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Before the Internet, how The Beatles went viral in 1964

Friday - 1/31/2014, 2:11pm  ET

beatlemania (fox photos)
The Beatles went viral in 1963-64, long before the phrase viral was coined (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Most people believe The Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show caused Beatlemania in the United States.

But a Beatles historian says, through a mind-boggling confluence of events, the Fab Four had conquered America before they set foot on the Sullivan stage.

"No one had ever heard of them in America as late as Christmas of 1963, and yet six weeks later they got the biggest audience in the history of American television," says Steve Greenberg, the author of a new e-book, "How The Beatles Went Viral in '64."

Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records, says the meteoric rise of The Beatles in the U.S. was sparked a few weeks before Christmas 1963, when Walter Cronkite's CBS news program included mention of British Beatlemania.

Marsha Albert, then a 15-year-old Silver Spring, Md. music fan, wrote a letter to Carroll James, a DJ at WWDC, asking "Why can't we have this music in America?"

James arranged for a friend who worked for BOAC -- the airline now known as British Airways -- to bring a copy of The Beatles' latest single to him.

On Dec. 17, 1963 James had Albert introduce "I Want to Hold Your Hand," in what was the record's first airing in America.

The phones rang off the hook, says Greenberg, but Capitol Records wasn't pleased.

The Beatles American record company planned to release the single Jan. 13, 1964, ahead of the already-scheduled Feb. 9 Ed Sullivan appearance.

"Capitol Records sends a 'cease and desist' letter to the station saying 'Don't play this record yet, we're not ready to put it out,' but the station ignores the letter," Greenberg says.

In fact, Greenberg says, Carroll James copied and shared the hit single with other DJs, fanning the flames of demand.

Eventually, Capitol Records moved up the release date of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," to Dec. 26, 1963.

The turning point

Greenberg says Capitol's decision to put the record on sale the day after Christmas was crucial.

If Capitol hadn't, youngsters wouldn't have heard the song when they were home with a lot of time on their hands, many listening to transistor radios they had just gotten as stocking stuffers, says Greenberg.

"This was the year the price of transistor radios dropped dramatically, and a lot of off-brands entered the market with cheap Japanese transistor radios," says Greenberg.

"So you've got all these kids with a new piece of hardware, and lots of time to play with it, and what they hear coming out of the radio is The Beatles singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.'"

Greenberg says Jack Parr, who had a show on competing network NBC, wanted to scoop Sullivan's CBS show, so Parr licensed some footage from the BBC of The Beatles singing "She Loves You," which was broadcast Jan. 3.

"He actually got 13 million additional viewers the night he had the Beatles song on the air," says Greenberg.

After the Parr show, demand for Beatles music continued to surge.

Greenberg says "She Loves You" had been released earlier on Swan Records, but had flopped. With the new demand, Swan rushed a re-release to the public.

Another label, Vee Jay quickly re-released "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You," says Greenberg.

"So now within a two week period you've got four Beatles songs on the radio, so kids fell in love with The Beatles as opposed to falling in love with just a song."

The Beatles 'hidden advantage'

In 1963 and 1964, the methods for bands becoming hugely popular were few.

Greenberg says a band had to have a popular song on the radio, since there were few entertainment reporters.

Greenberg says The Beatles "had the hidden advantage of getting a tremendous amount of press in the U.S. as a news story because British Beatlemania was so crazy."

The first American story about British Beatlemania appeared in the Washington Post in Oct. 1963, written by Flora Lewis, with the headline "Thousands of Britons Riot."

Greenberg says magazine and TV coverage concentrated on the Beatlemania in England, "they didn't write about the music."

While The Beatles didn't have the advantages of social media, at the time young people listened to the radio an average of 3 hours a day, says Greenberg.

Greenberg says the mop tops had the attention of a broad audience.

"The reach of social media is incredible, but it's also incredibly fragmented, and it's very rare for the audience to coalesce around a single piece of content. You can be sure over Christmas 1963 every kid who liked pop music got to hear the Beatles."

What if The Beatles had social media

Greenberg says despite the possibilities of social media, it's doubtful today's bands will ever have the staying power of The Beatles.

"The problem now is we're used to having viral phenomenon of the week. Whether it's Psy or 'What Does the Fox Say,' something will rear its head, " says Greenberg.

And then it goes away.

Greenberg believes audiences in 1964 were willing to invest more time in embracing the next sensation.

"I don't think people have the patience to delve into something with the depth the audience delved into The Beatles back then, because we're onto the next thing," says Greenberg.

Fifty years ago, there was little expectation that a performer would go viral.

"In the case of the Beatles there just was no next thing. It wasn't as though there was another Beatles coming down the road a week later," says Greenberg.

Fans of The Beatles digested the string of hits that followed the landmark Ed Sullivan performance and first whirlwind tour of America.

"They took the time and fell in love with them in a deeper way," says Greenberg.

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