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How Walter Cronkite jump-started Beatlemania in America

by Bruce Spizer

In researching my book "The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America," I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Walter Cronkite. The interview was set up through his chief of staff, Marlene Adler, who gave me the number of his New England retreat and the time to call. As the time approached, I was overwhelmed by the excitement of getting to talk with "the most trusted man in American." I, like many other Americans in the sixties and seventies, had religiously watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. I had seen him report the news and interview numerous world leaders. Now I was about to interview him!

I anxiously dialed the number hoping I would be up to the task. Mr. Cronkite answered the phone and told me he had been expecting my call. In his distinctive baritone voice, the one I had heard for thousands of hours, he warned that I would have to speak loudly "because the phone connection is not too good up here." He then laughed and said, "Actually it's my hearing that's not too good." His admission put me at ease. Although he was an American icon, the greatest anchorman of all time, he could laugh at himself and come across as just another person.

Mr. Cronkite's easy-going manner gave me the confidence to start the interview with a polite and respectful challenge to a claim he made regarding The Beatles. In prior interviews, including one shown on the DVD "Cronkite Remembers, A Remarkable Century," he stated that Ed Sullivan learned about The Beatles through his broadcast of a story on the group on the CBS Evening News. I explained to Mr. Cronkite that the facts did not support this as Ed Sullivan had booked The Beatles to appear on his show during a meeting with Brian Epstein that took place on November 12, 1963, and that the CBS Evening News broadcast of The Beatles story did not run until December 10, 1963. Mr. Cronkite immediately recognized the problem, but stated that he vividly remembered getting a call from an excited Ed Sullivan within minutes after running the piece on The Beatles as the closing story on the Evening News.

"He said, 'Walter, tell me more about those, what do they call them? Those bugs or whatever they call themselves.' I didn't remember the group's name and had to look down on my copy sheet for the Evening News to tell him, 'They are called The Beatles.' Ed wanted to know what I knew about the group, which was next to nothing. I told Ed I would query our guy in London. I don't know what happened after that, but soon Ed was announcing he would have The Beatles on his show."

I explained to Mr. Cronkite that I had no doubt the telephone call took place just as he remembered it, but that he had misinterpreted its meaning. When Ed Sullivan had booked The Beatles one month earlier, he was taking a chance as the group was virtually unknown in America. His seeing the group featured on The CBS Evening News was cause for joyous excitement. Sullivan realized that if Walter Cronkite deemed The Beatles newsworthy, America would soon catch on. Three days later Sullivan issued a press release that The Beatles would be appearing on his show in February, 1964. Sullivan's failure to remember the group's name was also understandable as he was notorious for forgetting names. When he later had The Supremes on his show, Sullivan could not recall the group's name and introduced them as "The girls."

While someone of such importance could have easily been offended by my challenging his statements, Mr. Cronkite appreciated my correcting his error and providing a logical explanation for Sullivan's comments regarding "those bugs." Mr. Cronkite's instinctive quest for getting the story right was all that mattered. No wonder he was the most trusted man in America.

He then told me the story behind the story that ran on CBS in late 1963. "Alexander Kendrick, one of our leading correspondents in London, sent us a story about a group of young musicians called The Beatles. This surprised me because Kendrick was a very serious minded fellow who was interested in foreign affairs. It was not like him to do feature stories. He had read in the London papers about The Beatles, who were just beginning to make a splash, and in pursuit of another story in Manchester, he spent an evening at an appearance by these long-haired musicians. The audience was largely of girls screaming and hollering with some new form of worship. He suggested that his camera crew film a report. He wasn't a fan of that kind of music, so he got another reporter, Josh Darsa, to interview the band. Kendrick sent the story to us, and we looked at it in New York."

Mr. Cronkite's recollections matched my research and the feature story prepared by Kendrick. The Beatles were filmed by CBS at their November 16, 1963, concert at Bournemouth Winter Gardens. That evening the group was interviewed by Josh Darsa, who told the New Musical Express, "I never thought a British audience could or would react this way for anyone." CBS's London Bureau completed the story the following day and sent it to New York.

Mr. Cronkite then told me of his reaction to the story. "I was semi-interested, but I did not immediately run the story because it was a busy news week. I put it on the shelf until we had time for that sort of feature."

As it turned out, the story was slated to run at the end of that week on the CBS Morning News and the CBS Evening News. But just hours after the feature on The Beatles was broadcast on the morning of November 22, 1963, Walter Cronkite was on the air informing the country that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. There was no evening news that night as CBS and the other two networks carried on with continuous coverage of the tragic assassination of the President. "For the next few weeks, the President's death dominated the news. By the second week in December, I thought it was once more appropriate to run feature stories. We decided to broadcast Kendrick's Beatles piece on our Evening News program. Shortly after we were off the air, I got a call from Ed Sullivan."

