On Feb. 11, 1964, Beatlemania blasted Washington — all shrieks and Arthur haircuts and songs people couldn’t quite make out.
Two nights after their hysteria-inducing welcome-to-America appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Beatles played their first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum. With “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sitting atop the American Billboard chart, 8,092 people crowded into the arena near Union Station and witnessed the band perform a dozen songs that changed everything.
“It was one of the most exciting live performances the Beatles ever gave,” says Beatles historian Bruce Spizer, who has studied footage of the concert at the long-defunct Coliseum. “And it gave them great confidence that they indeed could conquer America.”
Here’s the tale of the historic 1964 visit, as told by some of the people who lived it.
John B. Lynn, son of Harry Lynn, who owned the Coliseum: My father got the call asking if he’d be interested in having the Beatles. He, of course, had never heard of them. But he said yes. He brought home a box of Beatles albums and singles to give out, and my brother and I became the most popular people in school.
Paul McCartney: We’d seen a lot of British stars come back from America with their tails between their legs. We made a promise to ourselves to not go until we had a No. 1. We were so excited to be madly popular in America, which was to us the Holy Grail because every shred of music we ever loved came from there. It was euphoric, and now we were heading to Washington on the train, which was very glamorous. And to cap it off, there was that beautiful snow.
Bill Eppridge, former contract photographer for Life magazine who died in 2013 : We were going to fly down from New York, but a big snowstorm hit Washington. The Beatles reserved a couple of cars on the train and got tickets for the press traveling with them. I couldn’t have had a better time. We all liked them. They were always looking for something to do. They had a race up and down the car, and two of them went up and over the seats and two of them crawled in the baggage racks. And then they grabbed the waiters’ uniforms and served drinks.
Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker (“What’s Happening! The Beatles In the USA,” “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit”): All kinds of funny things happened on the train. They were behaving for the camera. Ringo carried some camera bags and worked his way through the coach. They were strangers in a new land, enjoying that kind of fresh experience. I remember a child meeting Ringo and the conversation they had, which was so endearing.
Linda Binns Liles, train passenger on Feb. 11, 1964: My family was riding back [to Richmond], and we happened to be in the only car that got to see the Beatles. They walked through and gave autographs. I was like, “Well, I got two of their autographs; I think I need all four.” I was 9 years old, not a crazy teenager — when we stopped at stations, there were teenagers jumping up and down, trying to look in the windows — so I was able to get back there. I introduced myself to Ringo Starr and promptly sat down and started talking with him. “You went to New York for the first time? So did I.” We had a normal conversation. I was sure he was interested in my fourth-grade teacher as much as I was interested in what he was doing. Paul McCartney, who had me calling him Uncle Paul, asked me if I was coming to their D.C. concert, and I was like, “No, I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.” I was perfectly serious.
Lynn: My father wasn’t in the habit of meeting his acts when they arrived in town. But he met the Beatles. He had been stationed in Liverpool during the war, so I think he might have felt some connection to them. He didn’t expect the crowd — especially on a snowy day.
Maysles: There was an enormous crowd waiting when we got to Union Station.
McCartney: It was unbelievable, a great sort of validation of the whole thing. It was like, “Yeah, look! Everywhere we’re going in America, it’s happening!”
Marsha Albert, who persuaded WWDC-FM deejay Carroll James to play the Beatles on Washington radio in late 1963: There was no school that day because of the big snowstorm. So I went down to Union Station and WWDC got me onto the platform when the train came in. The Beatles got into one car and I got into another. Somehow, I was in the limo with John Lennon’s wife and George Harrison’s sister.
Tommy Roe, “Sheila” singer: In 1963, I was booked in England with Chris Montez, and the Beatles were a featured act on our tour. It was like Elvis Presley all over again. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, had called my manager and put me on the Washington, D.C., show. I was really happy to do the show with them. We were all staying at the Shoreham Hotel, and I tried to hang out with the boys there, but it was pandemonium. I’d already experienced it in England, so I knew it was going to happen in America.
