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Vanity Fair Magazine: When the Beatles Stormed America, I Was With Them

January 14, 1964, London

I was ready to head to Kenya in the morning. Then the phone rang. It was my boss, Frank Spooner, the picture editor of the Daily Express. “I’m taking you off the Africa assignment,” he said. “We’d like you to go to Paris. The Beatles are on tour there.”

My heart sank. Yes, I’d heard of the Beatles. They were getting bigger—hit song after hit song. But, at 31, I considered myself a serious journalist. As a staff photographer for London’s leading daily paper, I’d covered the rise of the Berlin Wall and broken stories in Egypt, Northern Rhodesia, and Russia. I was more interested in Kenya’s new government than in following around some rock-and-roll group.

“Frank, I’m supposed to go to Africa tomorrow,” I told him. “I’ve had all my shots.” Spooner heard me out and rang off. And I thought, Great, I dodged a bullet. At the Express, I’d built my reputation on hard news. And no place was more cutthroat than London’s Fleet Street, where staff photographers like me fought for scoops, tooth and nail, against guys on rival papers. I knew that once they put you on a music story, you’d be pegged as a show business photographer.

The phone rang again. Spooner had spoken with the top editor. “You’re going to Paris,” he said. “We think you’re perfect for the job. You’re presentable. None of our other photographers are good-looking.” And that was that. I was off to photograph the Beatles.

January 15, Paris

I met John, Paul, and George at the airport in London. Ringo would join us later. They were friendly and polite and sharp. Barely into their 20s, they joked around a lot and were quite mischievous, which I liked.

The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, all of 29, knew that photos in the Express would give the group great exposure back in Britain. So they’d agreed to give me full access. I remember John sitting down with me that day and saying, “I know this is good for you. But this is good for us because you’re doing our publicity for us. Otherwise, this would cost us a lot of money.” My assignment was to wire back one good photograph a day, preferably some kind of exclusive.

I was about 10 years older than the Beatles, which earned me some respect. They related to the fact that I was a scruff from Glasgow, a tough town like Liverpool. When we landed in Paris, a member of their entourage pulled me aside and said, “They like you. You’re not ugly.” Not ugly? Spooner had been right: Physical attractiveness mattered with them. They went to a stylish tailor in Soho—Dougie Millings in the Old Compton Road—who designed their collarless suits. So I fit in. I liked clothes and I wore a jacket.

That night, the band was playing in a music hall outside Paris. Just before they went onstage, I realized I needed another lens. When I went to the car to get it, I heard the first few bars of “All My Loving.” And it clicked for me, even before I’d seen them perform. Their sound was new. I knew right then: I was on the right story. I knew they were going straight to the top.

January 16

We got close—fast. I stayed in the same hotel, the George V. I stayed behind with them when the other journalists left. And you know the main reason these guys were good to me? Because I wanted it. I became not a fly on the wall, but a friend with a camera. I was going to get my pictures.

After their second night performing in France, they came back to the hotel at around a quarter to 11. They wanted to go somewhere, but there weren’t many places open at that hour. And when they did go out to a club, their table was immediately surrounded by women. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t dance. Always a swarm. So they usually just stayed in the hotel suite with their handlers and me. They’d smoke cigarettes and play guitar, surrounded by tea sets and coffeepots, vases of flowers, baskets of fruit, newspapers with their pictures in them.

I soon saw how the music came naturally. It wasn’t like they’d built in time to compose—they had to do it on the fly. There was a piano in Paul’s room. At one point, John pulled up a chair and started tinkering. Paul joined in. John started humming what I would later recognize as the tune to “Baby’s good to me, you know / She’s happy as can be, you know / She said so…” But they got stuck: Where should it go after the melody? George wandered over with his guitar and played a catchy rhythm-and-blues riff, plucking away. He seemed to be improvising. Although John was later credited with writing the riff—influenced by Bobby Parker’s song “Watch Your Step”—the way I heard it that day was George coming up with it. They appeared to be writing a song right in front of me. And as John and Paul kept at it on the piano, Ringo, in a black turtleneck, came over and stood next to George. And I had my shot: the Beatles composing “I Feel Fine.”

