Carole Lombard didn't fancy herself much of a singer, but that doesn't mean she didn't like music. Her romantic relationship with Russ Columbo was at least partly based on music, and she not only made a film with Bing Crosby ("We're Not Dressing"), but owned many of his records as well. A famous Lombard anecdote has her piping in the record "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You" in the midst of a solemn deathbed scene during filming of the Clark Gable-Myrna Loy drama "Parnell"...and that may have been Louis Armstrong's version, probably the best known.
We bring all this up because it's fascinating to ponder an alternate universe, one where Carole's plane lands safely in 1942 and her life goes on for at least a few more decades. That premise leads to all sorts of unanswered questions, but today we'll focus on one, because it concerns something that took place 50 years ago today:
What would Carole Lombard have thought of the Beatles?
To get an answer, we'd have to fill in 22-plus years of her life, something none of us honestly can do. She'd have been 55 in February 1964, a few years younger than I am today...and I'm currently not at all conversant on the fragmented music scene. (While some of that was true in '64, the relatively few media outlets of the day -- some AM and TV stations, few FM stations of significance and no cable, satellite TV or Internet -- meant audiences were a bit more generalized, with hardly any niche programming.) So while I've heard of Justin Bieber, for example, I couldn't identify a song of his.
But let's set aside this what-if for a look back at the Beatles' conquering of the U.S. this month, far eclipsing the stateside success of any previous British act. And I know -- I was there.
OK, so I wasn't in the theater watching them perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" the night of Feb. 9, 1964; I was all of eight years old at the time. But I was one of the 73 million who watched that evening (and while the picture above is in color and we didn't purchase a color set until 1967, it wouldn't have mattered -- the telecast was in black and white), and already was thrilling to their music.
By early '64, I had been listening to Top 40 radio for a little over a year and listened every Friday afternoon to the countdown over WOLF radio in Syracuse. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" quickly topped the charts, followed by "She Loves You," "Do You Want To Know A Secret," "Love Me Do"...in fact, in early April, the Beatles commanded the top five slots in the Billboard Hot 100, a feat that's never been equaled. It helped that Capitol gave the group an unprecedented push, as this window display from the spring of '64 makes evident:
In some ways, though, the American version of Beatlemania came despite Capitol, not because of it. To explain that, we have to look to some curious decisions from the fabled Capitol Tower in 1963:
By 1963, Capitol -- whose founders included legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer -- had been sold to EMI, a British-based company which ran a number of UK labels. One of the lesser of these labels, Parlophone, had signed the Beatles in 1962 and had a middling British hit that fall with "Love Me Do." There was no reason to issue the record in the U.S. then, but the followup, "Please Please Me," reached No. 2 on the UK charts and EMI officials suggested to Capitol that it should release it in the States. It refused.
EMI shopped around for an American outlet and finally found one in Chicago-based Vee Jay Records, best known for R&B acts such as Jerry Butler and more recently the home of the chart-topping Four Seasons. So "Please Please Me" was released in America in late February 1963...but this unknown group from Liverpool had its name misspelled on the label:
It wasn't a huge seller by any means; only 5,650 copies were sold in the first half of 1963. But enough people liked it to put it in the lower reaches of the charts (No. 40 the first week, up to 35 the second) on Chicago's WLS, a 50,000-watt powerhouse whose nighttime signal enveloped the Midwest. Dick Biondi, a legendary Top 40 disc jockey, is credited as the first jock in the U.S. to play a Beatles record.
Vee Jay released the followup, "From Me To You" (the Beatles' first No. 1 UK single), and it had some chart success on KRLA in Los Angeles that August, peaking at No. 32, shortly before George Harrison visited his sister in southern Illinois and returned to England skeptical the Beatles could crack the U.S. market:
But the single after that --"She Loves You," their British breakthrough -- found a new home, as Vee Jay hadn't paid Parlophone revenue from the earlier records (its owner reportedly had gambling debts). Capitol still wasn't interested, so Philadelphia-based Swan released it. The record had little impact in the States in '63, and Swan asked former Philly pal Dick Clark (whose "American Bandstand" had moved to Los Angeles that summer) to use it as part of his "Rate-A-Record" feature on the show. The teens polled were rather cool to it.
By early November, the Beatles were a British phenomenon, drawing sellout crowds and regularly appearing on UK TV, including a Nov. 4 performance alongside Marlene Dietrich (they had performed her signature song, "Falling In Love Again," at their shows in Hamburg):
On vacation in London that month, Ed Sullivan saw the impassioned reaction to the group's return from a Scandinavian tour and arranged for them to make three appearances on his show in early 1964. That enabled EMI to put the pressure on Capitol, which agreed to release their upcoming single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (although Capitol made "I Saw Her Standing There" the B-side rather than the ballad "This Boy," the first in a series of moves where Beatle album and single content would vastly differ on each side of the pond). Other labels with rights to Beatles records released what was available, and the Fab Four swamped the charts in early '64...something that wouldn't have happened if Capitol had retained their rights all along.
The rest is history. There was the Sullivan show and two dates at Carnegie Hall, with a gig at the Washington Coliseum in between, along with a photograph near the U.S. Capitol:
Some of that history came in Los Angeles, such as the 1964 show at the Hollywood Bowl...
...and a 1966 concert (their next-to-last) at Dodger Stadium:
There are all sorts of events over the next few days to commemorate this milestone of music. Today, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York will unveil a plaque honoring the Beatles' arrival, while Sunday CBS will air a music spectacular with all sorts of acts (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are expected to appear and perform). And on Tuesday, the Washington Coliseum -- long out of use as a music venue -- will replicate the D.C. event with a Beatles tribute band.
In closing, I recall mentioning the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania in Britain to my mother a few months before her passing; she asked me, "Were they really that good?" (She too had watched the Sullivan show on Feb. 9, 1964 and knew I had played plenty of Beatles records in the house during the '60s, but she was now nearing 93 and her memory was fading.) I replied, "Yes." Like Crosby, Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and other legends, greatness transcends genre.
And here's an example -- a track that will never make any greatest hits compilation...in fact, it's a fairly obscure cut from their second British album, "With The Beatles," or their Capitol debut LP, "Meet The Beatles." It's called "All I've Got To Do," and from the opening chord to John Lennon's impassioned vocal (not to mention George Martin's intelligent production), it's magnificent. And the Beatles made scores of such records.