ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 1964, rock’n'roll changed overnight.
The Beatles‘ live debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast to a staggering 73 million Americans, bringing the music and haircuts of John, Paul, George and Ringo into homes across the country.
The US was given a potent shot of Beatlemania and the band were instantly elevated to teenage idols, the shiny heroes of rock’n'roll and the talismans of a new generation of young people looking to break away from the staid America of the 1950s.
Over the course of that momentous February weekend, the band would play three sets – two from Studio 50 in Manhattan and one from a Miami stage flanked by legions of screaming fans. Each made an indelible mark, forever making the name Ed Sullivan synonymous with the rise of The Beatles in America.
To mark this auspicious occasion, it’s time to lift the lid on the ins and outs of this seismic moment in popular culture. From the show’s stiff-necked host to George Harrison’s sore throat, the sound mix to the studio audience, the telegram from Elvis to the real Beatles US debut, those astonishing statistics to what happened next – all are featured in our list of the 20 Things You Need To Know About The Beatles On The Ed Sullivan Show.
Ed Sullivan – a mainstay of primetime US television since 1948 – caught his first glimpse of The Beatles and the pandemonium that surrounded them at Heathrow Airport on October 31, 1963. No stranger to booking the latest entertainment sensations, Sullivan met with Beatles manager Brian Epstein in Suite 1102 at New York’s Hotel Delmonico on November 11. The pair agreed to a three-programme deal. The band would be paid $10,000 (plus expenses). The Beatles were coming to America.
2. False Start
America got its first taste of The Beatles a month before their live debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. On January 3, The Jack Paar Show (a rival programme broadcast on the NBC network) obtained a BBC Mersey Sound clip of the band playing She Loves You. Concerned this might threaten his deal with Sullivan, Epstein lambasted the Beeb for selling the film. To add insult to injury, Paar’s sarcastic retort (“It’s nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level…”) suggested that the Beatles were already seen as some sort of British joke. None of it mattered and it all merely laid the groundwork for the momentous events of the coming weeks.
Having touched down at New York’s JFK airport on February 7 to unprecedented scenes and screams, The Beatles began their preparations for The Ed Sullivan Show on Saturday, February 8 with a lunchtime rehearsal at CBS’s Studio 50. A second run-through would follow the next morning, this time without a tonsillitis-stricken George Harrison. Trusted Beatles pal Neil Aspinall stood in for the camera rehearsals.
4. The Mix
Not particularly used to accommodating four rock’n’roll instruments, the show’s directors spent most of the lead-up to the February 9 show arguing with the band over the sound mix. “Finally”, remembered George, “they got the balance between the instruments and the vocals, they marked the boards by the controls, and then everyone broke for lunch. Then when we came back to tape the show, the cleaners had been round and had polished all the marks off the board.”
5. A Brief History Of Studio 50
The theatre at 1697–1699 Broadway officially became CBS-TV Studio 50 in 1950. The Ed Sullivan Show began broadcasting from the location a few years later and the building was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theater following the programme’s 20th anniversary in the summer of 1968. The first colour broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show was transmitted on October 31, 1965. It has remained a working TV studio and David Letterman has hosted The Late Show from Studio 50 since 1993. Paul McCartney played a set on the theatre’s marquee in 2009. Check it out here.
6. Mr Sunday Night
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born in Harlem, New York in 1901. Possessed of a stiff-necked Richard Nixon-like demeanour, he became a Sports Editor at New York newspaper Evening Graphic in the 1920s, before going on to host his own radio show. He was hired by CBS in 1948 to host Sunday night variety show The Toast Of The Town (the programme changed its name to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955) and soon began booking future music greats, among them Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Doors and, most memorably, Elvis Presley, who made his Sullivan debut on September 9, 1956 – 7 years and 5 months before The Beatles. Sullivan hosted his show (always broadcast between 8 and 9pm) until it was taken off the air in 1971. He died on October 13, 1974 at the age of 73.
7. Return To Sender
Prior to the February 9 evening performance, The Beatles received a special telegram from a very special person. Sullivan relayed this news to the studio audience at the start of the programme. The note, sent by Elvis Presley's ever-watchful Colonel Tom Parker, read: “Congratulations on your appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and your visit to America. We hope your engagement will be a successful one and your visit pleasant. Give our best to Mr. Sullivan. Sincerely, Elvis & the Colonel.” The King, it seems, sensed the threat to his throne.
8. That Introduction
Ed Sullivan: “Now yesterday and today our theatre’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that the city never has the excitement (sic) 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.”
