The Beatles’ first American television appearance 50 years ago next month — said to be the most significant moment in pop music history — also marked a turning point for Top 40 radio.
Nowhere was the British invasion welcomed more warmly than at WLS AM 890, where the Fab Four dominated the Silver Dollar Survey on Chicago’s 50,000-watt giant for rest of the decade.
Here is the piece I wrote for the Sun-Times on Feb. 5, 1984 — days before the 20th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut in America. (Posted with permission.)
Beatles seize Chicago radio
Television’s “Ed Sullivan Show” may have brought the Beatles into our living rooms for the first time, but radio made them a permanent part of our lives.
“Radio and the Beatles were a perfect marriage because both used the other so effectively,” said Clark Weber, morning disc jockey and program director during the 1960s at rock ’n’ roll powerhouse WLS AM 890.
“We were into it because we recognized it was a massive infusion into a very sick body,” Weber said. “Radio had become stagnant and it desperately needed that excitement. And Capitol [Records] desperately needed that hit. We both got on the bandwagon of massive teenage hysteria and exploited it.”
Twenty years later, Weber still is among Chicago’s top five morning personalities, having outgrown rock music for adult talk on WIND AM 560. But he’ll always remember introducing the Beatles at Comiskey Park in 1966.
“When Ron Riley and I stepped out onto that stage, Ron said to me, ‘Look, you can feel it.’ And as we brought the Beatles on stage, we put our hands out and you could actually feel the sound from the crowd passing through your fingers. It was an incredible experience.”
Riley, an evening jock on WLS from 1963 to 1969 and station’s most outspoken “advocate” of the Beatles, laughs at the stunts he pulled in order to be first on the air with new releases. “I used to get Beatles records smuggled out of the factory in England and would drive out to O’Hare to pick them up from British Airways,” Riley said.
“I remember playing songs like ‘Something’ for the first time and just blowing out phone lines with people wanting to hear them again. They hadn’t even been licensed to play on the air yet, so the next day, of course, we’d get a cease-and-desist from Capitol Records saying they were gonna sue the station.”
Now a broadcast marketing consultant and weekend weatherman on WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Riley says he still feels “a great attachment to that portion of our lives. It represented a personal turning point for a lot of us because the Beatles brought such a renaissance. The music still goes through my head.”
Dick Biondi, the first genuine superstar DJ on WLS, missed the big buildup in Chicago because he was fired in 1963 — a year before the Beatles’ invasion of America. But he still boasts of being the first in town to have played the Vee Jay releases of “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You.”
In fact, WLS music charts document that the station was the first in the country to list the Beatles (misspelled as “The Beattles”) on a weekly record survey — dated March 8, 1963.
“When I took the records with me to the West Coast in the summer of ’63, I played them in Los Angeles and got calls from kids who said, ‘Take that crap off and play the Beach Boys,’ ” said Biondi, now morning man on WBBM FM 96.3
But few other jocks claim to have prophesized the Beatles’ success. “To be honest, when they first came around on Vee Jay Records, we all dismissed them as a just another band from England,” said Weber. “But when they came through again on Capitol, thanks to that massive Capitol hype, they took off.”
A few years ago, Riley had the chance to relive it all when he and his wife finagled a backstage pass to visit with Paul and Linda McCartney after a Wings concert in Washington, D.C. “They spent an hour with us just chitchatting about Chicago and all that stuff. When it was over, I walked out of there with wet eyes. Talking about that period of time just does that to me. Still does.”