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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.

Recent Comments

  1. Mr Moonlight

    Since those fateful days the Beatles have become As classical as Beethoven and boy did they teach Tchaikovsky some blues? If you love the Fab Four as much as I do? Tune in to beatlesradio.com for Beatles music 24/7. Thanks Mr moonlight.

  2. Gordon

    I don’t know that we need to think of the Beatles as “classical,” although I recognize a cross plug when I see one. :-)

    If anything, the Beatles were anti-classical in the sense that they represented a movement in Britain to undermine class hierarchy. (What else can “classical music” refer to if not the class that traditionally patronized it?)

    And when Chuck Berry commands Beethoven to “roll over” and “tell Tchaikovsky the news,” I think he meant in their graves. Rock and the under-privileged now ruled.

    Thanks for the comments.


  3. MikeC

    Two points:

    Southport is not a city but a town, 16 miles to the north of Liverpool.

    Ringo Starr did not join the Beatles until after they had signed with Parlophone. It was George Martin who urged them to dump Pete Best as drummer.

  4. Stephen Evans

    S Beecher-Stevens was my godfather. I would like to put on record that he thought the Beatles were excellent and wantedn to sihn them. Sir Edward Lewis chairman of Decca thought otherwise. This upset my godfather and led to his forced early retirement from Decca. Decca had the Rolling Stones of course. My uncle never forgave Lewis.

  5. Gordon Thompson

    Mike, thanks for the correction on Southport. I inadvertently upgraded its municipal status. As for Ringo, I didn’t mean to suggest that he joined the Beatles in February; only that he deputized for Pete Best on that night. And I think all George Martin indicated was that he intended to replace Pete Best on the recording session; but that they could keep him for their live shows. That would have been standard practice.

    Stephen, thanks for the insight on your godfather’s mindset. Very informative.


  6. John

    Stephen, I find it odd that the chairman of Decca would have a say in the signing of an unknown group. Music artists having auditions, being signed and dropped must have been a common thing – too common for the top man to get involved?

    Wasn’t it Mike Smith who recommended the Beatles be dropped by DECCA when Dick Rowe asked him? Rowe merely relayed the new to Epstein?

    George Martin did not suggest that Best to be sacked. The real reason for the dismissal is still a mystery with only one man, Paul McCartney, still alive who fully knows. George Harrison was the hawk to have Best sacked but he never gave the real reason(s). The sacking was 2.5 months after the June 6 session at Abbey Rd.

    Another myth is that the Beatles 6 June first session at Abbey Rd with Pete Best was an audition. It was not. Even Pete Best has stated so. They were told they were to record a single. The contract to record a single was already signed. No record label would allow unknowns to record their own written songs in those days. Any White, the session drummer called in, stated he was very surprised an unknown band on their first recordings were recording their own songs. The Beatles had financial leverage over EMI.

    The Beatles did record their own songs and turned down a sure-fire hit, because it was not written by them, How Do You Do It, a No. 1 hit later with Gerry and the Pacemakers. The first release, Love Me Do, was rather lame and dull and obvious why it was a minor hit.

    It has been written that Epstein threatened EMI with withdrawing EMI records from his stores to get the Beatles recording a single. The economic threat by Epstein meant EMI gave in. Even Martin stated, “EMI had nothing to lose by recording the Beatles”. Martin’s knowledge of rocks bands was little more than nil, as he had never recorded such music previously. Martin was on the bottom end of EMI in their small Parlophone label. It was clear EMI allowed Epstein to make a single to keep the NEMS record sales, so never gave him the top EMI labels or experienced rock music producers.

  7. […] the Beatles already scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (more on this in my February blog), Capitol had at first agreed to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in January. But they could […]

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