(Pictured: the Beatles meet the press in Chicago, 1964.)
It’s a December tradition: radio station websites, rock history websites, and social media users celebrate the anniversary of “the first Beatles record ever played on American radio.” The date was December 17, 1963, they say. Carroll James of WWDC in Washington, DC, was the first DJ to do it, and the record was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Except he wasn’t, and it wasn’t.
This claim, which is passed around even by people who should know better, has been comprehensively debunked, both by me and elsewhere. The first American DJ to play the Beatles was Dick Biondi of WLS in Chicago, in February 1963—ten months earlier—and the record was “Please Please Me.”
In Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the 1960s, John F. Lyons writes that after Capitol Records passed on issuing Beatles singles in late 1962, British EMI persuaded the Chicago label Vee-Jay to release them. Vee-Jay had scored a modest hit with British singer Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You,” and so the label put out “Please Please Me” and promptly took it to WLS. WLS DJ Clark Weber told Lyons in 2015 that Cliff Richard had bombed on WLS previously, which made the station reluctant to gamble on another British act. But after a personal plea from one of Vee-Jay’s owners, the station agreed to play it on weekends. Weber confirmed that Biondi was the first to air it, on February 8, 1963. But in Weber’s words, “It didn’t do anything.” “Please Please Me” was dropped and re-added, eventually spending a couple of weeks on the WLS Hit Parade in mid-March before disappearing. “It was no great shakes,” Weber said. “As a matter of fact, it was patently bad as far as music was concerned. But we played it. It was something new.”
(Weber does not seem to have been impressed by the Beatles at all. Discussing having MC’d their 1965 Chicago concert he said, “I just wanted to get out of there.” As program director in the wake of Sgt. Pepper, he refused to play “A Day in the Life” because of its “drug references.”)
In a footnote, Lyons points out that WLS has the first documented evidence of playing the Beatles, but other stations could have beaten them to it. Beatles records were available in the UK as early as October 1962, and it is possible that some enterprising station could have played an imported copy. Longtime LA personality Dave Hull was working at WVKO in Columbus, Ohio, in 1962. In 2014, he told a newspaper that the station’s DJs voted on whether to add “Love Me Do” to the playlist but “we really didn’t think much of the song.”
In May 1963, Vee-Jay released “From Me to You,” but WLS (and other major stations across the country) played Del Shannon’s cover version instead. Two stations that did not were Chicago’s WVON and WYNR, which were programmed to Black audiences. Both played the Beatles’ version. It’s not remotely R&B, but that didn’t matter. As with “Please Please Me,” personal connections likely played a role in getting the song on the air. Vee-Jay was primarily an R&B label and would have worked closely with R&B stations.
Joy and Fear explores the perception of the Beatles and Beatles fandom in the Black community, which I’ve not seen discussed much elsewhere. Some Black kids responded positively to the Beatles, although others did not. Reaction in the Black press was similar to that in the white press: highly critical and sometimes hysterically overblown. Among musicians, however, respect for the Beatles was almost universal. Their refusal to play segregated shows did not go unnoticed; neither did their willingness to cover songs written or originally performed by Black artists. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters both credited the Beatles and the British bands that followed them for renewed interest in American blues. Otis Williams of the Temptations said, “It seemed like at this point in time white America said, ‘OK, if the Beatles are checking them out, let us check them out.'”
Chicago in the 1960s was a socially conservative town. Its conflicts between young and old, black and white, past and present, played out much differently than the same conflicts in more worldly cities might have done. Joy and Fear explores those conflicts in excellent chapters on the Beatles’ three Chicago shows. Other chapters include a Beatles biography—a story which does not need telling again in this context—and their influence on the Chicago music scene, which is interesting but not essential. You can skip that stuff, and if you do, you’ll likely find what’s left worthwhile.