In one of the most amazing and serendipitous coincidences of the 20th century, on November 22, 1963, the day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas, five thousand miles away in England, a group of young men (three of whom shared Kennedy’s Irish ancestry) released a record album that would not only change the course of pop music forever, but also help the world to recover from its massive grief.
The Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard Starkey (better known as Ringo Starr) – all hailed from Liverpool and had already conquered the United Kingdom with their March 1963 debut record, ‘Please Please Me.’ However, in late November 1963, their second LP, called ‘With The Beatles,’ solidified their status as Britain’s greatest entertainers and cracked the all-important American market.
Ranging in ages of 20 to 23, the Beatles had also recorded and released the seminal single, ‘I want to hold your hand,’ one month prior – it was, in fact, that deliriously happy number that eventually became a hit in the States, enabling the success of their follow-up album (which was called “Meet the Beatles” when released in the U.S. in January 1964).
In Britain, deep in the throes of Beatlemania, ‘With The Beatles’ remained number on the charts for five months – it dislodged ‘Please Please Me’ from the top spot, thereby sealing the group’s total domination of the musical market.
By early 1964, the mad love for The Beatles spread across the Atlantic, leading to the group’s spectacular appearance on The Ed Sullivan TV show in New York in February of that year (up to that time, the most watched broadcast in US history). Of course, the Americans’ fanaticism for The Beatles has never waned, not even after half a century.
Many critics and historians have commented on the fact that The Beatles arose just in the wake of the death of Kennedy.
American rock historian Lester Bangs wrote in an essay that appeared in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll,” that “it was no accident that the Beatles had their overwhelmingly successful Ed Sullivan Show debut shortly after JFK was shot.” Similarly, British author and critic Ian MacDonald asserted that when Capitol Records finally agreed to issue ‘I want to hold your hand’ in the States in December 1963 after much pleading from Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, “the record’s joyous energy and invention lifted America out of its gloom, following which, high on gratitude, the country cast itself at the Beatles’ feet.”
On that fateful Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the Beatles performed a concert in Stockton-On-Tees in northeastern England, as part of a seemingly endless tour. According to various accounts, before the concert began in the evening, the audience had already heard that Kennedy had been shot – but it was not until several hours later did everyone realize he had died.
One of the opening acts at the Stockton concert was another British singing group called The Kestrels. Geoff Williams, a member of the Kestrels, told British media: "I honestly don't think the audience reaction to that… show was any different from any other night of the tour. It might sound strange, but this was an audience of young people who loved the Beatles, and they had come along for a good time. They were too young to have understood the implications of what happened. They didn't understand about politics. We had to carry on."
Jean Owen, a member of a group called The Vernon Girls, who also appeared that night, remembered: "We were about to go onstage when John Lennon said, 'Have you heard, John Kennedy's been shot?' Maureen [Kennedy, another Vernon Girl] replied, 'Oh, John, don't be so sick!' It was only after we came off that we found out it was true."
But Owen added: Your first thought is, God, the audience will be crap tonight. You still have a job to do. I can't recall the audience being any different that night."
Later that night at the hotel they shared, Williams noted that The Beatles were quite affected by Kennedy’s death.
“We all gathered around the television and watched it together and we were all stunned into silence. It was so poignant when John Lennon got shot [in 1980], because of course, we were with them when it happened to JFK."
A woman named Lynda Richardson who attended the Stockton concert as a 16-year-old fan told the Stockton Gazette newspaper: “We were all on a high from a lovely evening [at the concert] and as we boarded the coach [bus] to return to [our home in the city of] Redcar we were told the tragic news of John Kennedy. It really made me feel guilty for enjoying a great wonderful evening when he was getting assassinated. No one spoke a word all the way home."
Another girl who attended the concert, Carol Johns, lamented to the Gazette: "When we arrived home laughing and singing, it was to a somber household. ‘Kennedy has been assassinated,’ said my tearful mother. Kennedy, who to us, the 60's generation, was the hope of the future had been assassinated. We plunged to the depths of sadness. What a night."
In the half-century since, The Beatles arguably become more famous than John F, Kennedy, but, through the chance of history, the two will likely be inextricably linked forever.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.