Beatles First U.S. Concert

On February 10, 1964, Ringo Starr stepped off the train in Washington's Union Station and said, "It's great to be here in New York!" He was joking, pretending to be disoriented by his whirlwind life. He was in Washington to play the first Beatles concert in the United States, scheduled for that night at the Washington Coliseum (1140 Third St. NE). How the Beatles made Washington their first public stateside performance is a story of fortuitous happenings that combined to make the nation's capital one of the epicenters of Beatlemania.

By late 1963, the Beatles were already stars in the U.K. but Capitol Records—which owned the U.S. rights to the Beatles' recordings—had no faith that a British act could do well in the United States. Consequently the company didn't release the U.K. hits "Please Please Me" or "She Loves You," instead, licensing those off to the much smaller labels Vee-Jay and Swan. They went nowhere.

But when a Silver Spring girl saw a short segment about the Beatles on "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" in December, 1963, it started a chain of events that forced Capitol's hand. The girl, Marsha Albert, wrote to her favorite Washington DJ, Carroll James of WWDC-AM, asking him why he wasn't playing songs by this hot British band. Carroll had also seen the CBS report, and arranged to get a copy of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" from a British Airways flight attendant. He called up Albert and invited her to the station to introduce the song, and on the afternoon of December 17, Albert was on the air on WWDC-AM saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen, for the first time on the air in the United States, here are the Beatles singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.' "

The station was deluged with calls. Carroll James taped copies of the single for a DJ pal in Chicago, who did the same for a friend in St. Louis. Capitol Records demanded they stop playing the single, but soon realized the Beatles were out of the bag, and rushed its own release of the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" single, three weeks ahead of schedule.

It was soon the number one song in America, a fact that got the Beatles booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They flew into New York on February 7, 1964, facing a mob at the airport. They played "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 9, to a studio audience of 728 people but a television audience of nearly 74 million, almost half the entire U.S. population at the time. They had booked the Washington show and then two dates at Carnegie Hall at the last minute to help defray travel costs, and were preparing to fly to Washington on Tuesday February 10, but a snowstorm steered them to the train. Manager Brian Epstein hired a sleeper car and got it attached to the morning train to Washington. At Union Station, a crowd of 2,000 screaming fans greeted the band, and they met with DJ James and the Silver Spring girl Albert, whose letter had helped spark the madness.

Limousines took the foursome and their entourage to the Shoreham Hotel (they'd booked the entire 7th floor), and John Lennon scribbled the night's planned set list on hotel stationary. At the Coliseum, more than 8,000 people, mostly young women and girls, were screaming for the Beatles, all throughout performances by the Caravelles, Tommy Roe and the Chiffons. They'd paid $2, $3 and $4 for their tickets. Inside the hall—built for sporting events—the Beatles performed before their largest crowd to date, on a stage that was a converted boxing ring (without the ropes). They ran through a 35-minute set consisting of: "Roll Over, Beethoven," "From Me to You," "I Saw Her Standing There," "This Boy," "All My Loving," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Please Please Me," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Twist and Shout" and "Long Tall Sally."

By most reports, the audience could hardly hear a thing by the band, which was drowned out by the screams (they were hindered by a ludicrously inadequate sound system as well). They were rushed back to the Shoreham after the show to change clothes before heading to the British Embassy for a reception. It was well past midnight when they arrived, and the Beatles made mischief with the Ambassador's attempts to greet them. "I'm not John," said John. "I'm Charlie. That's John." Pointing to George Harrison. They signed hundreds of autographs and Ringo Starr lost a lock of hair to a woman with nail scissors. They headed back to New York the next morning by train, to play Carnegie Hall and to appear again on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They left behind a snow-covered city, whose inhabitants had helped start a global wave of cultural change. They couldn't know that, however.

One reporter at Union Station had asked John Lennon, "You and the snow came to Washington at the same time today. Which do you think will have the greater impact?" Lennon said, "The snow will probably last longer." Ringo chimed in with, "Yeah, we're going tomorrow."

The Coliseum where this historical concert took place still stands. It was used for a long time as a trash transfer station, but was recently purchased by a developer who is looking at preservation options.