January 17

They usually got up late. One day they were still in pajamas and robes when one of their road managers—Neil Aspinall or Mal Evans—came in with a big sack of mail. Word had gotten out that the band was staying at the George V, so cards and letters were piling up. The four of them sat on the rug, reading them out loud. “I’ve always thought you were the cutest Beatle.” Stuff like that. They’d rib each other.

I got down on the floor, photographing, and noticed Paul had positioned himself right in the center, reading a letter. He knew instinctively how to play to a camera. (He would even marry a photographer—his first wife, Linda Eastman.) The picture editors at the Express understood Paul’s magnetism: He was the handsomest and you looked at him right away. As a photographer, you could have two or three Beatles in a shot, but you always had to have Paul. My instructions from the picture desk would be: “Be sure you get Paul in the picture, old boy.”

Ringo got the most mail, though—by far. I think that’s because girls thought he was the most approachable. You couldn’t go for Paul or John or George—they were all so good-looking. Plus, John was married. If a fan was going to choose, she chose the one she thought the other fans weren’t going after.

That evening, they knocked about in the suite again. But my day didn’t end when the Beatles’ day ended. Every night I’d stay up in my hotel bathroom, developing and printing pictures so the Express could pick one to run in the paper. I’d use gaffer’s tape to seal any openings around the door, wedge towels under the door, and put a bedsheet on the floor to kneel on. In the pitch dark, I’d put the exposed rolls of black-and-white film in little tanks with D-76 developer, usually spilling developer all over the place. I’d hang the rolls of negatives on the shower rack to dry. I ruined more toilets developing my photographs than I can count.

I’d then put my enlarger on the commode. I’d choose the best frames, print them wet, then fix them with fixer in a small tank. When you flipped the light on, you’d see a hellish mess: your hands and the bedsheet stained yellow. You used the bathtub to wash the prints and negatives, drying them with a hair dryer. By then it’d be 5 a.m. You’d set up a transmitter and attach it to the bedroom phone and send three or four “selects”; it would take about eight minutes to transmit each picture.

I’d spend part of every night in my underwear, on my kneecaps, sweating in a sealed-off bathroom. But I’d feel rather pleased with myself for what I’d done that day.

January 18

Brian Epstein was a gentleman. He spoke like he came from Eton or Oxford. If people made requests nicely, it wasn’t in him to say no. Epstein would let in even local reporters from the provinces. He knew there was promotional value if someone posed with the group and then his hometown paper printed a shot, calling their own guy “the fifth Beatle.”

Epstein loved the Beatles and they loved him. It was Epstein who chose their matching outfits. He was adamant about a fresh, clean look. He wanted their boots to be spotless. Men with long hair were considered controversial at the time. And at the beginning, their hair was slicked back. Then, all of a sudden, it’s cut sharp and smart, with a fringe.

They even kept their hotel rooms neat. Before they went out, they’d smooth out the beds. They didn’t want to be known as untidy, leaving towels or liquor bottles strewn about. They discussed that. They certainly were the first and last rock group to do this; it would soon become a badge of honor for other bands to trash their room.

Epstein was ready for anything. The first sign of serious trouble, he could call big-time lawyers in his family or associated with him—people you didn’t want to get a phone call from. If a problem came up, he knew how to make it go away. He was always saying, “Don’t worry, Harry. It’ll all work out.” And he’d say it so calmly, while all the madness was swirling around him.

From dawn till late at night, Epstein focused on the Beatles. But sometimes he’d just not be around. He would have a boyfriend with him and then he’d sort of disappear. And after many of the shows, the nights could drag on until three in the morning. Young women fans would occasionally come up and sit in the rooms and have a party. The Beatles would pick up the phone and order food, a lot of it not being touched. They were like soldiers on leave. They were so young; they had no filter. George was 20; Paul, 21; John and Ringo, 23. At the 50th anniversary celebration of their stay at the George V, I was asked what the Beatles learned when they were in Paris. I thought for a moment and answered, “They learned to order room service.”

