Bruce Spizer was just 9 when the Beatles played in New Orleans in 1964, but the magnitude of the event was not lost on him. Like so many kids, Spizer was already an ardent Beatles fan. But Spizer was not among the estimated 15,000 riotous youths in City Park (now Tad Gormley) Stadium on Sept. 16, 1964, when the Beatles’ limousine made the frantic dash from their dressing room to the stage in the middle of the football field.
“I was too young to go by myself so I had to rely on one of my older sisters to take me,” he said. “It was just my luck that it was my sister’s 16th birthday and she got to pick what we did. She was into Barbara Streisand and Peter, Paul, and Mary, so she nixed the Beatles concert.” Years later, the New Orleans resident would become a recognized authority on the Beatles and the phenomenon known as Beatlemania.
It’s hard to imagine now that John, Paul, George, and Ringo came in a distant second to Peter, Paul, and Mary for Spizer’s sister. It’s tougher still to realize that it took several tries before Beatles records caught on in the United States.
“’Please Please Me’ was released by Vee-Jay Records in February of ’63 and didn’t do great at first – it sold only about 7500 copies,” said Spizer, now an internationally recognized authority on the Beatles who has written several books on the topic. “The group’s next single, ‘From Me to You,’ only did a little better – it sold less than 13,000 copies - and ‘She Loves You’ initially flopped when it was released on the Swan label in September of ’63. For the most part, the Beatles weren’t getting wide radio play and Capitol had turned down the opportunity to sign them.”
But Spizer says that an unusual confluence of circumstances finally managed to overcome the lack of momentum late in 1963.
“CBS ran a short piece on the Beatles on the morning show one day in November but later that day, President Kennedy was assassinated and everyone forgot about the Beatles, if they had even seen the piece at all,” he said. “The nation plunged into a dark, dark time. The president had been killed, it was the Cold War, there was trouble in Cyprus and civil rights unrest. … Just a dark time.”
After weeks of gloom, however, Cronkite decided the nation was ready for a little upbeat news, so he played the Beatles story at the end of his broadcast on December 10. Marsha Albert, a 15 year old girl in Silver Spring, Maryland, saw the broadcast and wrote her local radio station, WWDC, to ask “why can’t we have music like that in America?” Disc jockey Carroll James had a flight attendant friend who flew for BOAC, the British national airline, bring him the latest Beatles single from the UK.
“On Dec. 17, when the station played ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree,” Spizer said.
Tuning into the frenzy, Capitol Records (which had finally signed the Beatles earlier in December), rushed to release the single domestically the day after Christmas, a month ahead of the planned release of the “Meet the Beatles” album.
By the time the group appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February of 1964, they were such a phenomenon that 73 million viewers tuned in, then a record number. And by the time the Beatles started their U.S. tour in San Francisco on Aug 19, 1964, they were superstars.
Their concert in New Orleans was similar to those in many of the 25 cities they visited on the tour. The performance lasted a little less than 30 minutes and the group played 12 songs. They opened with John Lennon signing “Twist and Shout” and closed with Paul McCartney singing “Long Tall Sally.” In between, George Harrison was featured on “Roll Over Beethoven,” and Ringo Starr, who at the time was the most popular Beatle in America, sang “Boys.”
“Ringo was asked by a reporter once why he thought he got more fan mail than the others, he quipped, ‘I suppose it’s because more people write to me,’” Spizer said. “My guess is that the band had just started in on ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ when the stadium erupted and the stampede began.”
The mayhem capped a dizzying day that included a series of mishaps that was laughable. The Beatles’ chartered plane was supposed to take them to the Lakefront Airport, where a welcoming party awaited, but flew instead to Moisant Field (now Louis Armstrong International Airport). A helicopter had been hired to ferry them from the airport to their lodgings, but the copter had a flat tire, so a fleet of limousines was scrambled instead. The Beatles had planned to stay at the Roosevelt Hotel, but the “Roosevelt got cold feet” possibly after learning about fan damage at the Plaza Hotel in New York, according to Spizer. So they were booked instead into the Congress Inn, an obscure motel on Chef Menteur Highway. En route there, the Beatles’ limousine got separated from the main group and somewhere along the way, there was a collision with a police car. And a local publication consistently misidentified George Harrison as “George Harris.”
After the concert, the group boarded a plane for Kansas City, the next stop on their tour. But the delirium surrounding their visit wasn’t over. Mayor Victor Schiro (“Lord Mayor” to the cheeky Lennon, per a Times-Picayune article) had asked the four band members to sign copies of the official proclamation declaring Sept. 16 “Beatles Day,” and later announced that anyone could get a copy simply by writing the mayor. Within days, several thousand written requests deluged City Hall. Enterprising promoters cut up the bed sheets from the Beatles’ suite at the Congress Inn, slipped them into plastic bags along with notarized authentication and marketed them. Even the microphone cords from the City Park concert were cut into pieces and sold.
Spizer may not have a ticket stub from the concert to add to his collection of Beatles vinyl, lunchboxes, and other memorabilia, but he has something else.
“The fourth grade made a field trip to City Hall that fall and we all got copies of the original proclamation,” he said. “I still have mine.”