The Beatles arrived at New York's JFK airport on Feb. 7, 1964, stepping out of Pan Am Flight 101 from London's Heathrow Airport and onto American soil for the first time.

The result was pure Beatlemania.

And 50 years later, the thrill of the Beatles' landing still resonates like a thunderclap in American pop culture. It was the beginning of something new, something bold, and it mesmerized a generation of young people still reeling from the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"It was a rallying moment, when we didn't know we wanted one -- we didn't know we needed one," says Dennis Erokan, founder and executive editor of Bay Area-based BamMagazine.com, who was 13 when the Beatles came to America. "What it felt like was not only a breath of fresh air -- but a calling. They were calling to us, that we could be part of something."

After "Ed Sullivan" and a concert in Washington, D.C., the Beatles headed south to Florida. In what became a familiar sight during their American
After "Ed Sullivan" and a concert in Washington, D.C., the Beatles headed south to Florida. In what became a familiar sight during their American visit in 1964, young fans, mostly women, waited for the Beatles to arrive at Miami International Airport on Feb. 13. The ecstatic girls jumped the rail moments later. (John Walther/Miami Herald/MCT) ( John Walther )

Teenagers across America felt that calling. Sure, the Fab Four had landed in New York -- and would spend its entire two-week stay on the East Coast -- but this was anything but a regional story. The whole country seemed to be watching John, Paul, George and Ringo as they wrote a new chapter in music history.

The fever for the Beatles was as strong in the Bay Area as anywhere else, with kids from Concord to Cupertino, from Burlingame to Brentwood, giving up on past idols and embracing new heroes from some far-off place called Liverpool.

"I thought it changed the whole sound of music," says Pinole music teacher Toni Silva, who was 10 when the Beatles landed. "All I knew as a little kid was that I liked it -- and I was hoping I would hear more of that."

Silva's wish would soon be granted, as the Beatles cleared the path for other U.K. rock acts to cross the Atlantic and quickly start dominating the Billboard charts. It was the start of the British Invasion, a movement that brought such future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers as the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, the Hollies, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Who and, of course, the Rolling Stones to our shores.

Yet, in early '64, it wasn't about a whole invasion -- it was just about one group. That was especially true on the evening of Feb. 9, when some 73 million Americans gathered in front of their televisions to watch the Beatles make their debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

It was a life-changing event for millions, including Erokan, who'd previously resisted the lure of the Beatles out of loyalty to his favorite band, the Beach Boys. He wasn't even going to watch the "Sullivan" performance, deciding instead to hide out in his room while the rest of his family witnessed the landmark event on TV.

"Then the first song started, and I could hear it through the walls," Erokan says. "Maybe half way through the first verse, I finally couldn't take it anymore and I ran out and sat on the floor (in front of the TV). I was destroyed. I became a total Beatles fan."

The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9.  The group performed five songs, including "All My Loving," She Loves You" and
The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9. The group performed five songs, including "All My Loving," She Loves You" and "I Saw Her Standing There." (ZUMA/MCT) ( ZUMA )

The Beatles' initial impact was magnified by its timing. The nation had just gone through one of its darkest moments -- the assassination of JFK on Nov. 22, 1963 -- and young people in particular were looking for something to lift their spirits.

"An important part of the puzzle is that something so horrible had just happened to us and we were still dealing with that," Erokan says. "And all of sudden here are these incredible four guys who are bringing a new sound and a new feel.

"To be given this breath of life -- it was just so wonderful."

Few could have predicted at the time that they were watching an act that would someday be widely considered the greatest band in rock 'n' roll history. They didn't yet have the perspective that would come with time, as the Fab Four went on to release such all-time-classics as 1967's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and 1969's "Abbey Road."

There would be plenty of time to look back later, and the fact that we are still doing so 50 years down the road is a testament to the Beatles' lasting legacy. That particular moment, however, was all about discovery.

"That was my first introduction to music. It changed my life," says Dublin's Marlene Kinley, who was 10 when the Beatles played "Ed Sullivan." "It was the beginning of my whole love of music. There was no going back. For me, it started with the Beatles."

Those living on the West Coast would finally get their turn some six months later, when the Fab Four kicked off their second U.S. tour with an Aug. 19 show at the Cow Palace in Daly City. The group played that same venue the following year, performing two shows on Aug. 31. Of course, the Bay Area was also home to the their final public concert -- at Candlestick Park on Aug. 29, 1966.

Many of those who saw the Beatles in concert say they'll never forget the experience. It's a badge of honor, they say, which no one can ever take away.

"It's huge," says Kinley, who was in attendance at the Candlestick concert. "I wouldn't have traded that moment for anything."

Read Jim Harrington's Concert Blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic.