The day before the Beatles’ much anticipated appearance on Ed Sullivan the New York City weather was blustery, the landscape bleached of essential color. Neither of which deterred the fans. The highly charged crowd outside the Plaza was unusual even for New York. This wasn’t quite Beatlemania, not pandemonium, not yet. But the sensation the boys caused, marked by screams and rampant hysteria, was an indicator of the uproar to come.
That morning, with George staying in the room nursing a sore throat and fever, John, Paul and Ringo dodged a mob of bundled-up admirers, who shrieked at the sight of their shaggy-haired idols. A thicket of blue-uniformed police, fighting to hold back the crowd, picked up limp, seemingly lifeless girls who had collapsed in delirium and slung them over shoulders to safety.
Unfazed by the attention, the Beatles alighted at the boathouse in Central Park, where a pack of unruly paparazzi barked at them like animal trainers. “Hey, Beatles—this way!” they shouted. “Beatles—this way!” “No, not this way—the other way!” Through it all, the Beatles mugged obediently and answered every dopey question. “What is your favorite food?” “What does your haircut mean? “What do you think of American girls?” “How long do you think all this will last?”
But they could put up with the nonsense for only so long. During a break in the action, they jumped into an idling limo and instructed the driver to head uptown. They weren’t particularly interested in the standard New York sights—the Empire State Building, the U.N., Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty. Their destination was a more meaningful shrine. John wanted to “cruise past the Apollo Theater,” Paul recalled, where so many of the Beatles’ idols had debuted.
There was little romance, however, in the Harlem that the Beatles encountered. A predominantly African-American neighborhood that once jumped to the tempo of its bebop night world, it had lapsed by the early 1960s into an impoverished ghetto, its streets a warren of blighted tenements. Race relations in general were at an all-time low, and you could feel the residual backlash in Harlem’s restless pulse. Everywhere there were people jostling on the sidewalk, spilling out of bodegas, jackknifing through traffic. Tension-filled faces, willful, unhappy.
The Beatles gaped at the bleak scenery as their limo cruised through the streets. The neighborhood was an eye-opener—threatening, grimy, alien, exotic.
Not at all like in Liverpool, whose ghetto, the Dingle, was a bad-ass Irish enclave, but tidy and proud. Suddenly they turned onto a wide, jittery boulevard, 125th Street, and the Apollo loomed right in front of them. tonight!—the marvelous marvelettes! read the marquee. De-liveh de-letteh, de-sooneh de-betteh: the girls themselves! So near—and yet so prohibitive, no thanks to the schedule.
The same with the specialty record shops that beckoned from every corner: salsa, soul, gospel, jazz, doo-wop, R&B, R&B, R&B. The Beatles, tempted by such offerings, had to restrain themselves from making innumerable stops. As it was, they barely made it back for the start of their Ed Sullivan rehearsal.
As they pulled up in front of the theater on Broadway, a less inviting scene awaited. John took a look out the car window and issued a one-word summary: “Kids.”
Since early afternoon, the studio had come under siege as teenage fans thronged the entrance. Hundreds of onlookers lined the intersection.
“How are we gonna get in there?” Paul wondered.
Too late. Their car had been spotted by the frenzied horde.
“Lock the doors!” Ringo warned as a swarm of girls converged, screaming and banging on the windows in a staccato drumbeat.
Out of nowhere, a cordon of police on horseback pulled up alongside and gave the limo a critical escort to W. 53rd Street and the studio entrance.
“This it? Get in quick!” John insisted, as the Beatles piled out and made a dash for the studio’s side entrance.
After a smooth rehearsal and a night out on the town, including dinner at New York’s trendy “21” restaurant, the Beatles were exhausted when they arrived back at the Plaza. It was clear from the get-go that there would be no peace. TV news crews were camped out in the hall. Tom Wolfe was in their suite, taking notes for an Esquire article. Cynthia Lennon and George’s sister, Louise, were entertaining a roomful of visitors. And plenty of others were reported to be on their way.
The Beatles were not happy. John, who was clearly annoyed, laid down the law, demanding everyone, including the photographers, clear out. Even the effervescent Beatles needed their rest. They had a milestone moment ahead of them. Sunday was the most important performance of their career.
This is the second installment in a series of excerpts from the new TIME book, The Beatles Invasion: The Inside Story of the Two-Week Tour That Rocked America, by Bob Spitz. Copyright 2013, Time Home Entertainment. Available wherever books are sold.
First installment: The Beatles Invasion, 50 Years Ago: Friday, Feb. 7, 1964.