IT was the small hours of January 19, 1964. The Beatles were in Paris, where they had been playing a series of sold-out shows in front of ecstatic French fans. At 2am that morning they were at the Hotel George V, winding down after two gigs at l’Olympia.

There were five of them in John Lennon’s room. Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and a Glasgow-born photographer named Harry Benson, who had quickly become friends with the band while on assignment from the Daily Express.

As Benson relates it, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, came into the room to say that their single, I Want to Hold Your Hand, had entered the US charts. “They erupted in cackles. They were beaming”, Benson recalls. Epstein later returned to announce that they would be flying to the States in a month’s time and appearing on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show. The world now lay at their feet.

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Writing in the new edition of Vanity Fair, Benson says he recalled Harrison having mentioned a pillow-fight the Beatles had had a few nights earlier. Now, at 2am, the photographer suggested they celebrate Epstein’s news with another one.

“John immediately shot it down: ‘No. I’ll make us look silly’. But I kept my eye on John, who started slinking off. And just as I lifted my camera, John sneaked up behind Paul and pow, whacked him in the head with a pillow. Paul’s drink went flying, and they were off.

“They went at it”, Benson continues. “Quite vicious, letting off steam. If one went down, the others would pile on, like dogs fighting over a scrap of meat. Paul was smacked down, dazed, and John went right behind him, bang. Back and forth. Paul got the worst of it. Two rolls of Tri-X film later – a total of 23 frames and one blank – they were exhausted”.

In one frame, he adds, “three of them were in midair above Paul on the bed and they were a perfect tumble of pajamas and pillows, and I got it, a kind of waterfall of Beatles. I was using a Rolleiflex 120, which has a two-and-a-quarter-inch negative, with depth running through the blacks and whites. I knew it as I photographed it: This was what I’d come for: the number one rock-and-roll band in the world having a pillow fight.

The Herald: Harry Benson's shot of the Beatles and Brian Epstein relaxing in their Parisian hotel room, January 16, 1964Harry Benson's shot of the Beatles and Brian Epstein relaxing in their Parisian hotel room, January 16, 1964 (Image: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)“I’ve been a photographer for 70 years, and the pillow fight is one of my favourite photos. It’s a fun picture. It has access. It has intensity and fame and pure joy. And irony: grown men in their pajamas, acting like kids. It shows the greatest band in history at their giddiest moment of greatness. And it can never be repeated”.

On February 7 Benson flew first-class with the Beatles and Epstein on Pan Am flight 101 from London Heathrow to New York’s recently-renamed John F Kennedy airport. Remarkable scenes greeted them at JFK, with vast crowds of fans screaming for the Beatles. “You could hear the crowd singing, ‘She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah’. It was a lovefest,” Benson writes in Vanity Fair.

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The photographer followed the band in New York and then in snowy Washington D.C. and sunny Miami. Life would never be same again for the four musicians. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was watched by an estimated 73 million viewers. The impact was sensational, and the demand for the Beatles in the US and elsewhere was breathtaking. Little wonder, then, that George Harrison would later remark: “In 1964 we seemed to fit a week into every day”.

Harry Benson was also with the Beatles later in February when they again guested on the Sullivan show. At that time Cassius Clay – as Muhammad Ali was then known – was training in Miami for his world heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston.

The Herald: American television host Ed Sullivan (centre) smiles as he stands, with the Beatles, on the set of his television variety series, 'The Ed Sullivan Show' at CBS's Studio 50, New York, New York, February 9, 1964American television host Ed Sullivan (centre) smiles as he stands, with the Beatles, on the set of his television variety series, 'The Ed Sullivan Show' at CBS's Studio 50, New York, New York, February 9, 1964 (Image: Express Newspapers/Getty Images)Benson arranged for the musicians to pose for pictures with Clay. As he relates in his book, Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures, the band had wanted to meet Liston, the champion, “not the loudmouth challenger who was going to get beaten”.

But Liston declined to meet the Beatles. Benson, undaunted, got the band into a limousine “and off we went to meet Clay, who they think is going to be Liston. Clay had them jumping up, lying down, shouting ‘Who’s the most beautiful man in the world, who’s the greatest?’

“Clay, who was to become Muhammad Ali the day after he defeated Liston, had outdone them at their own game. Afterward the Beatles wouldn’t speak to me for several weeks, telling me Clay embarrassed them and it was all my fault”.

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As it happens, the Beatles’ adventures that year were also recorded in photos, taken by none other than Paul McCartney.

His bestselling 2023 book, 1964: Eyes of the Storm has candid shots of the Beatles off-duty as well as shots that convey something of the madness and adulation that surrounded them.

“When I watch that first Ed Sullivan Show performance now”, McCartney writes, “I’m struck by how much fun we’re having. Following commercials for Aero Shave and Griffin Liquid Wax shoe polish, we played three songs: All My Loving, ‘Till There Was You and She Loves You.

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“Then, later in the show, we performed I Saw Her Standing There and, finally, I Want to Hold Your Hand. Apparently almost everyone in America watched The Ed Sullivan Show, but on this night, there was a far greater audience than usual. Seventy-three million people, way more than the entire U.K. population. It was a wildly exciting time and went far beyond our expectations – as did the rest of that visit to the U.S.”.

Within a year of taking his celebrated shots of the Beatles, Harry Benson had relocated to Manhattan. The pictures made his name and he went on to become one of the world’s best-known photojournalists.

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Reflecting on his work with the Beatles 60 years ago, he observes that what the Beatles had done was remarkable, “taking the essence of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and making it global.

“As time went on, people began to say their songs would be played for centuries. That stuck with me. I started to realize my photographs would be valued for centuries too. I hadn’t been shooting rock stars. I’d been photographing history”.

The February edition of Vanity Fair is now on sale. Paul McCartney, 1964: Eyes of the Storm (Allen Lane, £60);