Good Day Sunshine: How The Beatles’ Brief Florida Fling Altered the Course of Their Lives, Careers, and Music

The Beatles arrival at JFK Airport, February 7, 1964. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Robert Sanchez

The summer of 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” one of the most influential recordings in music history. Indeed, in 2003 when Rolling Stone Magazine listed its choices of the Top 500 Albums up to that point in history, it was ranked number one.

Recorded in 1967 at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, the album reflected The Beatles’ growing artistic maturity – and the increasingly adventurous spirit that was beginning to be evident in their two previous albums, “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul.”

This trend represented a sea change from their music when The Beatles first burst on the scene. Early songs such as 1963’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” primarily appealed to a fan base dominated by teeny-boppers who unfailingly screamed so loudly and persistently during concerts that the cacophony often drowned out the group’s music.

Certainly that was the nature of the hectic scene during the group’s first U.S. television appearance – on CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. If the so-called “British invasion” of American popular music had a D-Day, that was the date.

The Beatle haircut, aka the mop-top, was the focus of this Capitol Records hype ad. Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.

Life magazine covered Beatlemania on the eve of the bands first U.S. tour. Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.

Capitol Records ad promoting The Beatles U.S. tour.Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.

At the time of The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan’s show, cable TV had not yet taken root, the internet was decades away, and most Americans lived where they could receive only three or fewer TV channels “over the air.”

In those days it was not uncommon for the most popular shows on the affiliates of the three major networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – to reach a huge portion of the TV audience, and Sullivan’s show was consistently among the top-rated shows.

So it was not surprising that The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show racked up a 45.3 rating and a 60 percent share of all TV viewers nationwide – a record rating at the time and one unheard of nowadays, even for stellar events such as the Oscars or the NFL’s Super Bowl.  It was estimated that 73 million Americans watched the show.

The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Courtesy of Cassowary Colorizations/Flickr.

Their performance was not necessarily a hit with critics, however. For instance, The Beatles were mercilessly panned by a Newsweek critic whose prophetic powers were no better than those of the magazine itself, which in an April 28, 1975 article titled “Our Cooling World” famously warned of the looming possibility of a new ice age.

A week or so after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the February 24, 1964 cover of Newsweek featured a picture of the group with the caption, “Bugs About Beatles.” Inside the magazine, it got worse. As noted on the official website of The Ed Sullivan Show, the review was unsparing:

“Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of  ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments….…the odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”

Critics notwithstanding, The Beatles’ debut appearance on Sullivan’s show was so successful and such a big deal that history has largely forgotten that they made a second appearance only a week later – and that they weren’t in New York but in Miami Beach, where the lads had spent a week of fun, frolic, and — to some degree — reflection on their future.

By then they had wearied of touring. The endless travel, the loss of privacy, and their inability to go anywhere without being mobbed – flattering at first — had begun to grate on them, as well documented in director Ron Howard’s excellent 2016 film, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.”

The endless tumult was never worse than during their brief stay in New York City prior to their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Arriving a couple of days prior to the Sunday night show, they were essentially trapped in their rooms at The Plaza Hotel. Going outside and into the city to check out the Big Apple’s sights and sounds would have been unthinkable as the hotel was surrounded by phalanxes of fans in the grip of “Beatlemania.”

It was different in Miami Beach. Sure, fans were using every trick in the book in an effort to get close to their idols, but a security detail figured out how to give the group some relief.  For instance, to enable them travel to a nearby photo shoot showing them in a swimming pool, they were escorted out of the Deauville Hotel’s back entrance, through the loading dock, and onto a waiting truck.

View of Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, ca. 1965. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

During their Florida stay The Beatles and their official entourage were even treated to an American-style home-cooked meal at the residence of Buddy Dresner, the Miami Beach police officer who was in charge of their security during their week-long stay in Miami Beach.

The comparatively long stay in South Florida was a welcome change. After performing in gritty environments ranging from Liverpool, London, and Hamburg – and after tours that whisked them from one place to the next, with hardly a respite in between – they were ready to take a break.

The website Beatle.Net posted this account:

“The Beatles spent the week of February 17, 1964, relaxing in Miami Beach. The group had been scheduled to return to England the day of their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but Brian [their manager, Brian Epstein] decided to let the boys have additional time to enjoy sunny South Florida.

“On Monday, Sgt. Buddy Dresner arranged for the group to have use of a private home on Star Island. The Beatles were able to run on the beach and frolic in the waves. They also went water skiing for the first time. That evening, the group watched a science fiction television program with Sgt. Dresner, who taught the group a new word when describing an alien weapon seen in the show. John later incorporated the word into a song on The White Album.

“On Tuesday, the group attended the workout of Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), who was in training for his heavyweight championship fight with Sonny Liston. Sgt. Dresner also took the group to a drive-in theater to see a movie. George was the only Beatle to have previously seen a movie at a drive-in, having done so during his trip to America in September 1963.

Sonny Liston, who Muhammad Ali defeated a few days later for the title, turned down a photo op with The Beatles. However, Liston would later appear on The Beatles’ iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover.

The group also spent time during the week shopping, speedboating, swimming and snorkeling. Paul recalls a car dealership lending each Beatle his own MG to drive around. Ringo recalls being put behind the wheel of a speedboat and running it into the dock. After an exciting but grueling week in the frigid Northeast, The Beatles enjoyed a week of relaxation in sunny Florida. It was a happy and untroubled time.

“On Friday, February 21, the group made preparations for their return to England. They flew in from Miami Beach to New York’s Kennedy Airport, where thousands of fans showed up on a cold winter evening to say goodbye to The Beatles.”

It can be argued that during their week in South Florida, this little glimpse of a less frenetic lifestyle played a role in their subsequent decision to quit touring and to concentrate on musical innovations that were so evident in Rolling Stone’s number one album of all time, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Life magazine ad featuring “The New Far-out Beatles” soon after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967. Courtesy of rchappo2002/Flickr.

The famous album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a mishmash of celebrities and historical figures. It was designed by pop artists Jann Haworth and Peter Blake.