50 Years Ago Today The Rolling Stones Came to America

500 screaming girls and a press conference greeted Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts after they touched down at New York City’s J.F.K. Airport on June 1, 1964. The scenario echoed The Beatles’ famous landing less than four months before, except The Rolling Stones were still largely unknown this side of the pond. To date they had just one charted single in the U.S. – their Bo Diddley-esque cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” which peaked at #48 earlier that year (as opposed to it reaching #3 in the UK) – and England’s Newest Hit Makers, the American version of their debut album, had been released just two days before their arrival. It wasn’t until the fall of 1964 that they had their first U.S. smash with “Time Is on My Side,” but the hysteria that greeted them in New York suggested otherwise.

Police started pulling us out, saying, ‘Run! It’s every man for himself,” Wyman wrote of arriving at the Astor Hotel in his 1990 auto-bio Stone Alone. In seconds the hotel reception became an insane asylum. Mick and I made a mad dash into the lobby, and Hilda Skarfe of Song Hits magazine raced after us, followed by about 70 screaming girls, with police close behind…we ran into a laundry closet by mistake and we were trapped. It was like a scene from a movie!”

The Stones’ New York greeting was similar to The Fab Four’s – including questions about their hair at press conferences and radio interviews with self-proclaimed “Fifth Beatle” Murray the K. The DJ also played the Valentinos’ soon-to-be hit “It’s All Over Now” and suggested the Stones cover it. They took his advice and recorded their version nine days later at Chess Studios. Within weeks it was the Stones’ first British chart-topper, and one of two minor hits the group had in America that summer (the other being “Tell Me;” both peaked in the mid-20s).

The Stones’ first television appearance stateside was a June 2nd interview on The Les Crane Show. Crane joked about Brian Jones’ “Prince Valiant” hairdo, and pressed the comparison between them and The Beatles by continuing referring to the Stones’ as “that other British group.” After two days of New York press the band flew to Los Angeles for their notorious American TV debut performance on Dean Martin’s Hollywood Palace.

In America then, if you had long hair, you were a faggot as well as a freak,” Richards wrote in his 2010 memoir Life. “Dean Martin introduced us as something like, ‘these long-haired wonders from England, the Rolling Stones…They’re backstage picking fleas off one another.’ A lot of sarcasm and eye rolling.”

The Hollywood Palace was an hour-long variety show broadcast by ABC on Saturday nights from 1964 through the end of the decade. The Stones taped two performances on June 3rd. The first,  their take on Muddy Water’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You” was broadcast on June 6th. The second, “Not Fade Away,” was saved for a second season episode that aired September 26, 1964 (by which time the Stones had legitimately blown up). It’s Martin’s jokes at the Stones’ expense however that are best remembered, and begrudged to this day by Richards. According to some accounts the conflict stemmed from backstage drama that began when the show informed the Stones they needed to buy uniforms to appear and the band angrily refused. Photographer Bob Bonis recalls, “Dean Martin came in and had no idea what he was dealing with. The vibe, as we call it today, was just awful. Dean and I got into an argument at one point and Keith, my newfound friend, was about to pop him one with one of those solid-body guitars.

You know these singing groups today?” Martin cracked on the air, “You’re under the impression they have long hair. Not true at all…it’s an optical illusion…they just have low foreheads and high eyebrows.

Although the Rat Pack star’s insults seem mild by 2014 standards, at the time they signaled the growing divide of the “generation gap.” Stephen King, 16 years old at the time, recalls of watching the TV show: “I thought, ‘Fuck you, you old lounge lizard. You’re the past, I’ve just seen the future.” Martin in fact was still putting out hit records and starring in feature films. Regardless, Bob Dylan immortalized the beef by writing “an dean martin should apologize t the rolling stones” on the back cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan, released that summer.

The Stones kicked off a 12-date tour at San Bernardino’s Swing Auditorium on June 5th (pre-dating The Beatles’ first American tour by eleven weeks). Unlike the Fab Four, the Stones still hadn’t had a big hit when they came to America, which translated into poor attendance for their first trek. Worse still, most American audiences at the time weren’t ready for the group’s image – decidedly less-teeny-bopper and more androgynous than the Beatles – and they were ridiculed with insults and homophobic slurs by the audience at their Texas stop. Keep in mind these shows were at a state fair. The band’s opening act was a trampoline performer, rodeo trick riders, chimpanzees and elephants!

The Stones’ first American trip wasn’t about being England’s newest hit-makers so much as it was a pilgrimage of sorts for the group. “Nobody realises how America blew our minds and the Beatles’ too,” Richards recalls. “Can’t even describe what America meant to us. We first started to listen to Otis Redding when we got to the States, and picked up our first Stax singles. And Wilson Pickett.” The undisputed highlight of the trip was recording at Chicago’s Chess Studios (where Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and numerous blues legends had all made the records that served as the Stones’ blueprint).

