WASHINGTON — Photographer Mike Mitchell remembers the first time he heard the Beatles.
It was 1964, and he had recently graduated from high school when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” suddenly came on the car radio.
“I bonded with it immediately,” he says. “It was like nothing you’ve ever, ever heard before.”
Despite being just 18 years old, Mitchell had already established a reputation as a local freelancer and knew that his camera could get him in to see the world’s hottest young band.
Mitchell called up an editor and pitched covering the Beatles’ first concert in the United States.
“I got this red card that allowed me all kinds of access,” he says.
With that little red card, Mitchell was among dozens of media waiting for the Beatles at Union Station on Feb. 11, 1964. It was snowing that day, and the crowd was hungry to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four.
Despite the swarming masses, Mitchell muscled his way toward the band and captured candid photos of them looking excited and even a little overwhelmed. In one memorable shot, a very young Paul McCartney has a peculiar smirk on his face, almost like he can’t believe what’s happening.
In a later interview with The Washington Post, McCartney confessed that he was often bewildered in those days by the band’s success, Mitchell says. His photo – which can be seen below – seems to capture that sense of disbelief.
“McCartney had said, ‘Everywhere we go in the United States, it’s really happening.’ And it was one of those ‘it’s really happening’ kinds of moments,” Mitchell says of the photo.
Paul McCartney at Union Station
Paul McCartney is seen at Union Station Feb. 11, 1964. (Courtesy Mike Mitchell)
By the time the Beatles made their way to the Washington Coliseum for the band’s first American concert, a buzz was in the air, Mitchell says. Thousands of fans, most of them in their teens and early 20s, had flocked to Northeast D.C. despite the freezing temperatures. They were rabid with glee.
During a news conference before the highly anticipated show, Mitchell was able to sneak on stage and take some of the most iconic photos ever made of the Fab Four.
“The screaming was louder than anything you’ve ever heard, and constant throughout the entire concert,” he says.
It was so loud that many concertgoers further from the stage complained that they couldn’t hear the music. As a photographer, Mitchell was directly in front of the band and heard every beat played that night.
“Over the years, I’ve come to realize what a privileged perspective that really was,” he says.
He even managed to steal one of Ringo Starr’s drumsticks, a seemingly innocent act of devotion he later came to regret.
“I had a totally unrealistic vision of who I thought they were,” Mitchell says of the young band.
“You see a real famous rock ‘n’ roll band and you assume they have a thousand drumsticks and that there are 25 guys taking care of everything and they’d never miss one, but it turns out they were a little band of jet-setting gypsies. Their crew was like three or four guys.”
One of those guys, the road manager, later picked Mitchell out of a crowd at a Baltimore gig and made him promise not to steal another drumstick.
“That was a pretty strange experience,” Mitchell jokes.
Looking back on those years, Mitchell admits he didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of what he witnessed until much later. Now, those photos that he took as an 18-year-old rookie photographer are selling for thousands of dollars.
Forty-six pieces of his collection sold at a 2011 Christie’s auction in London for $361,938.
“Even though … I didn’t know it was going to be such a historical event, I could really feel the magnitude of it, that it was bigger than the moment, which is an experience I had never had before,” he says.
The photos reflect that sense of awe. Mitchell says he didn’t set out to take a behind-the-scenes look, but to capture a moment in time.
The Beatles play at the Washington Coliseum. (Courtesy Mike Mitchell)
The collection includes a series of portraits from the Beatles on stage – many of them taken from up close. They show the band smiling, singing and simply enjoying performing for their fans. The screaming hordes seem to disappear into the background, and all that remains in an intimate moment between the band and the music.
“The pictures have this mysterious feeling about them that you can’t quite put your finger on,” Mitchell says.
You can see some of this collection Saturday and Sunday as part of the Beatles Yesterday and Today 50th -anniversary celebration. Tickets for the exhibit are $10. All photos are on sale. Click here for more information.
The photos will also be on display Tuesday at the Beatles tribute concert.