Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. For those were alive and cognizant of the occasion, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was as exciting and important as the manned space flight launches of our fledgling space program.
Oh yes, we gathered around televisions, whether at home or school, to watch every Saturn rocket explode into the sky and then some days later, gather around the TV’s when the capsules returned to Earth with our heroic astronauts aboard. Many, if not all, Baby Boomers can name most, if not all, the Mercury Seven astronauts. Just ask a Boomer.
In February 1964, we were just a month and half past the assassination of President Kennedy, a moment in time that scarred a generation and an age. That’s another moment the Baby Boomers remember with vivid detail as if it had happened yesterday. We didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle then so something like the assassination of a president, especially John F. Kennedy, a man very beloved by most of the population, a man and his family that embodied a new optimism for the future — seeing him gunned down brought a dark cloud down over the nation, into a decade that became one of the most tumultuous in history.
But in that time something was happening across the Atlantic Ocean in England, the land of royalty and rain. Four young lads from Liverpool formed a band and emulated the rock and roll music that came from the U.S. Did they dream of being the next Everly Brothers or Buddy Holly or (dare to say it) the next Elvis?
Probably. What kid with a guitar doesn’t dream about being the next [fill in your music hero here].
With some personnel changes behind the drum kit, the band made a name for itself in England and parts of Europe and suddenly they were being mentioned, their names screeched throughout Europe: John, Paul, George and Ringo — The Beatles. Indeed, their name was a nod to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, a band that ended when Buddy Holly went down in a plane crash with J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, Febraury 2nd, 1959 — the day the music died.
It was the Beatles who brought it back to life five years later.
Baby Boomers can tell you where they were when they watched the Fab Four that Sunday Night a half century ago and they will add, without any invitation, what the performance, and what that band, meant to them for the rest of their lives. Time moves on and things change, including our taste in music, but Boomers remember fondly February 9, 1964 — when Beatlemania came to America and ushered in the British Invasion.
Only two Beatles remain: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. John Lennon was gunned down in New York City on December 8, 1980 and George Harrison succumbed to cancer on November 29, 2001. Their music will remain a major point in history for years to come.
Two people who remember February 9, 1964 just happen to write for the Baltimore Post-Examiner and they tell us what it was like when the Beatles came to America.
I was nervous in anticipation. What would my conservative Nixon-supporting parents think? The Beatles were playing on Ed Sullivan and I couldn’t wait to hear them.
Only eight at the time, I sat on the couch in the back of our family room. My parents and at least one of my brothers sat in front of our black-and-white television that carried only three channels and once in while PBS would be tuned in if we placed a nail to hold the channel in place.
But Ed Sullivan was a staple in our family.
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was a big thing – part of mainstream acceptance – maybe.
I listened to the Beatles constantly as a kid – always cranking my stereo a bit too loud for my dads’ appreciation. More than once, he had to come in my room around midnight to turn off or turn down the Beatles’ music.
But Ed Sullivan was important night to me. Not so much about the Beatles’ music but because at the time many parents feared John, George, Paul, Ringo – OK mostly John – could corrupt their children. The Beatles were radical for their time – thinking love could stop wars, and telling people all you need is love.
My good friend recalls 50 years ago, he couldn’t stay in his house to watch the show with his dad. He thought maybe his dad wouldn’t even let him watch the show. So he went to a friend’s house in Baltimore. When he returned, his dad said, “I give them six weeks.”
But my parents wanted to watch. They wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Beatles would play (five songs in two sets) for about 20 minutes – if that. That seems unheard of these days, but rock concerts were new and security was not like it is today, especially trying not just to protect the Beatles, but fans as well.
Back then authorities were concerned what might happen with wild screaming long-haired fans. After the show, the Beatles would engage on a US Tour, playing DC, Baltimore and my hometown – Milwaukee.
My claim to fame is that two days after the Beatles played Milwaukee, and took over the front page of the Milwaukee Journal, I also was in the same paper. Unfortunately, not as a fan at the concert, but eating corn of cob that netted a photographer $50 for the embarrassing childhood photo that my mom still likes to show her friends.
When I asked my conservative mom recently, why she didn’t throw down $5 for me to go see the Beatles and instead took me to a local cornfest, she said $5 was a lot of money.
Really, Mom? a cornfest vs. a rare Beatles’ concert? No wonder I became a Democrat.
