Of Beatles, Boomers, and Black History

One black man’s perspective on the cultural impact of Beatlemania in America.

The Beatles perform on
The Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York on February 9, 1964. (Associated Press)

It was 50 years ago today that the Beatles taught us how to play. In case you missed it—as if that were possible with the wall-to-wall media hoopla—four mop-top lads from Liverpool made their audacious U.S. debut in February 1964.

Just as Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, would do two weeks later in Miami, the Beatles “shook up the world”—particularly the world of this then-11-year-old black boy—when they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1964.

Now if there is one thing to know about preadolescent boys, it is that they live in a constant state of desperation: Attaining a modicum of cool while adroitly avoiding any move that could lose it is paramount. That was me in 1964, which is exactly why I didn’t disclose my plans. I lived in inner-city Cleveland, Ohio, in a neighborhood that was, for all intents and purposes, 100 percent black. It just wouldn’t have been cool to share with my friends that I was going to sit in my living room in front of the black and white Zenith to watch the Beatles that Sunday night. It’s also why I hadn’t told any of them that I’d been surreptitiously listening to the Fab Four on my transistor radio.

Until the Beatles crossed the Atlantic, my radio and mind had been fixed firmly at the end of the AM dial. I tuned it almost exclusively to the soul music broadcasts of 1540-WABQ and 1490-WJMO. Nodding my head to the beat of the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean or Gary Lewis and the Playboys—or heaven forbid, Elvis—was as unthinkable as it was unforgivable.

After the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” however, I often found myself thumbing up the radio dial to WIXY-1260, Cleveland’s white rock station, to catch “She Loves You,” “Help,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” There was something very different about these “white boys.” Maybe it was the hair, or the fact that they were from across the pond, or their devil-may-care attitudes. But whatever it was that made them different, what resonated most for me was that they defined themselves.

The Beatles cemented their cool with me when they posed for the famous photo of them in the ring at the end of a jab by Ali—who, like the Beatles, would give voice to the frustrations and aspirations of many members of my generation. In short order, my younger brothers were playing air guitars and bouncing to The Beatles’ Second Album, giving special attention to tunes such as “Twist and Shout,” “Money,” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” As one writer recently noted, the album was the Fab Four’s homage to their American influences—black performers and songwriters. The Merseybeat definitely met Motown in my house. I found myself growing my hair and slicking it down with pounds of Vaseline and pressing it into place under a stocking cap to try to get a mop top that never quite worked. That thankfully segued seamlessly into an Afro, which brings me to the crux of this column.

The Beatles got me to begin reconsidering my world and, more importantly, myself. Of course, I had no real sense that such a transformation was taking shape back then; at the time, I barely had a grasp of my immediate surroundings. It hadn’t yet dawned on me that my Midwestern hometown was as segregated and bigoted as the Southern cities where kids just like me were marching and going to jail to protest Jim Crow. Those images were beamed into my living room in 1964 just as the reports about Freedom Summer would be, when young black and white college students—some our older brothers, sisters, and cousins—traveled to the South to shake up the status quo. And just as Paul, John, George, and Ringo became household names that year, sadly so would Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

That spring of 1964, blacks boycotted Cleveland’s segregated school system and I had my first taste of self-determination, participating in the Stay Out for Freedom action and going to a Freedom School in the basement of a Baptist church instead of my neighborhood public school. The city’s blacks were joined by a number of whites in that fight, including a young white preacher, Rev. Bruce Klunder, who was crushed to death under the tracks of a bulldozer, oozing out his life in a ditch to stop the building of yet another segregated school in Cleveland.

Up until the events of 1964, whites had been on the periphery of my universe, but now I began to sense the falseness of the “us against them” story I had been telling myself in my narrow and childish understanding of the world. For the first time, I was seeing—and thanks to the Beatles, hearing—that there was common ground to be found.

To be sure, Americans had met at the intersection of race and music often, and long before the Beatles arrived on the scene. But the contradictions became glaringly obvious when whites who gravitated to black music engaged in cherry-picking: They only embraced what they wanted of black music and culture while keeping the rest—and us—at arm’s length. It was never an equal transaction. Frankly, even as a child I resented whites dancing to our music but steadfastly refusing to invite us to the “party.”

The Beatles changed all of that for me. Their music turned the traditional black and white cultural transaction on its head. No longer a one-way street, black kids were as enthralled with the music white kids were listening to as they had always been with ours. The “Sound of Young America”—the Motown slogan—and the British Invasion transformed the nation and allowed me and other young blacks to see our fellow Baby Boomers in a different frame.

Moreover, Beatlemania made room for someone such as Jimi Hendrix to break away from old stereotypes, making it okay to march to your own drummer—or electric guitar. The ‘60s birthed integrated groups playing a new sound: Sly and the Family Stone, the Doobie Brothers, War. Blacks and whites grooved unselfconsciously together in places such as Monterey and later at Woodstock. We were coming together over the Beatles and other musicians in ways that previous generations had not—as the civil rights movement branched out into the black power movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement.

When we arrived on college campuses, the music was key to helping people from very different backgrounds and with no previous interaction connect. I found myself in dorm rooms lined with posters just like mine: “Free the Chicago 8”; “Free Angela Davis”; “Support the United Farm Workers”; “Hell No We Won’t Go.” We talked into the night about Che, Russell Means, and Fred Hampton against a backdrop of Curtis Mayfield and Jethro Tull. And we clearly felt the bond of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Four Dead in Ohio” alongside the black anti-war student protesters gunned down by state troopers on the campus of Jackson State University.

There was an energy. Change was in the air, and the possibilities seemed endless. It was a time of hippies and militants, of free love and free speech, when I was as likely to flash a peace sign as a black power salute. And there was no incongruity for me. With Marvin asking “What’s Going On” and the Beatles responding with, “one thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” The Man just didn’t have a chance.

I had no inkling at the time of the power we possessed. Of course, looking back on those years now, we were perhaps a bit naïve. But there is no denying much was accomplished and forever changed, owing to the fact that we had first opened up our ears, then our minds, and finally our hearts. The Beatles and the experience of the ‘60s provided a roadmap for change that still has the same mile markers—getting out of our skins, finding common ground, and understanding that we are all in this together. That’s when we will “begin to make it better, better, better, better.”

Carl Chancellor is the Editorial Director at the Center for American Progress. 

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Carl Chancellor

Vice President of Editorial, Production