The 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 has been widely celebrated of late, and rightly so. It was truly an epochal TV event and watershed moment in American popular culture. What is largely forgotten today, however, is that the Beatles’ performance that Sunday night fifty years ago was actually the second of two important music events on television that weekend, events that together would have a profound impact on Philadelphia’s musical landscape.
On Saturday afternoon February 8, 1964, the day before the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, the popular teen TV music and dance show American Bandstand had its inaugural broadcast from Los Angeles, some 3,000 miles from its original home in Philadelphia. While the loss of Bandstand was a serious blow to what had been a burgeoning pop music scene in Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it would turn out to be just the first of a one-two punch that hit Philadelphia music that weekend. The Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan the next evening ushered in the “British Invasion,” a period of several years in which English groups would dominate pop music while their American counterparts would suffer considerably, particularly the many Philadelphia artists who up until then had been enjoying great success.
American Bandstand began as a radio program in Philadelphia in the late 1940s, hosted by local music impresario Bob Horn. It made its debut as a TV show on WFIL-TV in October 1952, airing in the Philadelphia area only. In 1956 Horn was replaced by WFIL’s young, ambitious radio and TV announcer Dick Clark after being convicted of driving drunk, and acquitted of statutory rape charges. Clark took Bandstand national in 1957 and built it into America’s most popular and influential outlet for teen music and dancing. Anchored by Bandstand, Philadelphia became the epicenter of the pop music industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A number of record labels, recording studios, and distribution companies sprang up in the city, giving rise to a vibrant local music scene. Chief among the record labels was Cameo-Parkway, the nation’s most successful independent record company at that time. With artists such as Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp, and Chubby Checker, Cameo Parkway had a long string of hit records in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Other local labels such as Chancellor and Swan also enjoyed success with local talent in this period.
Bandstand’s studios were located in WFIL’s headquarters at 46th and Market Streets in West Philadelphia. Built in 1947 and now serving as the Enterprise Center, a business incubator for minority entreprenuers, the building was one of the first in the nation designed specifically as a TV production facility. Local high school students flocked to 46th and Market to dance on Bandstand and many became minor celebrities. But it was Philadelphia musical acts that benefited most from the show, with local performers appearing regularly and enjoying national success as a result. (Dick Clark had a financial interest in some of the record companies whose artists appeared on his show, a conflict of interest that led to the infamous “Payola” scandal of the early 1960s. As a result, Clark had to divest himself of these other business interests.)
Dick Clark’s ambition led him to move American Bandstand to Los Angeles, where he could be in the heart of the entertainment industry and build his media empire. The show’s departure from Philly in early 1964, together with the stifling effect of the British Invasion on American musical artists, was most detrimental to the city’s music industry. Many of the once flourishing record companies and music businesses closed, moved, or were sold, and Philadelphia lost its status as a premier center for American popular music. (Fortunately, it would regain this position within a decade with the rise of Philadelphia International Records and the famed “Sound of Philadelphia.”)
Ironically, two Philadelphia record labels had an opportunity very early on to secure the rights to the Beatles’ American releases. One benefitted considerably, if only temporarily, while the other passed on the chance. In the summer of 1963, when the Beatles were still relatively unknown in America, Swan Records acquired the American distribution rights to their song “She Loves You.” After releasing it, label owner Bernie Binnick tried to interest Dick Clark (who had previously been a partner in Swan) in promoting the record, but Clark was not impressed, particularly after the song did not fare well in Bandstand’s audience Rate-a-Record segment.
After Beatlemania broke out in February 1964, the song went to number one and Swan profited greatly. However, Swan’s right to future Beatles’ American releases was contingent on “She Loves You” selling at least 25,000 records within a year of its release. While the song was a huge hit later, it did not reach the 25,000 mark within the one-year time frame and Swan lost the rights to future Beatles releases. The company held on for a few more years before closing in 1967. (Interestingly, when Beatles manager Brian Epstein told Bernie Binnick in December 1963 that he had booked the group on the Ed Sullivan Show, Binnick told Epstein that he had made a big mistake and should have booked the Beatles on Bandstand.)
The other Philadelphia label to lose out on the Beatles was Cameo Parkway, the city’s most successful record company. Label owner Bernie Lowe, like Dick Clark, was not impressed with what he heard when the Beatles’ were offered to Cameo Parkway and opted not to pursue the group. Lowe said that the Beatles were a fad and would be gone within a few months. Capital Records, the American arm of the Beatles’ British record company EMI, eventually became the group’s American record label and the rest, as they say, is history.
Imagine what Philadelphia’s musical landscape would have been like had either of these two local record companies become the Beatles’ American label!