February 9, 1964 was a momentous day in rock ’n’ roll history. The direction of popular music was irrevocably altered on that day. What was once popular began to fade, and something unimaginable only a month before became the norm. For on this day, The Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Granted, The Beatles were beginning to make a name for themselves, with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” climbing the charts. Excitement for their music was building, but almost nobody in North America really understood who they were, or even what they looked like. It all changed that night.
Two days before, on February 7, The Beatles arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport to over 3,000 screaming fans. They met with the press, charming them with their sharp wit and sense of humor, but relatively few Americans were lucky enough to see their press coverage. Afterwards, The Beatles spent most of the next two days holed up in the Plaza Hotel in New York.
February 9, 1964
America, and music history, had to wait until 8 pm, Eastern Time, on Sunday night, when The Ed Sullivan Show came on. Sullivan opened the show with a short mention of a telegram sent to The Beatles by Elvis, congratulating them on their success, then went to a break for a commercial. When the show returned, Sullivan gave the following introduction:
“Now yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let’s bring them on.”
When the cameras turned to The Beatles on stage, they broke into “All My Loving.” After a bow, they immediately launched into “Till There Was You,” sung by Paul McCartney. As Paul sang, the camera cut to each member of the band, showing each one’s name. When the camera turned to John, the caption below his name said “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.” They finished their first set with “She Loves You,” followed by another bow.
In the second half of the show, they played “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” concluding each song with a bow. John, Paul, and George set their guitars down on the stage, Ringo jumped off his drum platform, and all four ran over to shake Sullivan’s hand. And that concluded the historic night.
Music would never be the same after the 9th of February, 1964. The British Invasion had begun. Crooners like Bobby Vinton, who had once dominated the charts, would forever be looking up at groups like The Beatles and the myriad of performers that followed them across the Atlantic. Guitar groups were now “it.” Soon, the blues, long forgotten by the masses in America, would take over a central role in the development of rock and roll.
So, how historic was the performance that night? It is estimated that 73 million people viewed The Ed Sullivan Show that night. The show’s rating was a record-setting 45.3, meaning that 45.3% of the households with televisions tuned in that night – a total of 23,340,000 homes. The show garnered a 60 share, which means that 60% of the tv’s that night were tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show. To put all this into perspective, 40% of every man, woman, and child in America watched The Beatles that night. Amazing!
February 16, 1964
The Beatles returned to The Ed Sullivan Show the next week. They played “She Loves You,” “This Boy,” and “All My Loving” in the first half. For the second half, they performed “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me To You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Surprisingly enough, the viewership and ratings for the February 16th show were almost identical to their original performance. The two shows remain to this day as the highest rated regularly scheduled shows of all time.
Forget the numbers for a minute. The impact of the first show was such that even now, people remember where they were that night, just like when Kennedy was shot, or the attack on September 11, 2001.
Newsweek reviewed The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and had this to say: “Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments… The odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”
Well, Newsweek got that one wrong, without a doubt. The Beatles became the biggest group of all time. They changed not only the direction of popular music, but had tremendous impacts culturally, as well. And their influence is still being felt today.
Without The Ed Sullivan Show, who knows what would have become of The Beatles. Certainly, their music was innovative and unlike anything else being played on the radio. There is no doubt in my mind they would have been big even without appearing on Ed Sullivan. But that show propelled them to heights never before seen, even by Elvis.
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