Yesterday, Ultimate Classic Rock, a site I generally like, published a piece titled “50 Years Ago: Beatles Hit U.S. Airwaves.” It claims that on December 17, 1963, Washington, D.C. jock Carroll James played the Beatles for the first time on American radio (on WWDC), responding to a request from a listener who had heard about “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and asked for it. The claim appears in Philip Norman’s acclaimed Beatles biography Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, and other places.
I don’t know whether James played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on that day, although I have no reason to believe he didn’t. I do know, however, that he was not the first American DJ to play a Beatles record. And “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t the first Beatles song heard on American radio, either.
My own research a couple of years ago indicated that the Beatles had made the radio in the States in early 1963, although they were nothing special at the time. Today I consulted the fabulous Airheads Radio Survey Archive, which has collected (as of today) 35,487 radio station music surveys dated from 1955 to 1996, for the data. ARSA shows that the first Beatles song to get on American radio was “Please Please Me.” It further shows that five radio stations charted “Please Please Me” before December 1963. Others might have too, but here’s the ARSA tally:
—WLS in Chicago charted it for the weeks of March 8 and March 15, 1963 (peaking at #35), before dropping it off. Some fairly exhaustive research at Kent Kotal’s Forgotten Hits establishes pretty clearly that WLS was the first station in America to play the Beatles, in late February 1963, nearly a year before the outbreak of Beatlemania across the country.
—KFXM in San Bernardino, California, charted it on the week of April 6 and again on charts dated April 27, May 4, and May 11. I don’t know about the weeks of April 15 and 22, but the April 27 survey shows “Please Please Me” in its first week on the chart, so I am guessing it probably didn’t appear.
—WQAM in Miami got on it for the last two weeks in April.
—KNUZ in Houston has it for the week of May 3.
—KEWB in San Francisco charted it for the same week, although their chart date was shown as May 4.
The most amazing tidbit of Kotal’s research claims that WFRX in West Frankfort, Illinois, was on “Please Please Me” in June 1963. A 1997 article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that George Harrison’s mother sent a copy to his sister Louise, who lived in Benton, Illinois (where George would spend three weeks on vacation in September 1963), and she passed it along to a DJ at nearby WFRX. (In addition, New York DJ Murray the K claimed to have played the Beatles in late September 1963.)
Most of the early survey citations list the song as “Please Please Me” by “the Beattles,” which was how the band’s name was spelled on the record. The release was on the Chicago label Vee Jay, and because a Chicago station would have likely have paid special attention to releases on a local label, that’s more weight on the WLS claim to be first. Dick Biondi, who was on WLS in 1963 and is on WLS-FM today, has long claimed to have been the first DJ in America to play the Beatles, and there’s no reason to believe he wasn’t.
Regarding “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Carroll James may have been first to play it on December 17—or he may not have been. It shows up on surveys for WGR and WKBW in Buffalo for the week of December 27, and on WABC for the week of December 31, and it’s reasonable to assume, as was the case with WLS, that the stations played the song for a week or two before it appeared on their surveys.
This is more than just geek pedantry—this stuff matters. Ultimate Classic Rock got it wrong, and I’m trying to get it right.
(Update: Ultimate Classic Rock posted a new story based on this information, and they updated their earlier one. Glad to help out. They’re doing good work over there.)