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James Ferragut, Published February 08 2014

Ferragut: How they became The Beatles

My life changed on Feb. 9, 1964.

I became aware of The Beatles. I was watching “The Jack Paar Show” in January 1964, when I saw a BBC performance of the Fabs playing “She Loves You.” I didn’t get it ... the segment came and went quickly. But later that month, my best friend Dick Weaver and I played the new album “Meet The Beatles” at least 20 times, dissecting every song, reading credits, trying to figure out who wrote what, which voice belonged to who: John, Paul, George or Ringo.

My introduction to the music of The Beatles prepared me for what would be a worldwide phenomenon. Without warning, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was being played on every radio station in the country. That song was No. 1 in the week The Beatles were to make their American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The story of The Beatles’ arrival in America dominated the news for the 10 days they were stateside. At their first U.S. news conference at Idlewild Airport (not yet re-named Kennedy International), they charmed and stunned with their confident, cheeky irreverence in dealing with a war-hardened and world-weary international press corps:

Press: “Hey, Beatles, will you sing for us?” John: “No. We need money first.”

Press: “Do you like Beethoven?” Ringo: “Yes. Especially his poems.”

Press: “Do you ever get haircuts?” George: “Yeah. I had one yesterday.”

Press: “There’s a movement in Detroit to stamp out the Beatles.”

Paul: “Well, we’ll start a movement to stamp out Detroit.”

Smart. Sassy. They owned the show and won over determined skeptics. In an age when pops stars uttered “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” this was an awakening.

When The Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 73 million Americans tuned in. A generation of the yet un-named baby boomers saw the future. We could not then grasp what their cultural impact would be. On Monday morning, half the boys at every high school in America had hair combed over our foreheads – we wanted to be mop tops.

More has been written about them than any 20th-century person, historical event, world war or political revolution. Ever since that day on July 6, 1957, when Paul McCartney was introduced to John Lennon, literally every minute of their lives has been dissected, interpreted, cross-checked, fact-checked and regurgitated to an obsessed public.

But it’s how they became The Beatles that is fascinating. John and Paul, 16 and 14 years old, and eventually George at 13 played dances, weddings, birthday parties and garden fetes from 1957 until 1960. They honed their musical chops by work and determination. In 1961, the teenagers became world-wise men and world-class musicians by playing in Europe’s toughest city, Hamburg, Germany.

Living in squalor, playing to sailors and prostitutes, they played eight hours a night, seven nights a week for months. Keeping the crowd entertained forced the musicians to extend their repertoire. They learned songs by American artists The Everly Brothers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Barrett Brothers, The Marvelettes, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and Fargo’s Bobby Vee.

Five trips to Hamburg, each lasting months for two years, then returning to Liverpool and northern England on a never-ending tour. They played 2,700 gigs, including 292 shows at Liverpool’s The Cavern. By February 1964, they were “professional.”

From this point on, the impact they had on the world is measurable. They created a rule book for pop music by breaking every rule: They wrote and performed their own music. They assimilated R&B, rock, country, reggae and East Indian, classical influences to create their own language. Over the course of only six years, they recorded 14 albums, released 262 songs, made four movies and toured the globe. When The Beatles played Australia, more than 300,000 fans filled the streets of Adelaide to get a glimpse of them.

Each album was an evolutionary leap. “Rubber Soul’s” introspective, reefer-influenced acoustic laid the foundation for the psychedelic and under respected “Revolver,” to the bona fide album of the century, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the first concept album that changed pop music into an art form.

Pop radio formats never played a song longer than 3½ minutes ... until “Hey Jude,” at more than seven minutes. The Shea Stadium concert in 1965 was the largest rock performance in history with 55,000 Beatlemaniacs attending.

What The Beatles accomplished is mind-blowing: The first recorded feedback on record, the introduction of East Indian instruments, the first backward tape loops, longest album cut, the first time a symphony orchestra played on a pop record (“A Day In the Life” – London Symphony Orchestra) not to mention lyrical brilliance: “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Within You Without You” ... the list is long.

No group or individual will ever be more revolutionary, creative or influential to music and culture than The Beatles. Tonight is the 50th anniversary of their appearance on “Ed Sullivan.” A two-hour special presented by The Grammys will give those too young to know an opportunity to know a little. For us baby-boomers it will be a moment to re-live the on-stage magic. Keep the Kleenex nearby.

Ferragut is a Fargo-based marketing consultant.