Decca, EMI, and Ed Sullivan: The Beatles Seize February
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the original post below he looks at the Beatles 45th anniversary of being on the Ed Sullivan Show.
For the Beatles, the month of February holds particular significance. Forty-five years ago on 9 February 1964, the Beatles made their official American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show and we have not been the same since. Adolescent America had anticipated the event, abandoning their normal anti-social isolation, positioning the family in front of the television, and ensuring that the CBS eye logo appeared on the screen. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sat at the top of most American charts and the buzz of expectation now deafened anyone who would listen. When Ed Sullivan started his introduction and the audience screams erupted, we experienced one of those singular events in western history as a significant portion of North America temporarily stopped breathing.
But the Beatles had set down the path to the Ed Sullivan Show two years previously in what must be one of the most remarkable weeks in music history. On Monday 5 February 1962, the Beatles’ drummer Pete Best fell ill and the band recruited an old friend from a rival band. Ringo Starr appeared that night with John, Paul, and George in Southport, a city just north of Liverpool. Decca Records had just informed the Beatles that they would not be signing a recording contract. Perhaps Starr’s dry humor helped spark optimism that would get them through the month, just as his personality would help anchor them as America exploded around them in a February two years later.
The next day, Tuesday 6 February, the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein argued with Dick Rowe at Decca’s headquarters in an attempt to change his mind about rejecting the Beatles. Rowe, the head of artists and repertoire, notoriously and condescendingly informed Epstein that guitar groups were passé and that he and Decca’s sales manager, Sidney Arthur Beecher-Stevens recommended Epstein return to record retailing in Liverpool.
Liverpudlians do not fold so easily. On Wednesday (two years to the day when the Beatles would arrive in New York), Epstein met with Tony Meehan, the former drummer of the most famous guitar group in Britain, the Shadows and who had been at Decca the day the Beatles had auditioned, to talk about an independent production. Meehan would produce and have his own hits in 1962. Still, little about the meeting seemed to satisfy Epstein and yet another great moment of potential slipped into history, but the planets were still moving. By Thursday, they began coming into alignment.
On 8 February, Epstein walked into the Oxford Street HMV store to visit with the record store manager and to use the services of the house engineer who could transfer at least some of the Beatles failed audition from tape to disk. The engineer, Jim Foy, liked the Lennon-McCartney tunes and put Epstein in touch with another occupant of the building, Sid Colman, the head of EMI’s publishers, Ardmore and Beechwood. Colman in turn contacted George Martin of Parlophone Records and helped arrange a meeting the following Tuesday between the band manager and the artists and repertoire manager.
The end of the week found Colman and Martin meeting, no doubt discussing the polite and endlessly effusive businessman and his oddly named beat group. They could not know that in two years from that day, the Beatles would smash through American television screens and into the lives of millions. By the weekend, Epstein was writing to Decca informing them that the Beatles had arranged for a different company to record them. He exaggerated of course, but perhaps he could feel the momentum building, if not the sting of Rowe’s comments fading.