They discovered they could call up for bottles of whiskey too. But they didn’t know how to drink, really. Just a little here and there. I never saw them drunk. I never saw drugs, either. This was before the drug scene impacted them. (Epstein would die three years later of an overdose of drugs and alcohol at age 32. And his loss was devastating to the band.)

What I did see were a lot of young women, as you’d see with many music groups. I shared a room with George a couple of nights in Paris and New York, with George sleeping in the second bed. John did this too on a later assignment I did with the band. Because the one they’re supposed to be sharing a room with—I’m not saying who—has got a girl in the next bed. So they roomed with me. That’s the truth.

January 19, 2 a.m.

A day or two into the Paris trip, we were all having a drink, and George said, “That sure was some pillow fight we had the other night.” My ears perked up: a pillow fight. But there was another newspaper guy sitting there. I’m thinking, I know the bastard’s heard this, so I register it in my head for when I’ve got the four of them—alone. I file it away and let a few nights pass.

It was two in the morning, just me and the Beatles in John’s room. Everyone else had left. They were in their nightclothes. They’d ordered up food and whiskey. And Epstein came in. He had big news: “ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ just made it onto the charts in the US.” They erupted in cackles. They were beaming. Then he put the icing on the cake: “And next month we’re off to America. You’re going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.” (The song had just entered the Billboard 100 at number 45. By February 1, it would climb to number one.)

So I saw my opening. I suggested they celebrate with a pillow fight—like the one George had mentioned. John immediately shot it down: “No. It’ll make us look silly.” But I kept my eye on John, who started slinking off. And just as I lifted my camera, John sneaked up behind Paul and pow, whacked him in the head with a pillow. Paul’s drink went flying, and they were off.

They went at it. Quite vicious, letting off steam. If one went down, the others would pile on, like dogs fighting over a scrap of meat. Paul was smacked down, dazed, and John went right behind him, bang. Back and forth. Paul got the worst of it. Two rolls of Tri-X 120 film later—a total of 23 frames and one blank—they were exhausted.

In one frame, three of them were in midair above Paul on the bed and they were in a perfect tumble of pajamas and pillows, and I got it, a kind of waterfall of Beatles. I was using a Rolleiflex 120, which has a two-and-a-quarter-inch negative, so it’s pin-sharp clarity, with depth running through the blacks and whites. I knew it as I photographed: This was what I’d come for—the number one rock-and-roll band in the world having a pillow fight.

I've been a photographer for 70 years, and the pillow fight is one of my favorite photos. It’s a fun picture. It has access. It has intensity and fame and pure joy. And irony: grown men in their pajamas, acting like kids. It shows the greatest band in history at their giddiest moment of greatness. And it can never be repeated. But most of all, I love it because it didn’t just mean the Beatles were going to America. It meant that I was going with them.

February 7, 1964, Pan Am flight 101

To me, New York was the big time. From the moment I arrived, I began to think, Maybe I could actually stay in America and never come back.

It’s important to remember the mood of the US in the winter of 1964. The Beatles didn’t only need America; America needed the Beatles. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than three months before. The country was still in mourning. The civil rights struggle was in full force. Russia and America were in a cold war. The nation needed something uplifting. So here was this bright, positive group—with the promise of youth—representing Britain and Europe, bringing sympathy for the loss of a young American president, whom I’d photographed in 1961 in London and Paris.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t really thinking about the Cold War. I was thinking about the next Beatles job. I’d delivered for the Express. And I didn’t want any other photographer going to America.

The Express didn’t need convincing. The editors persuaded Epstein to let me stick with the band for the US tour. The paper had a lot of muscle, all kinds of connections. And I made sure I was on the inside before the band even stepped off the plane in America.

