Edward Bulwer Lytton, a man of letters, once wrote ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He wrote several other memorable phrases, one of which has led to his name adorning an annual competition, the goal of which is to write the most hilariously bad, convoluted opening sentences ever written. Just go and download an e-book of Paul Clifford and you will see why. It is a great phrase though isn’t it? The pen is mightier than the sword. Think about it for a second.
In 1860 presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln, then very much a fan of the barber’s chair, got a letter from an 11 year old girl named Grace Bedell. She told Honest Abe his unshaven face looked too thin. He should grow a beard cause “all the ladies liked whiskers”. In 1894 an anonymous letter containing various state secrets was handed to French intelligence. It led to the wrongful arrest of a Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus. He would languish on the infamous Devil’s Island until 1906; but lest we forget it was an 1898 public letter “J’Accuse” written by the author Emile Zola which sparked the public outrage that finally freed him. A 1917 telegram sent by German Foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to his counterpart in Mexico, promising them the return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to them if they invaded the USA the moment the States entered World War One was a precipitating moment in the Great war. Needless to say it backfired horribly for the Germans when the letter was intercepted then leaked by British intelligence.
Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, which warned of the dangerous possibility Nazi Germany could build a superweapon. His letter kicked off the Atomic Age. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, which stated “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, kicked the civil rights movement into high gear. My focus this week, however, is a letter sent by a 14 year old girl at Sligo Junior High School to a man known as CJ the DJ, and how that letter may have changed the course of popular music forever.
On November 22nd 1963 CBS Morning News ran a piece on an all but unknown British band whose very presence back in Old Blighty was a sight to behold. A bona fide phenomenon, girls, and no doubt some boys fell head over heels at the very mention of their name. It may have garnered more attention but for an incident in Dallas that afternoon which would eclipse everything else that day. The Kennedy assassination overshadowed the 95th birthday of Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice president John Nance Garner, the deaths of CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, and Walt Disney’s announcement of the planned site for Disneyworld. The unnoticed piece on this group of mop topped Liverpudlians was to be re-run that evening on Walter Cronkite’s CBS evening news, but as you could imagine, it got shelved, and passed more or less unnoticed.
The piece would resurface on the evening news, however, on 10th December. Cronkite felt the USA, deep in mourning over President Kennedy, needed something to lighten the mood. What better than a tale on four charming British entertainers you never knew you needed in your life? The piece did not spark a revolution, but Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland was bowled over by the group. A motivated Marsha wrote a letter to WWDC-AM radio DJ Carroll James jr, which begged him to play some songs by this group, asking “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?”.
(This author chooses to ignore that America was making some fantastic music at the time, when you got away from Fabian and teen idols named Bobby, and that the group in question’s first album contained covers of songs by Arthur Alexander, The Cookies, The Shirelles, Lenny Welch, and The Isley Brothers. Their second album, released in the UK on the day of the Kennedy Assassination featured covers of Peggy Lee, The Marvelettes, Chuck Berry, The Miracles, The Donays and Barrett Strong songs.)
This author too, is a fan of the group in question and, anyway the point is America was missing out on this cultural phenomenon that was taking off across the Atlantic.
Marsha’s letter got CJ the DJ seriously thinking about this, and how to get an advance copy of this record that had been released in the UK but was not planned for any release until early 1964 in the USA. CJ the DJ spoke with station management, then a friend who worked for British Airways, and within a few days had a copy of I Want To Hold Your Hand, in his hot little hand.
On 17th December Marsha Albert was invited to the WWDC-AM studio to introduce the record, by her new favorite band, The Beatles. The US release of their album was brought forward, just in time for Christmas, and they were on their way to massive fame and fortune stateside, and around the world.
Thank you, Marsha Albert, for caring enough to put pen to paper.