On the night of Sept 4, 1964, as the first Black reporter with the Milwaukee Sentinel following my years at The Milwaukee Star, I remember a race-based incident I’ll never forget.
During the Beatles first local appearance at The Arena across the street from our Downtown offices, a White, middle-age copy editor said he was going to stop in on his 8 p.m. lunch break “just for the hell of it.”
Returning an hour later, he took me aside at my rewrite desk and sheepishly related that he didn’t see a single Black face in the capacity crowd of 12,000. Not one.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “What’s going on? Don’t colored people like the Beatles? Huh, Dick?”
I told him to us, the Beatles were a musical joke. That what they were doing was a pale imitation—no pun intended—of countless Black R&B and rock groups. That young Blacks weren’t about to waste their time and money to see and hear them.
At a house party a few nights later, I recounted this to a number of friends, including former Star co-workers, Jay Anderson, Reuben Harpole and George Sanders, along with Evelyn Bailey, Marlene Johnson, Loretta Walker and a few others. We all had a big laugh.
Yet, in 1964, the British Beatles were on their way to taking America by storm, singing in a manner many Black folks at the time—here and elsewhere—felt was silly and amateurish.
Fast forward to February’s Black History Month 2022, veteran journalist Howard Kurtz, recalled the first American national TV appearance of the Beatles 58 years ago. It was on Ed Sullivan’s CBS Sunday night show.
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While gleefully heaping praise on the youthful mop-tops, the celebrated Kurtz took issue with negative comments about their Feb 9, 1964, gig by a New York Times critic declaring, in so many words, that the critic was proven wrong. But music-wise, the critic was right.
This reminded me of February 2004, when New York’s tabloid newspapers went absolutely ape over the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ first foray into America. But they missed the boat, yet their flawed news judgment was not surprising.
At that time, most of the media people who decided what events were covered, and to what extent, were White. Most knew little about the influence of Black music on White America—specifically, how original Black rhythm and blues evolved into rock ’n’ roll and changed the musical culture of the nation, and the world.
In late January of that year, I got two separate Beatles’ calls from New York Newsday reporter Martin C. Evans. He said he had seen my New York Daily News columns on original Black R&B—and a 1992 freelance Viewpoints piece in Newsday. Seeking balanced coverage, he asked my thoughts on the Beatles’ American debut for his paper’s look back.
I told him in strong terms that as one who has written extensively on this music—along with millions of other Black people who lived the evolution of ‘50s and ‘60s sound—this cutesy-pooh, overrated British import was never more than a bad copy of the real thing. Simply put, Beatlemania was Beatlebogus. The Fab Four? Try The Fab Phonies.
For example, I compared the Beatles plain vanilla version of “Yesterday”—written by Paul McCartney—to that of the amazing, gutteral sound by Ray Charles. No contest.
The Beatles initially made their name by ripping-off Black music. The was unwittingly aided and abetted by naive young Whites, especially teenage girls never exposed to the real thing. They went ga-ga when they saw the Beatles coast-to-coast on the Sullivan TV Show—a venue that was off-limits to pioneering, far superior Black vocal groups with monster record hits.
Except for “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” which often showcased the best regardless of color, Black R&B and rock ‘n’ roll performers in those days rarely were seen on national television. This, despite the fact that nonpareil groups such as the Five Keys, Spaniels, Moonglows, Clovers, El Dorados, Dells, Flamingos and Cadillacs, to name just a few, had been doing it right for years. All would put the Beatles to shame.
I told Newsday’s Evans much of this, and more. But as is often the case in a print interview, many of my remarks never made the paper. And while delighted that the reporter sought my opinion, l also related to him my Milwaukee Sentinel anecdote from September 1964. But he failed to use it in his Feb. 1, 2004 story.
Evans also failed to include something else I told him—one of the most significant, yet little-known aspects of the Beatles’ introduction to America: That a Black record label was the first in America to sign the group. Yes, you heard right.
Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken, of Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, purchased the Beatles’ rights from EMI Records in England in 1962 and released the first single in 1963, “Please, Please Me,” which bombed. Later sued by Capitol Records—EMI’s American subsidiary—Vee-Jay settled, gave up the group and the rest is history. I told Evans that a definitive explanation of this situation was part of a fine 1997 PBS television documentary “Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues.” This also was not in his story.
In the wake of the recent inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I would be remiss in failing to mention that this head-in-the-sand organization continues to diss countless, seminal Black recording artists who paved the way for inferior White outfits such as the Beatles, and many others. Their omission remains an annual sacrilege.
In the 18 years since, I have written letters to the Rock Hall pleading their case. But, sadly, to no avail. Are they even listening? Who knows if this will ever change.
As for my personal opinion of the Beatles—perhaps unpopular with Whites—I am reminded of a classic line by Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Said he: “Your best in nothing more than a maximum of inefficiency.” To me, that fits the Beatles like a glove.
Finally, all my friends at that memorable 1964 Milwaukee house party were big movie fans, and when I quoted that Bogart line to describe the Beatles, we shared another big laugh. Uh-huh