50 years ago this evening I sat in my parent’s living room as a youngster and watched on the only TV we had the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show. It was electrifying. My parents regularly watched the Ed Sullivan show and there were many wonderful talents to appear but few as memorable as this one.
I’ve watched and listened to several historical accounts of the Beatles coming to the US and I’ve come to appreciate more than ever Ed Sullivan’s genius for recognizing talent. The back story to the Beatles appearance on his show is really interesting:
A record setting 73 million people tuned in that evening making it one of the seminal moments in television history. Nearly fifty years later, people still remember exactly where they were the night The Beatles stepped onto Ed Sullivan’s stage.
In the weeks leading up to the performance, several Beatles records had already hit number one on the U.S. charts, and the radio airwaves were saturated with their tunes. The delirium and ground swell of anticipation surrounding The Beatles’ arrival from England had not been seen around since Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. But even that experience could not have prepared the Sullivan staff and the New York City authorities for what was about to happen.
The story of how The Beatles landed on The Ed Sullivan Show began with the group’s formation in Liverpool in 1960. They spent their first couple of years playing in small clubs throughout Europe. During late night gigs in the city of Hamburg, Germany, sometimes playing as long as eight hours a night, The Beatles perfected their act. However, it was not until an appearance on the British television show, “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium” and the 1963 release of their first album, Please Please Me that “Beatlemania” began to spread. That March the album hit number one on the British charts, and by the end of the year, The Beatles’ music permeated UK radio. The “Fab Four” even performed for the royal family. It was only after this burgeoning success at home did The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, choose to launch their American invasion. They decided when they had a #1 song on the U.S. charts, then they would lock in the date of their Ed Sullivan debut.
There are a number of stories regarding exactly how The Beatles came to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. The most popular is that in 1963, while arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, Ed Sullivan and his wife Sylvia encountered thousands of youngsters waiting excitedly in the rain. When Sullivan asked what all the commotion was about, he was told that a British band named The Beatles was returning home from a tour in Sweden. When he got to his hotel room, Sullivan purportedly inquired about booking the group for his show.
However, it was not until later that year that The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein reached an agreement with Ed Sullivan to bring the group to America to perform live for the first time on U.S. television. Following dinner at the Hotel Delmonico in New York City, a handshake between the two men sealed the deal for performances on three shows to air in 1964. In return, The Beatles would receive $10,000 for their three appearances and top billing.
Prior to their debut on the Sullivan show, The Beatles’ record “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was leaked in advance of its planned US release to radio stations across the country. When attorneys for Capitol Records were unable to stop American DJs from spinning the tune, the record label relented and, on December 26, 1963, dropped the album ahead of schedule. The record sold 250,000 copies in the first three days. By January 10, 1964 it had sold over one million units and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the number one song on the Billboard charts by month’s end. In the weeks leading up to The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Beatlemania went viral. Radio stations played the band’s music nearly non-stop; teenaged fans sported “Beatle” wigs, and bumper stickers across the country warned, “The Beatles Are Coming.”
The Beatles touched down at New York’s Kennedy Airport on February 7th, 1964. They were met by a throng of reporters and a hoard of three thousand screaming fans. Upon disembarking the plane, The Beatles were whisked to a press conference hosted by Capitol Records in which they playfully answered questions from the media.
When asked “How do you find America?” Ringo Starr jokingly replied, “Turn left at Greenland.”
While The Beatles spent the next two days cooped up at The Plaza Hotel, fans did all they could to get closer to the band. Groups of teenagers set up camp outside The Plaza, some even posing as hotel guests in an attempt to see their favorite group. As the show approached, over 50,000 requests for seats came into CBS. However, The Ed Sullivan Show, which originated from CBS’s TV Studio 50, could only accommodate an audience of 700.
For weeks, celebrities were calling in to get tickets for their kids. Walter Cronkite and Jack Paar scored seats for their girls; composer Leonard Bernstein tried but failed; while Richard Nixon’s 15-year old daughter, Julie, became one of the lucky few to get a seat. Even Sullivan himself had trouble getting extra tickets. On his show the week before The Beatles’ debut, Ed asked his audience, “Coincidentally, if anyone has a ticket for The Beatles on our show next Sunday, could I please borrow it? We need it very badly.”
It should be remembered that while this hullabaloo was happening, there was still an air of gloom in America. Just 77 days prior to The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan, President Kennedy had been assassinated. By now, the country was ready for some much needed diversion, and it came in the form of four young lads from Liverpool – their sound, their look, their energy and their charisma.
At 8 o’clock on February 9th 1964, America tuned in to CBS and The Ed Sullivan Show. But this night was different. 73 million people gathered in front their TV sets to see The Beatles’ first live performance on U.S. soil. The television rating was a record-setting 45.3, meaning that 45.3% of households with televisions were watching. That figure reflected a total of 23,240,000 American homes. The show garnered a 60 share, meaning 60% of the television’s turned on were tuned in to Ed Sullivan and The Beatles.
A lot of things have changed since then. Mom and Pop are gone and so are John and George but the music of the Fab Four endures. A thought been wandering around in my head for the last few days. Today is 50 years since the Beatles appeared on our TV. You couldn’t say anything like that fifty years ago. None of my grandparents even had a radio. One wonders what will be seen in another fifty years.
I won’t see that, but I’ll be watching again tonight.
FYI: Ringo Starr has already outlived Ed Sullivan.
And just for the heck of it, here are the Beatles’ performances in 1965 on Ed Sullivan.