This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Feb. 9, 2014 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr burst from American television sets, electrified American adolescent girls with their rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and changed the course of American culture.
Larry Kane, a 21-year-old rookie reporter from Miami, Fla., was the only broadcast journalist to travel to every stop of the Beatles' 1964 and 1965 U.S. tours. In February 1964, he was assigned to cover the Beatles’ Miami Beach concert, which aired as the second of their three Ed Sullivan appearances. Based on an interview request Kane subsequently sent to the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, Kane was invited to travel with the band on their 1964 tour of the United States.
As a young news director at WAME Radio in Miami, Kane broke the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. He later became a familiar face to television news viewers in Philadelphia, where he anchored the local news for nearly 40 years and commanded the anchor desk at each of Philadelphia’s three main broadcast affiliates. Kane has interviewed every U.S. president from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama.
Kane joined Antonio Mora on the Feb. 7, 2014 edition of Consider This to reflect on The Ed Sullivan Show anniversary and his time covering the Beatles. In this Consider This Q & A, Kane provides a firsthand account of the Fab Four's dynamic on tour.
Q. What do you remember most vividly about your time covering the Beatles on tour?
A. The fact that I was on a treadmill and couldn't get off. … [My] most vivid recollections are sitting four or five rows away from them, interacting with them almost daily, [having] this total entree [into their world], and watching this thing unfold. … It was this hectic kind of speed like I've never seen before. I’ve traveled with presidents, I’ve covered disasters and other things in the United States and overseas — a lot of news coverage — and I’ve of course anchored the news for 40 years. I never quite was on a pace like that.
It was the fear and excitement of the unknown, because you never knew what was going to happen in each city. There were so many scenes, incredible, sensational scenes, of people just losing their minds. … You’d see these kids and you weren't expecting them to be what they were at that age because in America, in the 1950s, we were taught to view young people as demure. I don’t mean politically, but kind of conservative, proper. All of a sudden, you would see these girls from all backgrounds of life and all ages, from 10 to 15, sometimes a little older or a little younger, exploding with this emotion. It wasn't a rage, it was a combination of happiness and agony at the same time — I'd never seen anything like that before. Actually, to be very honest with you, I’ve never seen anything like it to this day. You'd look at the faces and they were convinced that one of [the Beatles] was singing to them or communicating with them.
Author of "Ticket to Ride"
I have these wonderful letters from Beatles fans who would write things like, “Mr. Kane, thanks for doing such a good job.” I got thousands of them. “Would you please let George know that he and I can communicate this way, or have him give me a call? Because destiny brings us together.” This was really the first part of Beatlemania. I don't know how to describe it, it was just beyond. I'll never forget, in Cincinnati, a little girl came up to me and [she] couldn't have been more than 11. She plunked her report card in my hand and she said, “Please get this to Paul, I need him to see this.” So, I showed it to him and he looked at it very fondly, and then I put it in the mail because I didn’t want her to lose it.
Q. What was the Beatles’ dynamic like behind the scenes?
A. The most surprising thing to me was that they were real troupers. They would go up and down the plane and they would talk to the opening acts. The opening acts were very big acts for their time — The Righteous Brothers, Jackie DeShannon (who was like the Katy Perry of her time, she was a teenage sensation), The Exciters, The Bill Black Combo — and the truth is that these bands were not being heard because the kids didn’t want to hear them. So, the Beatles would come up every night and check them out, see how they were doing, because they felt very guilty that they were taking the spotlight away from some very great entertainers.
[The Beatles] came from a very bigoted environment. Not just their parents, but the whole community in post-World War II Liverpool was very anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish. It was very racial. There were divisions between Protestants and Catholics, much like the Ireland and Northern Ireland divisions. So they grew up in this environment, and, in fact, when [Brian] Epstein became their manager, their parents had suggested that maybe it wasn't a good idea to hire a Jewish guy as a manager. How about that?
So now they grow up and they do two dramatic things. In their late teens, they introduce a black group named The Chants into The Cavern nightclub where they entertained, which was a grimy, grimy place. Those people in The Cavern had never seen a black group entertain there before. They’d never seen a black person walk in there. And the Beatles put them onstage.
