February 20, 2010 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

Bill Eppridge: Beatles Press Conference, 1964

Photos of the Fab Four's first visit to North America show the lads at their cheeky best
Image #1 for A DAY IN THE LIFE
(C) The Winninpeg Free Press
By: Alison Mayes
On Feb. 7, 1964, a contract photographer for LIFE magazine was assigned to capture the arrival in North America of four mop-topped lads from Liverpool.

Bill Eppridge was only 25 years old, but already an experienced photojournalist. He and the other photographers who waited for the Beatles' plane to land in New York assumed the band would be "a crew of weirdos" -- likely dishevelled drug addicts.

Everybody was waiting to have a good laugh," Eppridge, now 71, recalls by phone from his home in Connecticut.

"Then the door of the plane opened, and out come these four young gentlemen in dark suits and ties, so neatly dressed you couldn't believe it... It surprised the hell out of all of us."

Eppridge, who would go on to capture some of most iconic images of the troubled 1960s, spent several days shooting the witty, carefree John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- and the mounting Beatlemania that surrounded them -- as they toured Central Park, hung out in their suite at the Plaza Hotel, gave their five-song debut performance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, rode a train to Washington, D.C. and performed at the Washington Coliseum.

CBS staff photographers also documented the band's every move, continuing as the quartet -- aged 20 to 23 -- frolicked in Miami Beach, Fla., and made their second Ed Sullivan appearance there on Feb. 16, live from the Deauville Hotel.

The week that revolutionized pop music is recalled in The Beatles! Backstage and Behind the Scenes, a touring, Florida-based exhibition of 84 never-before-published black-and-white photos. The show opened Friday at the Manitoba Museum and runs to April 11.

It features 38 of Eppridge's images and 46 from the CBS archives, displayed on walls painted red, white and blue to evoke the Union Jack. The museum has set up a mock-1960s living room with a vintage TV to bring back memories of the historic Sullivan broadcasts.

The show reflects the museum's recent commitment to bring in high-profile exhibitions that "show the world to Manitobans," such as the Dinosaur Dynasty and Robots + Us shows, which attracted about 18,000 and 12,500 visitors respectively.

Eppridge estimates that he shot more than 2,000 frames of the Beatles. LIFE published only three or four. The unused shots were stored in LIFE's archives, then reverted to Eppridge when the magazine folded. He hadn't looked at them in years, he says, when the exhibition curators (including his friend John Filo, who shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Kent State massacre) asked him to select some for this 2001 show.

The distinguished Eppridge was later behind the lens at Woodstock and in Vietnam. He covered the funeral of civil-rights activist James Chaney in Mississippi, shot a landmark photo essay on heroin addiction in Needle Park, and took the iconic photo of a busboy cradling Robert Kennedy seconds after he was fatally shot.

By comparison, he says, the Beatles images bring back an innocent, joyful moment in U.S. history. The Fab Four were not the least bit jaded as they gamely posed in matchy-matchy outfits -- even goofy deck shoes and short terrycloth beach robes.

"It was totally delightful," remembers Eppridge, who never met any of the four again. "They were enjoying the ride. I never heard a complaint. I found them generally unaware of their importance.

"They were truly funny, like four comedians. They were really tight, mentally."

The lads are seen clowning on the train, with Harrison borrowing a porter's uniform and serving drinks. "It was genuine," says Eppridge. "They decided it was going to be fun."

The photographer remembers being jolted by the freshness of the band's sound. "When I'm working, I use one sense: my eyes. To get me out of that mode is difficult. But at times, their music took me right out of that."

In a few photos Lennon wears sunglasses and a dark cap -- perhaps a hint that he would rebel against the group's wholesome, uniform image. Eppridge says he didn't pick up on any rebellion. But he felt Lennon had a greater presence than the others. "Lennon seemed to be bigger... He just seemed to have more enormity to him."

Eppridge says he recognized that the Beatles were going to be fashion icons. One of his photos is a closeup of three pairs of feet in the pointy-toed boots that started a craze.

"I was trying like hell to get four pair in one picture, and I couldn't... because one of them was not feeling well," he says. (Harrison is missing from some of the New York photos because he was resting up with a sore throat.)

Eppridge and LIFE reporter Gail Cameron got their own taste of Beatlemania when they emerged after dark from the Plaza Hotel. Four teenage girls accosted them and asked if they had met the Beatles. When Cameron said yes, the girls inquired whether the lads had signed autographs. The reporter made the mistake of saying that they had actually used her pencil. Then all hell broke loose.

"Those four jumped her so fast!" says the photographer, chuckling. "They knocked her down, trying to get that pencil. I had to toss a couple of them off of her. I grabbed Gail and we took off running down the street."

The Beatles! Backstage and Behind the Scenes

Manitoba Museum, to April 11
190 Rupert Avenue, Winnipeg, MB R3B 0N2, Canada

(204) 956-2830
Beatles show only, $5 (youth/senior/ student $3, family $16)
Ticket price discounted when added to museum, planetarium or science gallery admission

View Bill Eppridge's Beatles collection here. View the current exhibition of photographs of musicians, "The Art of Sound", here.

Bill Eppridge will be the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Monroe Gallery July 2 - September 26, 2010. His historic Robert Kennedy and James Chaney Funeral photographs will also be on view during the AIPAD Photography Show in New York in Monroe Gallery, Booth # 317.

Tags: photography 1960s Bill Eppridge Civil Rights photographs Beatles Kennedy