On February 11, 1964, roughly eight inches of snow covered the ground in Washington, and temperatures were bottoming out in the low 20s. But that didn’t stop 8,092 Washingtonians — primarily screaming female teenagers — from trekking to the Washington Coliseum in Northeast D.C., to experience The Beatles’ first full North American concert.
After several opening acts, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr entered a ropeless boxing ring, smack dab in the middle of the Washington Coliseum’s floor, and played for about 35 minutes.
How is it that Washington, D.C., came to host this momentous event?
To find out, we have to go back to November 1963, when CBS aired the first American news story about The Beatles. It was filed by London correspondent Alexander Kendrick. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said dryly over tracks of The Beatles singing their hit, “She Loves You.” “Those are The Beatles. And this is ‘Beatle Land,’ formerly known as Britain, where an epidemic called ‘Beatlemania’ has seized the teenaged population, especially female.”
Kendrick’s story debuted on “The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace,” on November 22. It was slated to run again on “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite,” but was pre-empted by coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. So weeks later, on December 10th, 1963, Cronkite finally re-aired Kendrick’s report.
That’s where Washington comes in.
“About two days later I got a letter from a listener. Marsha Albert. 15 years old. Sligo Junior High School. She said, ‘I saw this on television the other night, and if these guys are so great, why can’t we hear their music here?’”, recalls WWDC disc jockey Carroll James.
James wound up emceeing the Coliseum concert in February of ‘64. But back in December of ‘63, when he read Marsha Albert’s plea for The Beatles, he said to himself: “’Well, there’s nothing we won’t do for our listeners at WWDC!’ So in one or two days, we had hand-carried by a stewardess, this Parlophone record from England of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ And I asked Marsha to come in and introduce it, since she was the one who started the whole thing! I wrote out a little introduction for her. And I had written it on the back of a traffic report: ‘Accident at Second and T Northeast, two vehicles involved,’ you know. And so she read the introduction to the first Beatle record in the United States!”
Once the folks at Capitol Records caught wind of this unofficial airing, James says they were pretty peeved. “The people at Capitol Records in New York later told me they were going to get an injunction against us,” he recalls.
But it wasn’t long before they realized they had a major hit on their hands. So they moved the song’s official U.S. release date up from January 13, 1964 to shortly after Christmas, 1963.
Not long after that, Beatles manager Brian Epstein called up Harry Lynn, owner of the Washington Coliseum, and asked if the band could perform there; it would be the largest venue they’d ever played. Lynn had never heard of The Beatles, actually, but he said yes, and ran an ad — just one ad — in The Washington Post.
“Somebody just posted on Facebook the first and perhaps only newspaper ad that ran to advertise the show in the Post, and tickets were two, three and four dollars,” says Tom Carrico, who, at age 13, was among the lucky ones who saw the ad and managed to nab tickets.
“Retracing that night, we had a huge snowstorm, and The Beatles had to take the train down from New York instead of fly, because of the snow storm,” he recalls.
The day before, The Beatles had made their Ed Sullivan Show debut. So on February 11 they arrived at Union Station at 3:10 p.m., much to the delight of the 2,000 screaming fans who’d braved the weather to see the lads from Liverpool. The band then hit the Coliseum for a sound check and, as Tom Carrico remembers, for some wintertime fun.
“If you look at the photos, you can see them playing out in the snow, throwing snowballs in the parking lot,” he says. “We probably had a foot of snow — which, you know what a foot of snow does to this town now, well, imagine 50 years ago!”
Naomi Banks has been living on Third Street Northeast, directly across from the Washington Coliseum, for decades. And she was watching as photographers snapped those snowball pictures. Now she has some of the images in her scrapbook of the many events held at the Washington Coliseum — originally known as the Uline Arena — through the years.
“Stevie Wonder played over there. Paul Robeson sang there. I got a picture of that somewhere,” she says. “It was just so many people!”
But the most memorable people, she says, had to be The Beatles. She was 16, and got to see much of the show before her parents made her come home.
One of the items in her scrapbook is directly tied to that monumental night: a copy of the song list of the concert, scribbled on Shoreham Hotel stationery by John Lennon. The Beatles had booked the Shoreham’s entire seventh floor for the night. The story goes that when one family on that floor refused to relocate, the Shoreham cut off their hot water, electricity and heating, claiming a “power failure.”
After the Fab Four checked in, they returned to the Coliseum for a pre-show press conference. Columbia, Md. resident Michael Oberman was a burgeoning music journalist at the time. But his older brother, Ron, was already writing about music, and got to attend that press conference for The Washington Star.
“Throughout the approximately 20-minute press meeting, the band was polite and characteristically impish,” writes Ron Oberman. “I recall asking George Harrison, ‘Do you currently have a girlfriend?’ His reply: ‘Yes, love. You!’”
As for The Beatles being “characteristically impish”… well, Ron Oberman was spot-on. Here’s an exchange from the television interview that John, Paul, George and Ringo gave at the Coliseum right after that press conference.
Michael Oberman, Ron’s little brother, was 16 when he attended the D.C. concert.
“I just remember because of the way the Coliseum was set up, and the stage was in the center, when I first got there I thought ‘Oh my gosh, some people are never going to be able to see the front of The Beatles!’” he recalls. “But they actually moved around on stage and moved the drum set and turned so that the entire audience could get to see them at one time or another.”
“It was a pretty frenetic and short set. It was maybe 35 minutes. And it was hit after hit,” Oberman says.
Indeed, as the crowd lovingly pelted the band with flashbulbs and jellybeans — a confection said to be the fellas’ favorite — they performed a dozen hits. From “I Saw Her Standing There” to “This Boy” to the tune that got the whole ball rolling: “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
Before The Beatles launched in to that one, Paul announced to the crowd: “We’d like to thank everybody here in America, Washington, America… for buying this particular record and starting this thing off in America, and giving us the chance to come here and see you all in Washington!”
Today you can watch the entire concert via a black-and-white CBS video, later shown as a closed-circuit broadcast in many venues, including The Coliseum. But while the sound on the video is decently clear, folks who were there that night will readily admit: they could barely hear the music.
“This [sic] was the days before there were real music venues in D.C.,” Michael Oberman explains. “So you had to settle for places like the Coliseum. And the Coliseum was probably the worst place in Washington for music! It was a big cement barn!”
“It was pandemonious [sic] in there!” says Naomi Banks. “Kids screaming, hollering, crying! I think they was [sic] out-screaming the music!”
Tom Carrico agrees. “It was a feeling in the room, like an explosion,” he recalls. “I’ve been to thousands of concerts; I’m in the music business now. I managed The Nighthawks in the 70s here and was their booking agent as well for a long time. And there’s nothing I’ve experienced quite like that night.”
Later that evening, the band attended a reception at the British Embassy, where they signed hundreds of autographs and Ringo Starr lost a lock of hair to a woman who was just a little too quick with the nail scissors.
The next morning they hopped a train back to New York to play Carnegie Hall, and to make another appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
And years later, when Paul McCartney was asked what he remembers from that first North American show?
“I don’t remember thinking we played particularly well. But looking back, time has been very kind to us. It was a cool gig. The great thing about memories is that the good bits are the ones that tend to remain… The trip to Washington is a very romantic time in my memory,” he said.
On February 11, fans of The Beatles can gather at the Uline Arena (1146 Third Street NE) for a 50th anniversary celebration of the concert. The Beatles’ Washington concert will be screened at the Watha T. Daniels Library in D.C. on February 12.
[Music: “Til There Was You” performed by The Beatles from 2/11/64 Washington Coliseum concert]