When we were traveling on Aug. 20, 1964 in Las Vegas, I advised them that the Gator Bowl, where they were going to entertain in Jacksonville, Fla. on Sept. 11, 1964, was going to be segregated. So they said, to a man, we're not going to do it. And that gave me a big story. I broke that story and said they would not entertain in the Gator Bowl. That went right up to the wire, and two days before the Gator Bowl, management basically succumbed and said we're not going to segregate people. And for the first time ever, blacks and whites sat together in the Gator Bowl. To make history like that, and to insist on it — from the guys who came from a pretty squalid background when it came to race relations and understanding — I thought that was pretty amazing.
Q. John Lennon called you a nerd, why? Can you tell us more about your rapport with the band?
A. Well, that was really [our] second meeting. He just looked at my clothing, he was just in a fiery mood (which he always was), and I wasn't gonna take it, so I fired back. I had a great rapport with the band. The best relationship I had was with John because he loved my questions and he liked the fact that I challenged him. He liked to be challenged because he liked to be viewed — as you know, from his writings and his legacy — he liked to be viewed as a person who was giving something to the world in addition to entertaining.
John was very involved in causes, and if somebody was in a hardship, or somebody was in trouble, or there was a racial conflagration, he was right there in the middle of it. … He was a delight to be with. He was controversial, he was fiery, he was hostile, but he was also very truthful. He said in public what most people would think in private, which is, in many ways refreshing and a little scary. And, so, he was always on the edge.
He remembered me. For years we got together. In 1975, he came to Philadelphia and did a charity marathon for me for three days on radio and television, and he actually did the weather on the television program.
Author of "Ticket to Ride"
Paul McCartney was a guy who just really loved audiences. Had a bit of vanity — they all do — but he was considered the best-looking guy. Everybody loved him and he loved being loved. To this day, he’s never met an audience he didn’t like. He just loves the entertainment and the concept of bringing people joy.
Ringo, the guy who sat in the back and jumped up and down, was viewed primarily as just a guy having fun in the back. [He] was probably the second most intellectually curious of the Beatles. He was very deep. He had very, very intense feelings about war and peace.
George was the guy who really was into the music. He wanted to listen to the sound, he was always interested in the sound. I would say he was very intense, but lovely. He was a guy who never said much, but when he did say something, he usually had something to say. We were on a plane, flying from Minneapolis to Portland in 1965 and yours truly noticed a small fire in the right engine. We had an emergency landing, and as we’re going down, there was foam on the runway, fire trucks, and ambulances. I could see everything happening below me. As this was happening, George yelled out (and he repeated this on tape to me), “Larry, if anything should happen, it’s Beatles and children out of this plane first.” And I thought that was pretty funny. He was a very funny guy.
I really could connect to them even though we were so different. I was the guy who was walking around all the time with a suit on — a very straightforward guy. If you listen to some of the interviews, you’ll hear me waxing poetic with questions and them just laughing at me. They cracked me up. It was really quite an experience. I mean, was it as impactful to me at the time as an interview with the president would be, or a story of dodging bullets at a race riot following the killing of Martin Luther King? Probably not. But, in retrospect, it was probably one of the most — if not the [most] — one of the two or three most important things I ever covered.
Q. This Sunday will be the 50th anniversary of their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Would the Beatles be the Beatles without their exposure on his show?
A. That’s a great question because they came here with a reputation of being this oddball group with this funny hair, and these very modern outfits. With their shaggy hair, they were called “mop-tops.” Some reporters called them insects, called them “beetles.” It was a lot to prove. ... I don’t know that they would have rocketed the way they did without that extraordinary exposure [of performing on The Ed Sullivan Show for three consecutive Sunday nights]. Not only did they show up for these shows, they were good. They were damn good. They didn’t miss a beat.
You know, I’ve always wondered, I even asked them later, what it was like that first night on Ed Sullivan. They said their hearts were beating very fast. They had done these concerts a hundred times, a thousand times. But they knew — they all told me they tried to sort of compartmentalize their feelings, and just remember that [because] they were entertaining before so many millions of people, 75 million people at one time — that this was the make or break it for them. They did very well. They passed with flying colors. And that really catapulted them to the level of insanity that people viewed them with, and the level of fame.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. My life has been filled by news wires. It’s been filled with a lot of negative stories. It’s nice to celebrate something that was joyful to people. But it’s also kind of magic to me that we’re still talking about it, because I was one of them who, in the early days, said to my bosses they’ll be here in September and gone in November. So, they proved me wrong!
Larry Kane’s interview has been condensed and edited. Kane is the author of three books about The Beatles: "Ticket to Ride: Inside the Beatles' 1964 and 1965 Tours That Changed the World," "Lennon Revealed," and "When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top." Learn more about Kane on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter: @LarryKane.