2120 South Michigan Avenue was hallowed ground,” Richards wrote in Life. “We got there on a last-minute arrangement by [manager] Andrew Oldham…There in the perfect sound studio, in the room where everything we listened to was made, perhaps out of relief or just the fact that people like Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon were wandering in and out, we recorded 14 tracks in two days.”

Besides recording their next single, “It’s All Over Now,” they commenced sessions for their next EP (“Down the Road Apiece,” “Time Is on My Side,” “Look What You’ve Done”) and met their idols. “Willie Dixon walked in to see us and talked about the scene,” Bill says. “So did Buddy Guy. We felt were were like taking part in a little bit of history – after all, those studios were used by Muddy Waters as well as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. We knew pretty well what numbers we wanted to get in the can… like It’s All Over Now… and the atmosphere was so marvelous that we got through them in double quick time. Then, on the next day, both Chuck and Muddy came in to see us. Fantastic.

Although disputed by many, Keith insists: “when we first went into Chess Studios in ’64, the first time we came here… There’s Phil Chess and there’s Ron Malo, the engineer, and this guy in white overalls painting the ceiling. As we walked by into the studio, somebody said, Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters, and he’s painting the ceiling. He wasn’t selling records at the time, and this is the way he got treated… I’m dying, right? I get to meet The Man – he’s my fucking god, right – and he’s painting the ceiling! And I’m gonna work in his studios. Ouch!

“Before we went to America it was very difficult to record in England,” Keith recalls. “Nobody could record or had recorded the sound we were trying to get. People weren’t used to that kind of roughness. Everyone in England at the time was incapable: engineers, equipment, producers and, to a certain extent, musicians. No one could get a really good funky American sound which is what WE were after. The best move we could possibly do was get to America as quickly as possible and record there.”

“The big trouble with recording in England was that for a rock group the studio acoustics were so bad because you couldn’t play loud,” Bill said in 1972. “When we recorded at the Chess Studios in Chicago, we had Ron (Malo), the guy who engineered all the Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf records. He knew exactly what we wanted and he got it almost instantly.” As for getting turned on to Otis Redding while in America, that would soon-enough inspire them to write “Satisfaction.”

The tour continued through Minnesota, the mid-west, and the northeast, concluding with a two-set concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall (which had begun booking rock bands after The Beatles played the venue during their first US visit in February ’64).

Keith remembers the Carnegie Hall show as “just screaming with kids. We’d almost forgotten what it was like, ’cause we were used to that every night, every time we played [in England], and suddenly [on our first American tour’) we were brought down, bang, everybody saying, What a fuckup, we’ve blown it. America was still very much into Frankie Avalon. There wasn’t any thought of long-haired kids, we were just entertainment-business freaks, with long hair, just like a circus show. And we get to New York and suddenly we realize that maybe we… that it’s just starting.

“We really felt like a sore pimple in Omaha. On top of that, the first time we arrived there, the only people to meet us off the plane were 12 motorcycle cops who insisted on doing this motorcade thing right through town. And nobody in Omaha had ever heard of us. We thought, Wow, we’ve made it. We must be heavy. And we get to the auditorium and there’s 600 people there in a 15 000-seat hall. But we had a good time. That’s what stopped us from turning into popstars then… Then we really had to work America and it really got the band together… Some towns you went into on that first tour they’d look at you with a look that could kill. You could just tell they wanted to beat the shit out of you.”

When the tour dates concluded the band continued their pilgrimage by soaking in some more American music before returning to England.

“Mick and I hadn’t come all the way to New York in ’64 not to go the Apollo,” Richards writes in Life. “James Brown had the whole week there at the Apollo. Go to the Apollo and see James Brown, damn fucking right. I mean, who would turn that down?”


June 1:  The Rolling Stones arrive in New York City for their first American tour, holding a press conference at Kennedy Airport.

June 2: The Rolling Stones American TV debut interview on The Les Crane Show.

June 3: The Rolling Stones tape their debut American TV performance for Dean Martin’s Hollywood Palace. Drama ensues.

June 4: The Rolling Stones meet arranger Jack Nitzsche at  Los Angeles’ RCA Recording Studios.

June 5: The Rolling Stones’ first United States tour begins in San Bernardino, California.

June 6: The Rolling Stones first Hollywood Palace performance airs.

June 10-11: The Rolling Stones record in the U.S. for the first time at Chicago’s Chess Studios.

June 12-20: The Rolling Stones complete their tour.

June 17-20: The Rolling Stones’ television performances include Clark Race Show, The Mike Douglas Show (Cleveland) and The Clay Cole Saturday Show.

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