And that brought us up to where we started the interview-the December 10, 1963, broadcast of the Beatles story on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. I then explained the significance of the broadcast to Mr. Cronkite. Not only did it prompt Ed Sullivan to begin promoting The Beatles upcoming appearance on his show well in advance of when he would normally do so, but it was also the first in a series of events that would jumpstart Beatlemania in America.

One of the people watching the CBS Evening News that night was Marsha Albert, a 15-year old girl living in Silver Spring, Maryland. She and her family watched as The Beatles were shown performing "She Loves You." Marsha liked what she saw and heard. According to WWDC disc jockey Carroll James, she wrote a letter to the station referring to the Beatles appearance on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and asked, "Why can't we have this music in America?" James arranged to have a copy of The Beatles latest single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," delivered to him by a friend who was a flight attendant with British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.).

Carroll James and Marsha Albert in 1984

On December 17, 1963, Carroll James had Marsha Albert come down to the station to introduce the song on his radio show. After hearing "I Want To Hold Your Hand," listeners began calling the station requesting that the song be played again. Teenagers also went to record stores looking to buy the record. Capitol Records, which had just signed The Beatles a few weeks earlier and scheduled "I Want To Hold Your Hand" for release on January 13, 1964, was caught off guard and initially demanded that WWDC quit playing the song until the record's release date. When radio stations in Chicago and St. Louis began playing the song, Capitol realized that the genie was already out of the bottle. Capitol ordered its factories to begin pressing copies of the record for a December 26, 1963 release.

New York's three major radio stations, WABC, WINS and WMCA, placed the record in heavy rotation. Children were out of school and were listening to the radio. They liked what they heard. They had Christmas and Hanukah money and their parents could take them to record stores. Radio airplay and sales of the single quickly pushed "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to the top of the charts in New York. Other cities across the country followed suit and by the time The Beatles arrived in New York on February 7, 1964, they were topping the national charts. Walter Cronkite closed the CBS Evening News that evening with film of screaming fans witnessing the group's arrival at Kennedy Airport. Two nights later, a record 73 million people tuned in to watch The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Had Walter Cronkite not broadcast the Beatles story, Marsha Albert would not have called WWDC and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" would not have been released until mid-January, 1964. With the group's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show only three weeks away, there would not have been enough time for the song to generate the type of excitement needed to attract 73 million viewers. As strange as it sounds, Beatlemania in America was jumpstarted by Walter Cronkite, a 15-year old girl from Silver Spring, Maryland, and a Washington, D.C. disc jockey.

Mr. Cronkite was both pleased and amused by his pivotal role in the explosion of Beatlemania in America. His friendship with Ed Sullivan led to his bringing his daughters with him to meet The Beatles backstage at the Sullivan Show. "Meeting The Beatles made my daughters the heroines of their school for the next few weeks. Even now, they still mention that they met The Beatles in person. I was glorified in their eyes by my ability to introduce them to The Beatles."

Mr. Cronkite gave me his honest appraisal of first seeing the group. "Although my daughters loved The Beatles, I did not share their enthusiasm. I was offended by the long hair. That was a pretty minor point, of course, but I did not care for the appearance of The Beatles very much. Their music did not appeal to me either. My music was Dixieland jazz, one of the great forms of music with its improvisation. As far as music goes, my daughters viewed me as an old fuddy duddy. I was not a Beatlemaniac by any means. But I got used to it."

Interviewing Mr. Cronkite was one of the greatest moments of my life. My only regret is that I did not have time to talk with him about things other than The Beatles. I shared his enthusiasm for the U.S. space program and would have loved to hear him talk about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

After completing my book, I realized that Mr. Cronkite would be the perfect person to write the foreword. He graciously agreed to do so and sent me his foreword one week later.

The news of his death prompted me to re-read his foreword. As my eyes moved across the page, I imaged him reading it at his anchor desk with his distinctive baritone voice.

"Seeing the pictures of the girls chasing after The Beatles in New York and the group's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show brought back memories of my initial reaction. I remember thinking, 'Look at those silly girls.' I was amazed that these figures on the stage could generate such hysteria. The text and the images of The Beatles arrival at Kennedy Airport bring back the excitement of that day. The rows of girls up on the roof of the Kennedy Airport terminal waiting for the plane. The CBS News station wagon with its heavy camera and sound equipment strapped on its roof poised to capture the event. The Beatles exiting the plane and waving to the crowd. The Beatles apparently charming most of the tough New York reporters at their airport press conference. And that's the way it was, Friday, February 7, 1964."

Bruce Spizer is the author of seven books on The Beatles, including "The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America." He serves as a consultant for EMI/Capitol Records on Beatles projects and wrote the questions and answers for The Beatles Trivial Pursuit game. His website is www.beatle.net.

Published July 20, 2009

This article is Copyright © 2009, The Author, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission

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