When The Beatles Made Their Bow on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’
9th FEBRUARY 1964
BY Roger Catlin Source:http://rogercatlin.com
It’s one of those indelible grade school memories: Winter, Sunday night and a family TV tradition, “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The silvery curtains rise, and out he comes, looking more like a mortician than an impresario.
His poker face gives way to a sly grin, knowing he will for once make good on his promise for a ”rilly big” show.
After all, I looked it up later, 50,000 requests had come in for the 728 seats available in the former Maxine Elliott Theater on 53rd and Broadway in New York, where “The Ed Sullivan Show” was shot. And all week, hundreds of reporters and photographers had been swarming around the studio – something Sullivan mentions on the air.
”These veterans agree with me that the city has never witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles,” he says, raising his hands like a prizefight announcer. ”Let’s bring ‘em out!”
The youthful peals in the audience turn into ear-splitting shrieks as we hear, for the first time: ”A, one-two-three-far!” – and Paul McCartney, age 21, begins singing: ”Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you.”
A song like ”All My Loving” seems tame enough, with its simple love rhymes, the Carl Perkins-style guitar break, the enthusiastic harmonies. But it was so difficult to concentrate on the music, just looking at them:
Four young men with jet-black mops of hair. Odd suits and ties. This was something very, very different – and the contrast was even more striking on a Sunday night variety show that was big on European circus acts, Broadway musical acts and borsch-belt comedians.
To the young people who were among the 73 million watching at home – the largest audience up to that time in television history – the performance half a century ago today remains a sharp and vivid image of the ’60s and of rock ‘n’ roll history.
If rock ‘n’ roll music can be crystallized in a minute, if its shift can be pinpointed in a single, pivotal performance, it was this, the first appearance of the Beatles – McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, that was the most historic.
For me, it provided a snapshot memory of my living room, the TV set, the threadbare grey carpet we had, and the undeniable excitement of the music. The next day, kids walked around the block forming fake Beatles in groups of four, with makeshift tennis rackets and drums, like other kids would form sandlot baseball teams. Some actually learned instruments. Hairstyles changed. Fashion changed. Music changed, from not just the Beatles to the British bands that followed them – the Rolling Stones, The Animals, the Kinks, the Who, the Dave Clark 5, you name ‘em.
Those of us who remember it are shameless in our enduring love for the music – it’s made easier by the fact our kids loved it, too, just as their kids will. But I also saved all my Beatle collectors’ cards, and earlier this week organized them. I never did get a complete set.
”The event was a pop explosion,” rock critic Greil Marcus wrote of that Sullivan show, ”and thus far the last that rock ‘n’ roll has produced.” A pop explosion, as defined by Marcus, is ”an irresistible cultural upheaval that cuts across lines of class and race and, most crucially, divides society itself by age. The surface of daily life – walk, talk, dress, symbolism, heroes, family affairs – is affected with such force that deep and substantive changes in the way large numbers of people think and act take place.”
The Feb. 9 appearance was the first of three straight Sunday night performances by the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The second was shot at a Miami hotel, where the rest of the Sullivan show was filming; the third was tape-recorded the same day as the first show. But the first performance still packed an incalculable effect for what seems now to be a variety of reasons:
The rise of television in a majority of homes, before the huge audiences for the three networks were diluted by the addition of cable and independent stations and home videocassette rental.
The unprecedented promotional effort preceding the band’s arrival.
The dearth of rock ‘n’ roll on the radio immediately before their arrival.
The psychological need for fresh, carefree entertainment after the devastating assassination of President Kennedy less than three months earlier.
The sheer exuberance and skill of the band itself.
The importance of the appearance could be measured by Sullivan’s first words that Sunday night: that Elvis Presley and manager Col. Tom Parker had telegrammed best wishes for the lads.
But even they couldn’t predict how much things would change; how it would inspire nonmusical kids to take up tennis rackets and pretend to strum; how it would make working musicians change their style overnight to accommodate a new generation.
At a time when prime time singing and dancing comes only in reality competitions or awards shows, such pure variety shows seem entirely absent from TV today. In their day, they prided themselves on including everything from opera singers to plate spinners, puppets to pop singers. And Sullivan’s was the most popular.
His showbiz instincts were obvious from by his listing of the Beatles amid the season’s other highlights — from puppet mouse Topo Gigio to the Singing Nun to “last summer, the never-to-be-forgotten teaming on our stage of Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald.”
