50 years ago today, Ed Sullivan told the band to play…
Sunday night marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ historic debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
CBS aired a two-hour special to commemorate the anniversary this past Sunday evening. “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles” hosted a slew of musicians including Stevie Wonder, Keith Urban, Alicia Keys and John Legend covering Beatles tunes. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr reunited at the end of the program to perform several of their classics.
David Letterman interviewed McCartney and Starr in a prerecorded segment inside The Ed Sullivan Theater, where The Late Show is taped.
The special aired on the same station, on the same date, at the same time and partly inside the same venue as their performance did 50 years ago.
It was much more than a night of nostalgia. It was much more than a night for fellow entertainers and musicians to honor the Beatles. It was a night of triumph for the group that is still the most celebrated band in history a half-century later.
The Beatles’ arrival in the United States caused an unrelenting, immediate sea-change of not just American music, but Western culture as a whole. For some, the beginning of “Beatlemania” is a dividing point in world history.
Their discography is the soundtrack to the revolutionary 1960s. Behind every movement in that era, their presence can be felt.
“Beatlemania” may have happened overnight after The Ed Sullivan Show performance, but the road to America for the Fab Four was a risky and hard-fought.
Truth be told, the Beatles had been neglected in the U.S. for several years before taking the country by storm. However, in the United Kingdom, the group was a complete sensation. In February 1963, the Beatles dropped their debut LP Please Please Me. The album did not make a dent in the U.S. market.
The success of Please Please Me as well as the release of separate singles like “From Me to You” and “She Loves You” ascended to the top of U.K. charts, but were nowhere to be found across the sea. Capitol Records, EMI’s American subsidiary, hindered the release of the Beatles’ music in the U.S. by declining to mass promote their music.
Rock ‘n’ roll had also been left for dead in the States.
The forefathers and originators of the genre disappeared. Elvis Presley left his music career for Hollywood. Chuck Berry served time in prison. Little Richard was beginning to record new rock music after his gospel phase.
The Everly Brothers’ career hit rock bottom in 1963. Jerry Lee Louis was disowned by the American public after marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958. A tragic plane crash ended the lives of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens on what was otherwise known as “The Day Rock Died.”
After such enormous losses, rock music was considered to be a symbol of the 1950s. No one could have ever predicted the genre’s return, and especially not in the magnitude it came to be.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt summed up the desolate rock landscape and the importance of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Feb. 8, 1964, there was not one single rock ‘n’ roll band in the country. On Feb. 9, the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. Then on Feb. 10, everyone had a rock band. My life began on Feb. 9, 1964,” Springsteen said.
Despite legal loopholes and a then-dying rock music genre, the group’s impact would begin to burgeon in America due to help of several disc jockeys. They led mass marketing campaigns giving away Beatles’ music and T-shirts.
In December of that year, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sold a million copies in the U.S. All the petitioning for the band had proved effective. The stage was set.
The Fab Four first touched down in America at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York City on Feb. 7, 1964. The U.S. was still reeling after the assassination of President Kennedy. It was a period of uncertainty, and the Beatles’ arrival provided a sense of hope.
On Feb. 9, 1964, approximately 73 million viewers tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to see the much-hyped Beatles perform. According to the Nielsen ratings, it was “the largest audience ever recorded for an American television program.”
UNLV Libraries Security Officer Richard Leonard recalls watching the iconic performance, and the immediate pop culture shift he experienced.
“You usually don’t remember much as a young kid, but watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was like it happened yesterday,” Leonard said. “The next day at school, the Beatles was all what everyone talked about. The girls were crazy about them, and the guys wanted to cut their hair like them. It was unforgettable.”
Nothing since has come close to matching the hysteria the Beatles’ caused in America. In the age of technology and with information available at the drop of a hat, the chances of an event similar to “Beatlemania” are slim to none.
Feb. 9, 1964 changed society and culture forever.