(Edited since first posted.)
Back before Christmas, I dispelled the myth that Carroll James of WWDC in Washington played the first Beatles record ever heard on American radio, on December 17, 1963. It is, as I wrote at the time, a widely believed tale, especially since it appears in one of the most acclaimed of all Beatles biographies, Philip Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation. But it’s flat wrong. WLS in Chicago was on “Please Please Me” as early as February 1963, and the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Dick Biondi of WLS was probably the first American jock to play it.
If not first to play any Beatles song, Carroll James was likely the first American DJ to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” on December 17. The charming story is that he got a copy of the UK single from a 14-year-old Beatles fan. I have also read that James was given a copy to help promote the Beatles’ first American concert, scheduled for DC on February 11, 1964. But according to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Capitol Records took legal measures to stop the proliferation of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which was scheduled for mid-February release, so maybe not. (The label may have looked into such measures, but they couldn’t have actually done much, given that they eventually set it for release on the 26th, especially since Christmas fell in that nine-day window between the 17th and the 26th.)
There are radio-station music surveys showing WGR and WKBW in Buffalo playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by late December, and they would likely have been playing it before they charted it, and within no more than a day or two of December 17. Again according to Wikipedia, the single made its way from James to other DJs in other cities, supposedly prompting Capitol’s legal steps, whatever they were. So perhaps the Buffalo stations got it that way.
Because of their proximity to Canada, WGR and WKBW may deserve credit for some American Beatles firsts, or close-to-firsts. Capitol had steadfastly resisted releasing Beatles product in the States until “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but had been putting out singles in Canada since the spring of 1963, although their September release of “She Loves You” was the first shipped in significant numbers.
Before that, the Beatles singles that got American release on tiny labels like Vee Jay, Tollie, and Swan were imported to Canada by the Polydor label—(no they weren’t, as the mighty Yah Shure clarifies below) and it would have been like falling out of bed for some radio guy in Buffalo to cross the border, buy a few, and bring ’em back instead of waiting for Capitol to get off the dime in the States. But the Buffalo stations couldn’t have been playing Canadian copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in late December. It wasn’t released by Capitol of Canada until January 11, 1964.
“She Loves You” was another matter. It wouldn’t get an American release on Capitol until April 1964, but it had come out on Philadelphia-based Swan on September 16, 1963, the same day Capitol released it in Canada. It shows up on a number of Canadian stations at ARSA during the last couple of months of 1963, and on WGR for the week of December 27, although the station had been playing it for at least a week before. So WGR’s copy had to be either on Capitol of Canada or Swan.
But it was not a DJ in Buffalo who got a gold record for “She Loves You.” And it was not Dick Biondi—or Carroll James, for that matter—who was officially honored as the Beatles’ first American DJ/benefactor. That honor went to Dick “the Derby” Smith of WORC in Worcester, Massachusetts, who received a gold record from the Beatles for his efforts in promoting “She Loves You,” which was on WORC as early as November 1963.
That strikes me as a rather important bit of history, one that solidly preempts any claim Carroll James had to being the first American Beatle-jock, and it’s hard for me to believe that Philip Norman never came across it in his research for Shout! But I’ve got to be halfway compassionate, too—I have made similarly egregious mistakes at this low-rent blog many times over the years.
(Tip o’ the baseball cap to Matthew, the high sheriff at Ultimate Classic Rock, for tipping me to Dick Smith’s story, and for being so gracious about my correction to the site’s Carroll James story. Not everybody on the Internet would been civil about it.)