This may be hard to believe, but once upon a time record companies did not believe the Beatles could have a successful career in America. Yes, you read that right. The Beatles. Not having success. Crazy right? Luckily, for all of us, one teenager knew better and lit the fuse for Beatlemania with a simple letter to her local D.C. radio station.
It's been over 50 years since the release of the Beatles' groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, lauded as the first "concept" album and perennially on critics' lists of the best of all time. There has also been a good deal of recent reflection on the Watergate scandal and the role of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the story that brought down an American president in 1974. But did you know there is a local connection between these seemingly disparate yet historically-significant events?
Although their first appearance in Washington D.C. was certainly more historic, the Beatles' last visit was nothing if not eventful, and verged on the downright bizarre. In stark contrast to that triumphant first U.S. concert at Washington Coliseum in February 1964, by August 1966 the Beatles were mired in controversy, struggling to sell out concerts, and creating music too complex to be replicated on stage.
February is a big month for American Beatles fans. After all it was 50 years ago that the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and then made their way down to Washington, D.C. for their first public concert at the Washington Coliseum on 3rd St. NE. You've probably seen the black and white footage of Paul, John, George and Ringo playing to screaming teenagers in D.C. on February 11, 1964. And, hopefully you've read our accounts of the Beatles' visit here on the blog.
But it's one thing to write accounts of history... It's quite another to recreate history. And that's exactly what the D.C. Preservation League and Douglas Development and their partners did with their Yesterday & Today event at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 2014.
But even after the Beatles finished their 12-song set to the screaming approval of a teenaged crowd that included future U.S. Senator and Vice-President Al Gore, the evening was still young. In those days, Washington, not known for its nightlife, didn't have an equivalent to New York's swinging Peppermint Lounge, where the Beatles had spent a wild evening prior to their Ed Sullivan appearance. And since President Johnson didn't invite them to the dance he was hosting that night in the White House's East Ballroom, the group had to accept the next best offer. They rushed off in limousines to the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW, for a charity ball.
In a previous post, we looked at the prelude to the Beatles' first-ever concert in the U.S. on February 11, 1964 at the Washington Coliseum. Now, facing their first live U.S concert audience on an awkward stage with balky equipment, the Beatles opening chords were met with a deafening roar of 8,000 high-pitched screams, a barrage of jelly beans and the unleashed excitement of a new generation of fans. Here's more of what happened on that historic evening that changed Rock 'n' Roll forever.
It's hard to imagine that anyone would think the Beatles might not be a big enough concert draw. But when Harry G. Lynn, owner of the old Washington Coliseum at 3rd and M streets NE, was approached by local radio station WWDC in late 1963 about the possibility of booking the then-nascent British pop music sensations for their debut U.S. concert on Feb. 11, 1964, he wasn't convinced that he would be able to sell the 8,000-plus tickets that it would take to fill his arena. That's why Lynn reportedly insisted upon hedging his bet by booking several other acts — the Caravelles, Tommy Roe and the Chiffons.
A previous post detailed the eclectic history of the Uline Arena, also known as Washington Coliseum, the barrel-roofed hall that from the 1940s through the 1980s hosted everything from hockey and basketball to a rodeo featuring Roy Rogers and Trigger. But the arena, located at the corner of M and 2nd Street NE with an entrance on 3rd Street, also has a rich musical history. Jazz great Charlie Parker played there in April 1951, on a bill that also included June Christie and Johnny Hodges. A decade later, Duke Ellington and his orchestra played to a packed house as part of the First International Jazz Festival in Washington. Country star — and Winchester, Virginia native! — Patsy Cline was scheduled to play there 10 days after her death in March 1963. (Dottie West took her place.) Of all the acts to play the old Coliseum, the Beatles show on February 11, 1964 probably takes the cake.
If you ride the Red Line Metro, you've probably seen it out the window at the New York Avenue stop: A massive, rust-colored structure with a curvilinear-trussed roof. It looks like an abandoned warehouse or factory, or a repair shop for ancient locomotives. You’d probably never suspect that 50 years ago in February, the Beatles played their first U.S. concert there. It also was the home of Washington’s first NBA team, and hosted events ranging from figure skating and midget auto racing to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 inaugural festival and a 1959 speech by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.