Think of the Beatles in 1964, and before you think of songs, you think of pictures: Beatles cards. Front-page photographs of screaming crowds at airports. Close-ups of that hair. During their first weeks here, the Beatles were probably seen by more people than heard them.
From the start, there was a love affair between the Beatles and the camera. “They were the most naturally photogenic group I’d ever seen,” recalls Scotsman Harry Benson, whose career took off after he documented the Beatles’ trip to the States. There were 5,000 fans at Kennedy Airport when the Beatles landed. “We knew we were making history,” Benson says. For the next 15 days, he rarely left the Beatles’ sides. “Every morning they would receive boxes full of presents,” Benson says. “If one of them got more than the others, they would become jealous and nasty. They were extremely childish, and I’m not sure they were having much fun.”
If so, it never came across in pictures. Ken Regan, who shot the group for TIME, says, “They were sassy with reporters, but with photographers they were totally open.” Curt Gunther, shooting for the London Daily Mirror, was invited to accompany them on their second swing through the U.S. six months later. “We’d arrive in a hotel at 3 a.m., and the lobby would be jammed with teenage fans,” he says. Once upstairs, the Beatles sent gofers back to the lobby to recruit. “There were always 20 or 30 girls in the room,” says Gunther. By the second tour the Beatles were drinking a lot of Scotch, he says. Reportedly, they were also taking uppers to keep up the frantic pace. Not surprisingly, they got a little tired of each other. “By the end,” Gunther remembers, “they couldn’t wait to go their separate ways. But when I met them, they weren’t phonies yet. They were real people.”
“I was the fifth one off the plane,” says Harry Benson, who claims he got the first shot (facing page) of the boys in the States. “I wouldn’t let them turn [to face the crowd],” he says, “till I was through.” Two days later Ken Regan snapped the Beatles rehearsing for their first Ed Sullivan Show.
“You never knew what would happen next,” says photographer Curt Gunther. “They did everything on the spur of the moment.” In Indianapolis, spying a golf course near their digs, the Beatles decided to demonstrate the old maxim: different strokes for different folks. Later, in the Midwest, Gunther shot Paul modeling a fan’s gift. “McCartney,” he says, “was by far the most open of the four.” In New York, Regan got the Fab Three (George was ailing in his hotel room) to Central Park, despite subfreezing February weather. “They were born hams,” he remembers, “and they would do anything you wanted.”
Gunther’s favorite time to work was in the wee hours, before the Beatles went to sleep. He shot them fishing from a Key West motel room at 6 a.m. “Whenever John saw I was getting tired,” Gunther says, “he’d offer me an upper.” In Miami, Benson wanted to shoot the Beatles with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, but Liston refused, calling them “punks.” So Benson settled for contender Cassius Clay who, he remembers, lorded it over the Beatles. “He said, ‘Do this, do that.’ They were so mad, they didn’t talk to me for days.”