Which is how I got on Pan Am flight 101, departing Heathrow, bound for John F. Kennedy Airport, which had gotten its new name six weeks before. The Beatles had curtained off first class. But I was also in first class. Because board members of the Express were on the board of British Airways, they’d arranged with Pan Am for me to have a seat up front too.

It was the Beatles, Epstein, John’s wife Cynthia, and me. Many of the economy seats were filled with journalists from the Times and the Mirror and the Mail, coming over to cover the arrival. The British Invasion. The Beatles Storm America.

A couple of times the music producer Phil Spector, who’d booked a seat, made his way into first class. He stood there, chatting up Epstein—you can see him on my contact sheets. The Beatles knew he was a big shot, but they wanted privacy and Epstein didn’t want someone—especially a producer—bothering the band. So the flight attendant sent him back to coach.

As we landed, I was sitting with John. We looked out the window and saw a huge gathering of photographers in a press area, behind barricades. One of them, Ken Regan—who would later become a friend—had a black pompadour-style hairdo. And John pointed, “Look. There’s Elvis, come to greet us.”

John was anxious, though, like all the Beatles, about what to expect. Would the American media be tough on them? Or misconstrue something they said in an interview? Would demonstrators, because of all the press on hand, use the opportunity to stage some kind of protest? As the plane taxied in, John and I saw a mob lining the terminal rooftop. But it was a mob of fans, waving and screaming hysterically. They were being serenaded. You could hear the crowd singing, “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” It was a lovefest.

On the flight over, I’d proposed a photo idea, which the Beatles liked: I would be the fifth person off the plane, and as the band got halfway down the boarding stairs, they’d turn back and look at me—and I’d photograph them with the press, the crowd, and the New York skyline in the background. The picture would say, literally: Beatles come to America. But in my mind it also said: Benson got a picture no one else was in a position to take.

So we exited the plane: George, then John, Paul, Ringo, then me. And they got so distracted they forgot to turn around! They were caught up in this chaotic drama. The crowd was screaming. The press was screaming, “Look here!” It was deafening. I just grabbed Ringo’s coat and shouted, “Turn around!” and he hollered at the others, and they all looked back, Paul waving. Bingo. Thank you, Ringo. I fired off three frames. One shot ran in the Express the next day under the headline: “Crazy…that’s New York as the Beatles arrive.”

February 8, Manhattan

Our second day in New York, we went to the CBS TV studio for a rehearsal. Ed Sullivan was the host of the most popular variety show on television. He was deferential and obliging. He even put on a Beatles wig as a joke. They were soaking up the attention. Everywhere we went—in restaurants, passing a bar—there was Beatles music playing. But they never allowed themselves to get a swelled head. We usually just sat around at the Plaza.

As I had done in Paris, I stayed on the same floor as the band. Fact: When you have good-looking guys and their record’s number one, you have girls fighting to get onto the elevators and the back stairwells to get onto the 12th floor. Fact: A couple of girls snuck in and jumped on their beds and security had to take them away. This was rock and roll. Elvis Presley, same thing. But it was a big problem for Epstein because he didn’t want any incident to happen on his watch. He would discuss this with me: “We must watch this. We’re introducing young girls to the Beatles and we’re responsible.”

I began to understand how the band interacted. As I saw it, Paul was the leader. He seemed the most sophisticated, most business-minded, thinking about their image. He was upbeat and encouraging. John was a leader in other ways on other days. He was the conscience of the group, certainly. Creatively, you sensed John and Paul were in charge, insisting, “This is what we do.” Together, they had the last word.

John was a thoroughly decent guy. He was the most sensitive of the four, never wanting to insult anyone. At one of the New York dinners, someone was singing the national anthem. And a member of the party made a sarcastic remark about the singer’s delivery. John scolded him, “Be quiet.” He didn’t want this stranger to be associated with the Beatles—and the Beatles, by association, to be seen as disrespectful, especially over the national anthem.