Phil Hollywood, former general manager of the Shoreham Hotel: We sealed off an area of the hotel so they wouldn’t be harassed or bothered. The elevator operators were instructed not to go to their floor, and Capitol Records provided security in the stairwell. But the kids were roaming around, trying to get to the Beatles. It was nonstop. They tried to bribe a maid for a maid’s uniform and some of them laid down in the elevators and said they weren’t getting off until they went to the Beatles’ floor. Security lifted them off the elevator and told them to calm down. We brought the band up to the Presidential Suite in a service elevator. They were very polite, down-to-earth boys, but I think they were overwhelmed by what was happening.
Al Gore: The incredible phenomenon built on itself. The “Ed Sullivan” appearance just prior to their arrival in Washington was electrifying. We could scarcely believe the Beatles were coming to D.C.
Reed Hundt, former Federal Communications Commission chairman: Everybody our age knew about them. How could you not? Gore and I were juniors at St. Albans. We weren’t even 16 until the next month, and the Beatles were singing, “she was just 17.” We were thinking, “Well, that’s too old for us.”
A lbert: I ended up at the arena, where the Beatles were having a press conference. I went out to the radio station trailer where they were doing an interview with Carroll James. He called me in and told them that I was instrumental in getting him to play their record, so they thanked me. I didn’t really say much. They were still in the process of being interviewed. Plus, I was 15 years old. You know what it’s like to be 15.
Mike Mitchell, photographer : I was 18 years old and was a burgeoning freelance photographer. When I heard the Beatles for the first time, on the radio in my ’55 Chevrolet, it was a magical moment. I realized immediately that I wanted to be a part of whatever was going to happen here with their concert. I called a freelance client and asked if they could get me press credentials, which they were able to do. But they had no desire for photographs of the Beatles in their magazine, because they were part of the “grown-up” press establishment. I was on my own, to do whatever I wanted to. I spent most of the day at the Coliseum.
Ron Oberman, former Washington Star music columnist: They had a press conference at the Coliseum before the show, with all four Beatles in a boxing ring that became the stage. I asked George if he had a girlfriend. He said: “Yes, you, love.” I was doing one of the first regular columns on rock in a newspaper, and I was only 20, 21. The older people at the press conference didn’t get it.
McCartney: The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: “Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?” Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.
Eppridge: These guys were so quick and genuinely funny. They had a great sense of humor. They really knew how to handle the press.
Roe: The concert was a big deal. It was an amazing scene. They were really catching on and everybody came to that show, either hanging out backstage and trying to become the fifth Beatle or trying to get on the bill. They kept adding people. The marquee didn’t say anything about the other acts. It just said “The Beatles.” It was all about them. But I wasn’t offended. That’s just the way it worked. I was there to do my two songs and then get off the stage.
McCartney: We were always slightly sort of embarrassed when the promoters laid too heavy an emphasis on us. We were quite democratic about it. Sure we wanted our name big and stuff, but we always liked the others to get a mention.
Lois Lane, of the “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry”-singing Caravelles: We were asked to appear with the Beatles in Washington, and we sort of knew what to expect, because we’d been on a concert with them in Scotland at the end of 1963. We knew it was going to be mayhem and lots of shouting and screaming. When we went on, we got some of that screaming from the girls, too, I think by association, because we also came from England. But we were all sort of incidental, weren’t we? We just happened to be there for a time, to keep the crowd quiet for a while before the Beatles. It was the beginning of that “boy band” type of thing, really. It was exciting.
Lynn: My father had run one ad in the paper, and the concert sold out. He was so stunned that a group he’d never heard of before sold out. It was such an unusual event and it was a windfall. He took the profit and used it to buy my mother a new Lincoln Continental convertible for her birthday. We came home from school and he said, “The Beatles concert bought that for your mother.”
Hundt: I think I still have the ticket somewhere. It was not very expensive — $2.50 or something like that. And it wasn’t like tickets were hard to get.
Larry Sealfon, former record-store clerk: I was working at Super Music in Silver Spring, and we were allocated a block of tickets to sell. But there wasn’t a frenzy or anything like that. It was pretty orderly. After the concert, people came in — mostly mothers — complaining about their seats. They complained that all they got to see was the back of the Beatles.
Albert: The stage was in the middle of the arena and the band had to rotate around the stage. So they were only facing you a quarter of the time. The rest of the time you were either looking at their backs or their sides. That wasn’t ideal.
