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JFK and the Fab Four

By Ed Stout

It was a long, long time ago but no doubt we can still remember that Friday in late November of 1963 and where we were when we learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. No doubt too that the vast majority of us recall that Sunday night in February 1964 when we saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. In a figurative sense, many of us rode along with the lads from Liverpool on their subsequent rise to unprecedented fame. Over time, I’ve come to believe there was a connection between JFK’s death and the Beatles’ unparalleled success.

It was 6th period and I was in Mr. Detrick’s geometry class. Towards the end of the hour, he stood in front of the class and told us what had happened in Dallas. As I recall, someone in the back of the room chuckled. Bulldog Detrick told the person in no uncertain terms that our President had been killed and that such behavior was unacceptable.

We all remember the three days that followed. The Dayton Daily News and Journal Herald brought the bad news to our doorsteps. But we derived our memories from television. Walter Cronkite was on CBS, WHIO Channel 7. NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were on our only other channel, WLWD, Channel 2. The networks remained on the air 24/3+. A maze of black and white images come to mind: the swearing in on Air Force One, the casket and his widowed bride with her bloody dress, the reports from Dallas, learning the meaning of lying in state, the prisoner’s ill-fated transfer, the black riderless horse, the eternal flame, etc. Had our world gone crazy? We were simply numb.
Nor was that numbness quick to leave us. Sure, after a while we became, at least on the surface, normal teenage bronkin’ bucks again. But there was an undercurrent, if not depression, of at least a sense that something wasn’t right. Perhaps we were silently singing dirges in the dark. By way of example, consider Mr. Brinkley’s FHS speech class. In his class, the student had to present some kind of speech once a week or so. During the next couple of months, most of the speeches were about John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Then, in late January, we began to hear rumblings of the rock ‘n roll group from Liverpool, England, of all places. At first, we couldn’t believe those haircuts but when we heard the music, it was engaging, like nothing we’d ever heard. Though February made us shiver, by that Sunday night, we, a generation lost in space, were ready for the Sullivan show. Suffice it is to say, we were not disappointed.

The following day at school during Monday morning announcements, our Principal, Miss Folger, made some disparaging remarks about John, Paul, George and Ringo. These remarks were not well received. Our conversations were laced with phrases like: “She was just 17;” “Oh, yeah I, tell you something, I hope you’ll understand;” and “She said she loves you, and you know that can’t be bad.”
As a generation, we embraced them. They touched us deep inside and their popularity grew and grew. They had #1 record after #1 record. Sometimes, both sides of the 45 was #1. In the summer of 1964, they gave us the film, A Hard Day’s Night. (How many times did you see it?) Later, they gave us Help! Many of us knew all the words to all the songs in all their albums. For over two years, at least until the summer of 1966, they were simply it and we were one with the Beatles.

Now I’ll get back to my premise. In doing so, I’ll say that on more than one occasion, I’ve spoken to members of the younger generation in an attempt to explain the nature and scope of the Beatles’ popularity. I felt that I’ve never been successful. (Michael Jackson by a factor of 10 doesn’t work.) Simply put, their impact was so unique that any attempt to convey its magnitude falls on deaf ears. No group or entertainer has come close to attaining that kind of success. Consequently, there is no meaningful reference point with which to compare or explain their popularity.

I believe their enormous popularity, to no small extent, was based on our state of mind after November 22, 1963. Sure, the quartet had practiced a lot.1 John and Paul were great singers and songwriters; George knew all the chords; Ringo had that flair and they had the keen musical sense to rediscover the essence of American rock ‘n roll. But that really doesn’t explain what we saw, felt and knew about the Beatles. We were, in every sense of the word, ready for them. If they had hit our shores in February of 1963 or 1965, would it have been the same? I don’t think so. They arrived at just the right time to turn our collective halftime air back into sweet perfume. They made us dance, both fast and real slow, and we were happy for a while.

1 Over 10,000 hours, according to Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers: The Story of Success, Little Brown, NY (2008). Also, thanks to Don, who I should have quoted.