That teaming likely was forgotten, but there is something about the initial excitement of the first moments of the Beatles’ performance that remains indelible half a century later.
Viewing the entire show, Anacin commercials and all (I went to the Museum of Broadcasting to see it again 25 years ago, and got my own DVD copy a decade ago), it’s easy to see how Paul McCartney would be considered the leader, because he sang lead in most of the night’s songs, including the opening “All My Loving” and the well-chosen second selection, “Till There Was You,” a cover of “The Music Man” song meant to reel in the parents. As McCartney crooned the Meredith Willson melody, the camera zoomed in on each band member’s face, and first names were super-imposed. On John’s, it read under his name, “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.”
The audience in CBS’s Studio 50 was enthusiastic, but nowhere near the hysteria often associated with the time. For every bouncing, screaming girl there were two others listening intently and smiling, and even some boys.
Had the first Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan stage been also the first one aired, the audience might have concluded instead that John Lennon was its leader. When the group sang “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me,” Lennon sang lead and stood with his microphone well ahead of the one shared by McCartney and George Harrison. That afternoon performance, though (before an even more subdued crowd), was taped for use on the third week’s show, Feb. 23, 1964 (which also featured “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the prevailing No. 1 hit sung on all three February shows).
The middle show on Feb. 16 was quite a change of pace; the telecast originated from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla. There, old people greatly outnumbered the young, but that didn’t affect the band, which played “She Loves You,” sang harmony on “This Boy” and showed the kind of spark in the instrumental break of “All My Loving” that harked back to their Hamburg club days. Later, they reprised the concluding “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” from the first evening, sliding in the British hit “From Me to You” in between.
While the Beatles’ performance stands up today, others on those shows are more forgettable.
Headliner Mitzi Gaynor sang an over-the-top medley on the first Beatles’ show that was so square, it seemed to be from not just another era but another dimension. Likewise, the comics, including Myron Cohen or Morty Gunty, seem uniformly unfunny today. The second-rate comedy teams of Allen and Rossi and McCall & Brill got reactions only when they wrote Beatles gags into their acts, as last-minute stabs at relevance.
What’s funny is Sullivan’s excitement over the other performers, the magicians and sway-pole riders, the ridiculous novelty dance acts of Pinky & Perky and Wells & the Four Fays, his repeated excited crowing about “bearded clarinetist Acker Bilk.”
The first of the February Beatles shows had a British theme, which may have seemed as old hat to the headlining band as it was exotic to the Americans then and now. It included perfomer Tessie O’Shea, known by her signature tune and music hall hit “Two Ton Tessie,” and Georgia Brown, a lead in the popular musical “Oliver!” whose Artful Dodger character was played by Davy Jones, who would later become a member of the Monkees, a band that challenged the Beatles’ popularity. (Asked again about that appearance not long before his death, Jones preferred not to talk much about it).
Frank Gorshin was alone among the other acts that first night to create some heat with his impressions; he’d use that intensity two years later in playing the Riddler on TV’s hit show “Batman.”
As instant as the success seemed at the time, the overwhelming success of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” did not come overnight.
”From the moment the Beatles broke in England in January 1963, we had tried terribly hard to sell them in America,” producer George Martin wrote in his 1982 memoir, “All You Need Is Ears.” ”Everything we attempted seemed to meet a resounding slap in the face.”
The Beatles’ English record label, EMI, could not interest its new U.S. acquisition, Capitol Records, to release ”Love Me Do” or ”Please Please Me” – or even their first British No. 1 singles, ”From Me to You” and ”She Loves You.”
Eventually they were licensed to a variety of small U.S. labels, Vee-Jay in Chicago (and its subsidiary, Tollie) and Swan Records in Philadelphia, all betting on stateside popularity after the madness overseas. But even though ”She Loves You” got some play in 1963, it did not dent the U.S. charts.
It was not until November 1963 that a trip to New York by Beatles manager Brian Epstein netted some results. Not only did Capitol finally agree to release the Beatles’ next single, ”I Want to Hold Your Hand,” during the trip, Epstein also signed a deal for the Beatles to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Their fee of $4,000 a show was less than half of what Sullivan usually paid for a major act (indeed, Elvis Presley got $50,000), but top billing was guaranteed.
