By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor
(Originally published Saturday, February 8, 2014):
Sunday, February 9th, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The event will be commemorated by CBS on Sunday (February 9, 2014) with “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.” The program will air in the same time slot, 8:00 p.m., as the band’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show. The salute will feature performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
As a child, I can remember sitting in front of our black-and-white television on Sunday evenings watching programs such as Lassie, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Perhaps the most popular Sunday evening program was the Ed Sullivan Show, the most highly-rated variety show in the history of television. “Ed Sullivan,” as the show was typically referred to, first aired in June, 1948 and ran on CBS until 1971. The show aired on CBS for its entire run in the era before cable television, and in an age when only three networks existed.
American culture in the early 1960’s was already coalescing around the family TV set. There were no electronic devices such as i-Pads, cell phones or video games to provide distractions. TV dinners were becoming more prevalent and families would often eat their evening meals sitting in front of the television set, only getting up to adjust the antenna, or “rabbit ears,” to improve reception. The kids might argue about whose turn it was to get up and change the channel because TV remotes weren’t in common use then, either.
Our culture was also more insular in the early 1960’s. The internet didn’t exist, international television wasn’t common and even trans-oceanic airplane travel was not as routine as it is today. There were fewer means for connecting people on a global basis. Other parts of the world were regarded as faraway, exotic or mysterious. In a sense, technology constrained our cultural horizons.
By early 1964, John Kennedy had been assassinated and Elvis had finished filming his fourteenth movie, “Kissin’ Cousins,” set for release in March. The death of President Kennedy and the transformation of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll into a singer of cheesy movie soundtracks disillusioned many American youth who began searching for new outlets for their energy and idealism.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom, British youth had found a new outlet for their expression in the form of four musicians from Liverpool. Calling themselves “The Beatles,” the band had recently exploded onto the musical and cultural scene in Britain, a society still emerging from the shadows of World War II. Rationing had been abolished only as recently as 1954 and there was a pervasive sense of national economic decline. Britain was trying to find its way in a post-colonial, Cold War world.
The Beatles’ rise from obscurity gave Britain a new relevance and ignited the latent energy of British youth.
1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” in the United Kingdom, sparked by an appearance on the BBC program “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The groups’ first record, “Love Me Do’” barely dented the Top 20 in late 1962. However, over the next few months, the Beatles became sensations with “Please, Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The last three songs were consecutive number one hits. The Beatles represented a fresh, positive sound and they wrote most of their own material, which was unprecedented in pop music. Their music was inspired by numerous influences from rockabilly to doo-wop to Elvis and Little Richard. They were inventive and eager in the recording studio and very charismatic as live performers. As for interviews, the group was quick-witted, funny and refreshingly down-to-earth, making them an instant hit with reporters.
During a dinner meeting in New York, in November, 1963, Ed Sullivan first met Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The meeting was arranged at the urging of Peter Prichard, an English theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as a talent evaluator. The impresario and the manager agreed that the Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th and again on February 16th, in a segment to be taped in Miami.
The appearance on February 9th was highly anticipated in light of the media blitz that surrounded it. The Beatles and Epstein arrived on Pan Am flight 101, which left London’s Heathrow Airport in a scene of pandemonium, complete with screaming girls straining against police barricades. At JFK Airport, the anxious crowd was estimated at approximately 5,000, not including 200 or so members of the media. Incidentally, the actual airplane which carried the Beatles, “Clipper Defiance’” was scrapped by the airline in 1977 in Long Beach, California.
After an airport press conference the Beatles were taken to the12th floor of the Plaza Hotel. They were greeted by another mob scene and indulged more journalists at another press conference in the hotel’s Baroque Room. Members of the group were thrilled to learn that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was now #1 in America.
At 1:30 p.m. the Beatles were whisked by limousine to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse for the appearance that evening. Mounted police were in place along the route to keep frenzied fans away from the limos. George Harrison was not present for this rehearsal due to a fever and strep throat. His sister Louise, living in Illinois at the time, had been flown to New York to tend to her ailing brother. Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George at the studio when the camera operators needed to test for angles and lighting. However, George was onstage with his band mates when the time came for the actual broadcast that evening.
When the episode aired at 8:00 Sunday evening, 60% of the television sets in the United States were tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, a figure representing an estimated 73 million people. As the show’s headliners, The Beatles took the stage in front of a studio audience of 700. Sullivan introduced the group as “these youngsters from Liverpool…” They opened their first set with “All My Loving” and closed it with “She Loves You.” In a briefer second set, the Beatles performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The youngsters from Liverpool had arrived in America and conquered it. Their success paved the way for the “British Invasion,” the wave of British bands whose popularity was ignited by the Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment in the Beatles’ legacy as the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, and forever linked the narrative of Ed Sullivan to the history of The Beatles.
It is a legacy that will endure as long as people listen to music.
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