McCartney: That was the first time we’d ever played in the round. We said: “Do we have to do it?” “Yeah. We’ve sold tickets everywhere. You’ll have to turn around.” How the hell are we doing to do that? “Well, just do a few numbers east then shuffle around north. Then do a few numbers north and shuffle around west.” We said: “What’s Ringo doing to do?” He had to shuffle the [drum] kit around himself. The idea that we had our backs and sides to three-fourths of the audience at any point of the show was awkward. We were used to getting them and holding them — paying attention to them and having them pay attention to us. There were a few things we did once with the Beatles, and playing in the round in Washington was one of them. I don’t think I’ve done the in-the-round thing ever since.
Lynn: They wanted to fit as many people as possible in. If they had played with the stage at one end, they would’ve only been able to fit 6,000 or 6,500. With the stage in the middle, they could fit 8,000.
Hundt: It was mostly girls. Being from a boys school, we had never seen so many girls in one place before. I don’t know that I knew for sure that there were that many girls in the world.
McCartney: It was terrific. We’d been used to it in smaller doses. But in our minds, it’s only right that it should get bigger. And where better for it than America, where everything is bigger? It was very exciting, just having that many people — predominantly girls, all screaming.
Albert: I never was a screamer. It was all about the music for me. The concert started with some warm-up groups, and I was relieved because I had heard about the screaming that went on in England. And I thought: Nobody’s screaming. This is going to be nice; we’re going to be able to hear them. (Laughs.) When they started playing, you couldn’t hear a thing. It was unbelievably loud, like white noise. I remember the policeman near me stuck bullets in his ears.
Eppridge: That’s probably where I lost most of my hearing. Either there or with the Marines in Vietnam, AR-15s cracking next to my ear. I remember my ears hurting from the high-pitched screaming for the Beatles. It was absolutely piercing. If you’re around six railroad train engines and they’re all traveling at 100 miles an hour and they slam on their brakes at the same time — that’s what it sounded like. But it was delightful.
Gore: The acoustics in the arena combined with the absolute frenzy of enthusiasm made it virtually impossible to understand a single word that they sang. You had to listen carefully to get the general flow of the song, and of course everybody knew all the words prior to the concert. We all loved their music, but clearly there were a lot of people in that crowd who loved it even more than I did because they couldn’t stop screaming. I’m thrilled that iTunes [got] the film of that concert, because I’ll get to hear the words clearly for the first time.
McCartney: Opening with “Roll Over Beethoven” wasn’t a statement. Every time we did shows, we did the same as I do now: You just feel the climate; you put your finger in the air and whichever side goes cold is the way the wind’s blowin’. We didn’t plan those things. It was just: “Let’s start with George doing ‘Roll Over Beethoven.’ It’s rockin’.” In retrospect, I should be telling [that] it was a calculated move to show the world of classical music that it was time they rolled over and made way for the delightful young sound that’s going to take over.
Mitchell: I was on the side they were facing, right up against the stage, in front of Lennon. I could feel something momentous happening; it was definitely the most dramatic thing I’d both ever experienced and ever photographed. My principal memory is that I was in a very heightened state of alertness, so incredibly focused. But I’ve seen the footage, and there are times I’m leaning on the stage, just taking it all in. I’ve realized in subsequent years what a tremendously privileged perspective I had. I could even hear the music and the lyrics.
Oberman: It was a short set, like 35 minutes. I was able to hear some of the songs with some difficulty. I thought they were excellent.
McCartney: I don’t remember thinking we played particularly well. But looking back, time has been very kind to us. It was a cool gig.
Lynn: I didn’t think of it as something I should always remember. I just thought it was a fun time. But one thing I’ll never forget is that my friend was already wearing a black Beatles wig. I don’t know how that got going so quickly.
Maysles: No one gave us permission to bring the camera in, so we had to sneak into the arena. We would’ve liked to have gotten close to the stage, but we took our seats at some distance. At one point I saw that sitting just behind us was Brian Epstein, who was enjoying the whole performance. And it turned out I had probably a better view than had I been close up, because I could [film] very wide and include the young audience, which was just going crazy with joy.