Sullivan had witnessed Beatlemania in October 1963 when he was at London’s Heathrow Airport as fans were welcoming the band back from a Stockholm trip. He told The New York Times he did not want to miss out on ”the sort of mass hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days.”
And, a generation before MTV, both parties knew of the power of rock ‘n’ roll on television.
Presley’s historic waist-up performance on Ed Sullivan in 1956 had all but cemented his nationwide popularity and helped keep his single ”Don’t Be Cruel-Hound Dog” at No. 1 for 11 weeks – still the longest reign of any rock ‘n’ roll single.
And Epstein knew the start of mass Beatlemania in Britain really began after the band’s appearance on the BBC’s popular Sunday Night at the London Palladium program on Oct. 13, 1963.
The first Beatles appearance on American TV actually came on Jan. 3, 1964, when Jack Paar showed a clip of a British performance of ”She Loves You.” But it was seen as more of a phenomenon – kids screaming to a group of oddly coiffed youths who sang ”Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The Sullivan showcase was much more important because it was live, it came after ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” had hit No. 1, and it was concurrent with the continuing media blitz on the mop-topped group, with stories in Life magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times and from The Associated Press.
Of course, promotion helped. The previously uninterested Capitol suddenly invested an unprecedented $50,000 in various hype, providing Beatles press kits to big-city DJs, plastering lampposts with hundreds of thousands of ”The Beatles are Coming” stickers and encouraging regional sales managers to start wearing their enclosed ”Beatle hair-do wigs.”
Radio stations, anxious to be part of this next big thing, had been plugging the Beatles’ arrival for weeks.
Once they made it, though, show business followed in their steps.
By the time the Beatles returned in 1965 for their only other performance on the show, the world had changed. Allen and Rossi kept their act alive by singing Beatles songs in the audience; a featured vocalist was Cilla Black of Liverpool; and completing the youthful push was comedian Soupy Sales.
Recorded in August, the day before their famous show in Shea Stadium, the Beatles’ new music was much more complex and sophisticated than their initial pop ditties, from the feedback that opens “I Feel Fine” to the raucous rock of “I’m Down.”
Drummer Ringo Starr got to show off his voice on “Act Naturally.” But it was McCartney who provided the band’s biggest departure, singing “Yesterday” solo with a prerecorded track of violins. It came between such full-bodied new songs as “Ticket To Ride” and “Help!”
When the appearance aired on Sept. 12, 1965, it would also be the last black-and-white episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which would continue in color to 1971 — outliving the Beatles.
When considering the Beatles’ initial success 50 years ago tonight, more than one analyst has pointed out that America, still mourning the death of its young president a few months earlier, desperately needed an injection of freshness, vigor and fun. The promise of the ’60s virtually demanded it.
Moreover, after the jolting birth of rock in the mid-’50s, Presley had gone from the Army to Hollywood, leaving the Top 10 to such middle-of-the-road blandness as Bobby Vinton’s ”There! I’ve Said It Again,” ”Dominique” by the Singing Nun and ”I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale and Grace – the three previous No. 1 hits before ”I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The Beatles’ sudden infusion of excitement gave way to total domination.
The seven-week reign of ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the top of the charts was followed by ”She Loves You,” in the top spot for two weeks, and ”Can’t Buy Me Love,” at No. 1 for five weeks.
By the time ”Can’t Buy Me Love” had hit No. 1 in April 1964, the Beatles occupied all of the slots in the Top 5 – ”Twist and Shout” was No. 2; ”She Loves You” was No. 3; ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 4; and ”Please Please Me” was No. 5.
The next week, the Beatles had 10 songs in the Top 100, breaking Presley’s record of nine in December 1956.
None of these records have been broken, according to Fred Bronson in his “Billboard Book of Number One Hits.” And, he wrote, ‘It’s unlikely they ever will be.”
”I Want to Hold Your Hand,” he said, ”is the most significant single of the rock era, permanently changing the course of music. The influence of the Beatles has been felt by every artist who has followed them, and it is not difficult to imagine, as the centuries pass, their songs will be the classical music of tomorrow.”
Of course these days, charts are wholly different. The cast of “Glee” dumps a half dozen new tracks on the charts weekly; Mumford & Sons, another British band inspired by American music, had six songs in the Top 100 simultaneously two years ago, but that’s about as close as it got.
And who exactly is collecting Mumford cards to save for over 50 years?