9. The Sets
The first recording of the band took place on the afternoon of February 9. This opening set wouldn’t be shown until the group had left America (it was eventually broadcast on Sunday, February 23). The band played Twist And Shout, Please Please Me and I Want To Hold Your Hand. The evening show (the big one) featured All My Loving, Till There Was You and She Loves You followed by I Saw Her Standing There and I Want To Hold Your Hand. The second live performance was filmed at Miami’s Deauville Hotel to a studio audience of 2,600 on Sunday, February 16. It was a set that included She Loves You, This Boy, All My Loving, I Saw Her Standing There, From Me To You and I Want To Hold Your Hand.
The band blew America’s minds with a little help from Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325, McCartney’s Höfner Bass, George Harrison’s Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and Ringo Starr’s brand new 3-piece Ludwig Downbeat Oyster Black Pearl kit.
11. Which One Is Which?
During Till There Was You, the names of the four Beatles were flashed up on screen, including a modified title card for John Lennon: “Sorry girls, he’s married.”
12. The Week Before…
On February 2, seven days before The Beatles’ debut appearance, two other music greats took to the Studio 50 stage. See Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald’s duet via the video above.
13. Facts & Figures
Following over 50,000 ticket requests for studio seats, a live audience of just 728 witnessed the evening performance. 23,240,000 households had their TVs tuned to the programme – a 43.5 per cent share according to Nielsen ratings. The 73 million audience still amounts to one of the largest in American television history.
14. Up, Up And Away
The week before the Sullivan broadcast, I Want To Hold Your Hand reached the top of the US charts where it remained for seven weeks. Only another Beatles 45, She Loves You, could shift it from Number 1. Meet the Beatles! – the band’s second US album, their first on Capitol – hit the top spot four days after the broadcast on February 15. By the beginning of April The Beatles held all Top 5 chart positions on the Billboard 100.
15. Also On Tonight’s Show…
Joining The Beatles on the February 9 Ed Sullivan broadcast were singer/banjoist Tessie O’Shea, the cast of the Broadway production of Oliver! (among them, future Monkee Davy Jones, pictured above) and Frank Gorshin (aka The Riddler from the Batman TV series). Singer Mitzi Gaynor was top of the bill for the second Ed Sullivan Show on February 16 while jazz pioneer Cab Calloway provided versions of St. James Infirmary Blues and Ol’ Man River during the third show on February 23.
16. “I Give Them A Year”
Despite the wild response of the studio audience and the show's undeniable popularity with viewers at home, not everyone was enamoured by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Ray Bloch, Musical Director of The Ed Sullivan Show reportedly said: “The only thing that’s different is the hair, as far as I can see. I give them a year.” New York Times critic, Theodore Strongin, was particularly detailed in his dismissal: “The Beatles have a tendency to build phrases around unresolved leading tones. This precipitates the ear into a false modal frame that temporarily turns the fifth of the scale into the tonic, momentarily suggesting the Mixolydian Mode. But everything always ends a plain diatonic all the same.” The Washington Post deemed them “downright conservative… asexual and homely”. Newsweek reported that “visually they are a nightmare”, and, most bizarrely of all, the Herald Tribune went with the headline, “Beatles Bomb On TV”.
17. Ad Break
It was a good day for those who had booked commercial slots during the February 9 broadcast. Among them were Lipton’s Tea, Lux Soap, Griffin Shoe Polish, Anacin and Aero Shaving Cream – the latter keen to point out that it “keeps drenching your beard while others dry out”.
18. 1964… And Beyond!
The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show via promo films and pre-recorded performances throughout their career, but their last live Sullivan set was recorded on August 14, 1965 during their second full tour of the States – the day before their first Shea Stadium gig. They played: I Feel Fine, I’m Down, Act Naturally, Ticket To Ride, Yesterday and Help! The segments were broadcast on September 12, 1965.
19. Access Denied
The Beatles’ first visit to America was documented by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles – the brothers that would go on to film the terror of The Stones’ Altamont gig in 1969. Although their cameras captured many exclusive behind the scenes moments, they were denied entry to The Ed Sullivan Theater due to “union rules”. Despite persistent efforts from McCartney, outside cameras were not allowed access to the studio.
20. Odd Ones Out
The Beatles played two cover versions during their Ed Sullivan sets. Till There Was You was written by Meredith Willson for 1957 musical The Music Man. The Beatles recorded this Paul-sung track on July 18, 1963 during the first sessions for With The Beatles. It was also included as the third track on Side 2 of Meet The Beatles! Bert Berns and Phil Medley’s Twist and Shout meanwhile, had been lacerating Lennon's voice since the band’s early days.
MAIN PHOTO: Getty Images