigan Ave., was producing hits by John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed that were consequently writing the songbook the British invasion bands would tap into a decade later. By the early ‘60s, the label began crossing over into the pop charts with vocal groups like the Dells, the Staple Singers, the Four Seasons and the Righteous Brothers. Because Vee Jay records were licensed to Europe through EMI, both labels shared a lawyer, Paul Marshall. After Capitol, Atlantic and others rejected the Beatles, he offered the group to Vee Jay. The label agreed and “Please Please Me” was released in the U.S. on Feb. 7, 1963.
The single didn’t go anywhere and neither did its follow up, “From Me To You,” released that May. When Vee Jay experienced cash flow problems and could not make royalty payments, their licensing agreement was cancelled and the group reverted back to EMI. Capitol continued to pass on the Beatles until Epstein made a direct plea to its president Alan Livingston, who was so impressed, he committed a $40,000 promotion budget — an impressive figure at the time — to make sure the Beatles hit big.
News of the campaign alerted Vee Jay to the fact that the Beatles were about to become huge. Realizing it still had shipped masters of the Beatles album it originally planned to release the past summer, the company decided to risk legal action by Capitol and go ahead and get it in stores. “Introducing the Beatles,” the group’s first U.S. album, was released on Vee Jay in Jan. 1964, a month before the band’s Ed Sullivan appearance and ten days before the Capitol debut, “Meet the Beatles.”
Capitol filed a series of injunctions and eventually, Vee Jay complied, giving up control of the Beatles once and for all. In 1966, the label declared bankruptcy.
While Vee Jay introduced the Beatles to U.S. record buyers, WLS 890-AM introduced the Beatles to Midwest radio listeners. Dick Biondi was the first DJ in the country to play the Beatles. Because of a friendship with Vee Jay president Ewart Abner, he received “Please Please Me” before anyone else, getting it on the air in February, 1963.
Later that summer, the Beatles made an additional appearance over the airwaves in downstate Illinois due to a peculiar local connection.
Louise Harrison, sister of George, moved to Benton, Ill. years earlier, following her husband who worked as an engineer in the coal industry. Before the Beatles arrived in the U.S., George visited Louise in the fall for two weeks. Months prior to arrival, Louise handed Marcia Raubach a copy of “From Me To You.” Raubach was a high school senior who hosted a radio show on WFRX 1300-AM, a station in West Frankfort her father managed and partially owned. When George arrived in town that September, she interviewed him for her high school newspaper. Raubach is today regarded as one of the earliest DJs to play the Beatles and the first U.S. journalist to interview one of them.
“I was too young to realize the impact of what was going on,” she said. “At the time we didn’t know how great the Beatles were going to be. They were hot then, but they could have died out.”
Raubach remembers the day she received the phone call from George’s sister. “She said George wanted to meet me. He did look different. He wore a white shirt, jeans, sandals and this Beatles haircut. He was a very polite person. He was interested in everything over here as much as I tried to find out things from him,” she said. “By the time they had made the appearances on Ed Sullivan, I could not believe this guy was here. It was like, ‘why didn’t we tape the interview?’”
Beatles are coming
Thanks to Capitol’s promotional blitz, the world readily caught Beatlemania. Which meant the label’s Chicago branch worked at breakneck speed to keep the hype rolling.
“It was amazing,” remembers former employee Val Camilletti, who worked at Capitol’s office at 1326 S. Michigan Ave. and the company’s later location in Niles. “When your regional sales manager is walking around in a Beatles wig, you know it’s just not another Top 40 single.”
Camilletti said staffers were told to answer the phones saying “the Beatles are coming” and, because of the competition between WLS and WCFL 1000-AM, “the phones would ring all day long from program directors.”
“These two would be on the phone and say ‘if we don’t get (the single) first, we’ll never play another Capitol (artist)’. They’re calling and threatening and it’s just hysterical,” she said.
Veteran Chicago radio personality Clark Weber, who worked at WLS, said he was “quite cynical” when he heard about the Beatles because their Vee Jay singles had “flopped so miserably.” But he “recognized they were good for the radio station.” “Capitol knew it was to their advantage to get their stuff to us. Because of the buzz, they thought it would be short lived and of course they were wrong,” said. “But they were hedging their bets.”
When the Beatles finally landed in Chicago, Camilletti said her office was constantly being updated with different hotel locations and arrival times to thwart the swarm of fans trying to hunt them down. Fatigued by the frenzy, she declined her boss’ offer of tickets to the show. “‘Not if you paid me five million dollars’,” she told him. “I would have loved to have gone if I could have heard the Beatles. He was standing three feet from John as he played the first note of ‘Twist and Shout’ but never heard another song.”
Having emceed the Beatles return visit to Comiskey Park, Weber said the fan hysteria was unlike anything he ever encountered. “Comiskey Park was filled with 14-year-old girls and when they brought the Beatles out, I could feel the sound through my fingertips, it was such an incredible roar,” he said. “That was genuine.”
After the International Amphitheater date, the Beatles returned two more times before exiting the road for good. Their subsequent tours in 1965 and 1966 were scaled back and allowed the band to spend a few days in each city to recuperate, take in some local color and, of course, make promotional visits to local radio stations.
During the 1964 tour, “they didn’t get a day off,” Spizer said. The reason they opted for a more relaxed itinerary for subsequent tours “had to do with the fact that they had never done a tour like that before.”
“They were teenagers. They were kind of overwhelmed by it,” Weber said. “The management, the Capitol people kept a very tight lid on those four guys because they were pretty crude kids and Capitol was deathly afraid they would say something that would upset the apple cart.”
Indeed, it was in Chicago during their 1966 tour when John Lennon remarked that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The backlash, combined with the death threats the band started getting and the tiresome touring life provoked the band to enter a new phase in their career that concentrated exclusively on being songwriters instead of performers and using the studio as an instrument.
“With the concerts and the Beatlemania, after a while the novelty wore off and then it was very boring,” Harrison wrote in the “The Beatles Anthology” (Chronicle Books). “It wasn’t just the noise on stage, not hearing the music and playing the same old songs; it was too much everywhere we went.”
“We’d been having more fun in the studio, as you can hear from ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’,” wrote Ringo Starr. “As it was building up, it was getting more experimental. We were starting to spend more time there, and the songs were getting better and more interesting. Instead of being pulled out of the studio to go on the road, we could now spend time there and relax.”
But first the Beatles had to endure their first tour in 1964. A convenient diversion after the Kennedy assassination is routinely mentioned as the match that lit Beatlemania, but Weber said it was more than that.
“The timing was right. The population of teenagers and people under age 24 was the highest in the history of the country. They were hungry. They were just coming of age and their buying power was beginning to show. All the ingredients came together at the same time,” he said. “And it was a powerhouse.”