Lynn: This is kind of gross, but somebody said — and maybe it was my father — that after the concert was over and everybody had left, you know what the smell was in the Coliseum? It was pee from all these girls who got over-excited.
Roe: This was early in the crazy rock-and-roll thing, so nobody really rushed the stage. They were rowdy and very loud, but they stayed in their seats. They hadn’t realized you can go berserk at these shows. It was like polite pandemonium.
Gore: “Polite pandemonium” is apt. At the time, we didn’t think anything unusual about the first part of that phrase. What was unusual was the second part.
Albert: There was a large police presence there, but since everybody was so well-behaved, they didn’t have much to do except stand around. But people were throwing stuff. Since we were down front, we were getting pelted with flashbulbs the size of golf balls and also jelly beans.
McCartney: We had been asked somewhere what is your favorite sweet, and we said jelly babies. So the fans took to throwing them onstage, and this had reached Washington. In England, they’re soft and always in the shape of babies. What do you call them? Jelly beans. They’re hard. They stung, and we’re playing in the round, and they’re being thrown from everywhere. It was very unsettling. After that, we said the time has come for us to tell people we hate these damn things. They were only trying to be cute; throw the cute bits at the cute boys, that will be fun. But if you caught one of those in the eye, that was none too pleasant.
Hundt: We came armed and threw jelly beans at Ringo’s cymbals. I think you can hear them pinging on the tapes of the concert. It probably was a bad thing to do, but there was some story that the Beatles liked them, and high school boys like to throw things. So that’s how they were welcomed.
Gore: I don’t recall throwing any jelly beans myself. But I know that all around us, there were lots being thrown. It wasn’t intended in a malicious way.
Albert: The show was somewhat disappointing. I mean, it was exciting in one way. Yeah, I got to see them. But there was all this interference — the noise, and all the stuff raining on us.
Mitchell: When they did the last lines of the Little Richard song, [“Long Tall Sally”], they were gone in a flash. The crowd felt a little turbulent, so I jumped onto the stage. But when I looked around, I saw how young everybody was and realized there was no threat to my life at all. At that point, I turned into a fan. I lingered around Ringo’s drumsticks, long enough to slide one under my coat. I felt guilty about it immediately. That thing eventually got given to a girlfriend’s little sister, in an effort to impress the girlfriend. I tracked her down a few years ago but the souvenir has disappeared.
Gore: A friend of ours and classmate actually made some good money selling photographs after the event. He had a business plan: He took as many photos as possible and posted them on the bulletin board at school after the concert, and they were snapped up like hotcakes.
Roe: After the show was over, I drove back to the Shoreham and went to the Beatles’ room and we had a beer or two and just chatted. But it was hectic. Everybody was trying to do interviews with them. I helped Murray the K get in there and tape an interview with them.
McCartney: I’m sure we got [annoyed] not being able to just enjoy ourselves and always having to answer some dumb question about this, that and the other — like what toothpaste we were using. We saw ourselves as sophisticated dudes in those days, and there was a little bit of irritation at the undue attention we were getting. But at the same time, we asked for it. We knew what it was.
Eppridge: There was a reception afterwards hosted by British Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore, and it was not exactly what I expected. You expect people at an embassy party to stand around in dark suits holding champagne glasses. It’s supposed to look regal and dignified. The reception was absolutely jampacked with teeny-boppers and musical people, with an awful lot of Americans. It was a strange group. The British charge d’affaires was wearing a Beatles wig.
McCartney: The idea of going to an ambassador’s party was sort of amusing and vaguely interesting, but it wasn’t our scene. It was a little too aristocratic. It was a little jolly hockey sticks. “Oh, the Beatles, how delightful! How amusing!” Yeah, all right, love. Then one of these debutantes came up with a pair of scissors and tried to snip our hair, like she was walking up behind some mannequins. Okay, time to leave! We knew we were famous and up for grabs, but that was most definitely out of order. Finally somebody had crossed the line, majorly. It was unfortunate. But 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.
A shorter version of this account was published in The Washington Post in 2010, when Paul McCartney returned to Washington for the Kennedy Center Honors. Some quotes have been condensed. Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.