Local man who played first Beatles record dies

March 27, 1997


Staff Writer

Friends and family members this week are mourning Monday's passing of Carroll James Jr., a former Washington County resident who is believed to have been the first person to play a Beatles song on the air in the United States.

James, 60, who died at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., after a 10-year battle with cancer, developed twin passions for radio and trolley cars while growing up on Summit Avenue in Hagerstown.

A 1954 graduate of Hagerstown High School, James played "I Want to Hold Your Hand," on a Washington, D.C., radio station on Dec. 17, 1963 - 10 days before the date Capitol Records had set for the American release.


According to friends and family, that came about after a teenager phoned Washington, D.C., radio station WWDC, where James was working as a disc jockey, and asked him to play the song. A few days later, a flight attendant brought him a copy of the record from Britain, and he played it on the air, said his wife, Elizabeth M. "Betty" James, of Silver Spring.

James said her husband did not consider the possible repercussions until someone pointed out that he had violated the record company's release date.

"It didn't occur to him. He didn't think of it until he did it," she said. "We were young and we were terrified that the record company was going to sue us."

That didn't happen, and the song - and the group - went on to attain icon status in pop culture.

In 1964, James hosted the Beatles' first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum and was in attendance during the Fab Four's first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show," his wife said.

"He very much enjoyed the Beatles," she said. "He liked young people's music and tended to be very eclectic in his music likes."

James was born in Frederick, Md., but grew up in Washington County, where he developed early interests in two of his life's passions: trolleys and radio.

James' cousin, Robert F. Zeigler, of Hagerstown, said James' interest in trolleys may have been related to the fact that the trolley used to roar past his house.

"He just really became infected with trolley cars," said Zeigler. "That lasted the rest of his life."

Virginia Sprankle, of Leitersburg, another cousin, said she remembers that as a youth, "He had his bedroom fixed up like a trolley car."

It was more than a youthful diversion.

In 1994, James wrote, produced and narrated a documentary of trolley transportation in Maryland. He also collected memorabilia, including hats and money changers.

"He was, I guess the word is, a trolley nut," his wife said.

John T. Staub, owner and general manager of WJEJ radio, said although James had left the station after he arrived in 1972, he knew him from the trolley documentary.

"He enthusiastically produced that trolley video, which we supported through the station," he said. "He was a fine announcer, a very nice man."

Carroll got his start in radio while he was still in high school, his wife and friends said. His father, Carroll James Sr., said his son worked at WJEJ - and loved radio forever after.

"We found out years later that we had broken child labor laws, because he shouldn't have been working that late," said James, who lives in Frederick. "But nobody caught us."

James attended Princeton University, where he earned a political science degree. After college, he served in the Coast Guard and at various radio stations.

When he left radio, his wife said he did freelance work as a narrator for commercials, films, political campaigns and the government.

His voice also came in handy during productions at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, friends said. Bill Carnahan, who met him when he worked for the Department of Agriculture, said his was the perfect voice when the church needed a disembo died voice of "God."

"He just had a great voice," he said. "He was a very warm and genuine person - great sense of humor."

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