I had a hard time watching them when they played their first set. I mostly watched the back of my parents. What would their reaction be? Would they go burn my records or tell me no more Beatles music. The Sullivan show was not about introducing America just to the Beatles’ music but it was about whether parents would allow their kids to listen to them, go to their movies, and play their records night and day.
Then after they ended that first set, there was dead silence — except for the screaming fans on TV. Then my Dad turned around and said, “They’re not that bad.”
He wasn’t commenting on their music. He didn’t really like rock music. My mother actually would come around – about four years later and actually sing along to tunes like, “Hey Jude,” and “Let it Be.”
My dad really was saying that night, they were harmless – and the Beatles were not going to corrupt the youth.
What a relief! I could sit back and enjoy the second set.
Of course, my dad was wrong. They corrupted many of us in a positive anti-establishment way. And on that night Feb. 9, 1964, they changed America, and me.
— Tim Maier
In the winter of 1963 I accompanied my sister Cheryl to the Arlen’s Department Store on West Forest Home Ave, off 35th Street in Milwaukee, WI, getting close to that scary area of town (for a seven-year old) where the sky seemed to always be gray; it was filled with the smoke and smog of industry.
Cheryl was looking for specific Beatles albums. I had barely heard of the Beatles, but Cheryl was a devout Beatles fan, sucked into Beatlemania by the swinging pop music of the oncoming British Invasion.
Soon to follow would be the Dave Clark Five and the Rolling Stones, but in December 1963 it was only the Beatles. Cheryl couldn’t find anything she didn’t already have, but even then Arlen’s had quite a collection of Beatles albums. It was astounding to think Cheryl had a copy of all Arlen’s had to offer.
- For many years after I considered Arlen’s to be the best place to find albums. It’s where I bought my first copies of The Mothers of Invention albums, We’re Only In It For The Money, Freak Out, Weasels Ripped my Flesh, Waka/Jawaka and the Frank Zappa album, Hot Rats.
Yes, Cheryl left Arlen’s empty-handed, but by this point we knew the Beatles would be coming to America, via the Ed Sullivan Show and it became, in our household, the most anticipated TV event ever. That turned about to be true for 45 percent of the homes in America.
By the time the Beatles made their American debut, every rock and roll radio station in America was playing their records. We heard all the songs that had been hits in Great Britain for months: “Please, Please Me,” “From Me To You” and their smash hits; “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.”
After the release of “She Loves You,” that part of the refrain, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” became the catch-all description of all rock and roll in the 1960’s. The Beatles became a reference to rock and roll, with a piece of simple lyrics.
Our family disputes how and where we watched it, but my recollection was watching it next door at the Otto’s. Whatever, we watched The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964. The first two songs the Beatles played on American soil were “All My Loving” and “She Loves You.”
In the second half of the show the Beatles played “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Mr. Otto wasn’t impressed with them and commented on the craziness of the teenage girls screaming unmercifully for the Beatles, but the rest of us were excited, even Mrs. Otto, who had a big smile on her face.
Many rock and roll acts had been on TV before the Beatles, including Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, but this was something different: the Beatles were from the U.K. and it was unheard of to have a band from someplace other than America be such a hit.
Were the Beatles really as good as our rock and roll bands?
For most people they were better.
From that moment on, when Ed Sullivan introduced them to America, the Beatles became the last word in rock and roll. Elvis and Buddy were relegated to history, their music all but forgotten until some college students brought it back to life at a little moment called Woodstock.
My brother Rick and I would pantomime to the Beatles in the basement, playing their records as loud as the little monotone record player could play them. We knew all the words to every song and you bet we wanted to let our hair grow out just like John, Paul, George and Ringo. And you can bet our dad objected. The local barber knew our dad, they sang together in the church choir, so there was no Beatle mop for Rick and I. Nor could we buy and wear “Beatle boots.”
The Beatles changed our lives profoundly, giving us new ideas about music. The Beatles ushered in a Golden Age of rock and roll, which led in turn to “Classic Rock.”
The Beatles were the key that opened the door and they invited us to join them, so we did. American Culture shifted that day and it can be argued this was the beginning of a global economy. Here was something Americans imported enthusiastically.
My two older sisters had the privilege of seeing the Beatles when they played the Milwaukee Arena in 1964 and 1966. They stopped touring after that, the rigors of the road proving too much, especially with the screaming crowds.
We all remember where we were when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan and we all can tell you exactly what the Beatles mean to us — then and now.
— Tim Forkes
Editor’s Note: Check out more stories about the Beatles here.