Airport collision changes history


There’s always been a lot of debate as to what constitutes the surest recipe for success. Sometimes it’s talent. Sometimes it’s timing. Sometimes it’s persistence. Sometimes it’s novelty. Sometimes it’s just luck.

More often it’s a combination of all these factors. Perhaps one will take prominence, but all tend to play a part.

Such was the case 50 years ago today. The scene was London’s famed Heathrow Airport. The Beatles were coming home after a wildly successful tour of Sweden. A large crowd of admiring fans had assembled to greet the not-yet-fab four musicians. The enthusiastic throng caused a great stir that delayed travel and generally ground all progress to a halt.

On that same day, there was another passenger coming through Heathrow. Television host Ed Sullivan had just completed a talent scouting trip across Europe. He was in London making a connection back to New York. En route to his flight, Sullivan watched as the masses flocked to catch a glimpse of the young rockers.

In late 1963 the Beatles had taken Europe by storm. Despite repeated efforts, the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, could not sway Capitol Records (the American arm of the British label EMI) to back the lads across the pond.

Convinced that their “Merseybeat” sound wouldn’t translate across the Atlantic, Capitol refused to release “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You” and “She Loves You.” Instead they allowed all three tracks to be released on the minor U.S. labels, Vee-Jay and Swan — where they languished on the pop charts without any promotion. In a desperate move to infiltrate the American market, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a song expressly tailored to popular U.S. tastes. They had recorded it just two weeks before their indirect brush with Sullivan at Heathrow. The song — “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Sullivan’s gift for prescient appraisal of talent moved him to initiate discussions with Epstein. Epstein flew to New York to negotiate. Primed for the meeting, the Beatles’ manager solidified a deal whereby the group would headline three episodes of Sullivan’s variety show — instead of making the typical one-time mid-show novelty act appearance.

He then used the successes of those performances to cajole Capitol into a release agreement for “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The terms included $40,000 worth of promotional coverage.

As a result of the chance airport encounter, the Beatles went form a popular, but continent-bound musical act, to a world-wide sensation. By the time they made their first appearance in the U.S. (February 1964), they already had a No. 1 record in hand. Those first three Sullivan performances led to five more over the next year.

The Beatles’ conquest of America is perhaps the best example of several conjoined elements of success. Obviously they had talent. Their music was novel. They had persistence. As did their manager. They had timing — timing that was augmented by luck. While any one of these attributes might have garnered a bit of success, it was only through the confluence of mutually reinforcing streams that they became the once-in-a-lifetime superstars that they did.

Perhaps we cannot all be the Beatles. Most of us don’t have the talent, the tenacity or any of the other requisite raw materials. Even so, we can apply their example to our own less grand plans. While they may not bear great wealth and accolades, they might just yield something more precious: happiness.