George was very serious and thoughtful. He was secretly impatient, I’d say, with all the bowing and scraping. But he was always courteous—to the point where, if the band would rush past a group of fans, he’d go back and apologize for how they got caught up in the moment. One night, I went with George to Coney Island, just the two of us. George was sort of homesick. I was alone too. He wanted to see a part of America that was different. But Coney Island? It was February, eight at night, with only one or two places open. It was drab and disappointing. We might as well have been in Bournemouth.

Ringo was accommodating, funny, even-keeled. He was part of the formula that made them a success. And he actually became an anchor for the band, onstage and off. Whenever there was tension, Ringo brought composure.

In New York, I learned how Ringo had come into the band in the first place. Pete Best had been the drummer in the early Beatles. His mother, Mona Best, had opened the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool, where the band played some of their first gigs. But as they became successful, the word was that she’d become overbearing and supposedly kept bugging Epstein about “Pete’s band.” And for this and other reasons, apparently, Epstein—and the Beatles—let Pete go. And up pops Ringo.

February 9

The main event was their Sunday appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. This was the epicenter of Beatlemania. That day, London had been on the phone, hounding me to send my pictures as soon as the show was over.

As the band was leaving the Plaza to get into the limo, there was a pack of screaming people. Previously, the Beatles had always made sure to squeeze me into their car. But this was mayhem. Any other car would have just left. And yet, Paul held the door open so that I could get in with my cameras. At first I was sitting on the floor, literally. Then we started lurching down the street and I managed to get up and sit on John’s lap.

I was worried about one thing: How am I going to take photos in focus? I decided to concentrate on faces and bodies out the side windows as people peered in, surging toward us, shouting, waving. Old men in overcoats, high school girls, policemen. Click, click, click. Pictures from inside the fishbowl of the crush outside. This was a prelude to similar scenes in the movie A Hard Day’s Night, which would come out six months later in America. The pandemonium wasn’t unprecedented, of course. Fans had mobbed Valentino and Sinatra—and Elvis, in particular. I’d seen this with musicians and movie stars. But never at this level.

When we got to the theater, I stood behind the TV cameramen, taking pictures. Once it was showtime, the Beatles were all business. The audience was deafening, but these four were pros. They stuck to the set list: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” and then “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

All love songs. They wanted people to like them. They also understood that they were representing their country—and the queen. Buckingham Palace had passed along a message, very quietly, that they were good ambassadors for Britain, and they wanted to assume that role.

The broadcast turned out to be a milestone in American culture—bigger than they could have ever imagined the night of the pillow fight. Seventy-three million people watched. The band’s popularity exploded. This was a magnitude of fame that had been reserved for heads of state or heavyweight boxers. Now they were the heavyweight champions of the world.

It took me many years to get it through my head. But what the Beatles had done was remarkable: taking the essence of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and making it global. As time went on, people began to say their songs would be played for centuries. That stuck with me. I started to realize my photographs would be valued for centuries too. I hadn’t been shooting rock stars. I’d been photographing history.

Postscript, February 11–18

After New York, we went to Washington, DC. It was snowing. They were cold. I was cold. I was wearing just an ordinary pair of shoes. Washington was a scene. The Beatles had gone to the British embassy, and the guests got out of hand. Someone had even snipped a lock of Ringo’s hair. I was grateful we were headed to Miami.

The Beatles relaxed by the pool at the Deauville Hotel. They took a trip on someone’s yacht. They made another appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, this time broadcast from their hotel. I even arranged for the band to meet and pose with Muhammad Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—who was in Florida to fight Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title. But that’s another story for another time.

A few months ago, I came across a photo from that week—one that I’d never printed in a large format before. I’d wanted them on the beach, kind of letting loose. And I made a print. In it, you see the four Beatles running through the surf, looking really young, like teenagers on holiday. Behind them, women are standing in the waves. The Beatles seem to be carefree, splashing into the future.

That’s how I felt. Within a year, I would move to Manhattan. And I’ve stayed for 60 years and counting. I was the fifth off that plane, and I’ve never looked back.

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