The Beatles’ Debut On The Ed Sullivan Show

The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian recalls watching The Beatles’ first ever performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on this day in 1964.

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show February 1964

by Michael Simmons |
Updated on

On February 9 1964, The Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time. For those who tuned in to watch – from fans to future rock and roll greats – it was a life-changing experience. Here, The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian recalls how watching the performance round Mama Cass' apartment led to the formation of his own group...

“On the night of the first Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, I get a phone call from [future Mama of The Mamas & The Papas] Cass Elliot. She says, ‘So, like, I got this apartment up in Gramercy Park and why don’t you come on up and watch The Ed Sullivan Show with me because Ringo’s gonna be there.’ And I hung up and then I thought, Did she mean Ringo’s gonna be on The Ed Sullivan Show with The Beatles or did she mean Ringo’s gonna be in her apartment on Gramercy Park? (laughs)  Because Cass was who she was and was already developing a salon and pretty much forming rock groups at her will, introducing people who should know each other. [She was later a player in the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash.] Two of the people that she thought should know each other were Zal [Yanovsky] and I. So I get up to her apartment and the door opens and it is indeed a very Ringo-y looking, Russian-Jewish, kind of very tall version of Ringo! (laughs) We start talking and we hit it right off.

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“Then The Beatles’ performance starts and we’re all riveted. I immediately said, These guys are just fucking Eddie-Cochraned out! This George guy is listening to Eddie Cochran. As a kid, I’d seen Eddie Cochran, a youthful guitar-playing songwriter and he had that rockabilly intensity. Both Zal and I said, It’s recycled rockabilly. I had had five years at a prep school in New Jersey. In those circumstances the only way to even dance with girls was to play in whatever band got going. Me and several guys, when we were old enough to be believable, started a sax and guitar type band and played the Duane Eddy catalogue and Dumplins by [proto-rocker] Doc Bagby. During those same years I was in a doo wop group. So it was instantly understandable that The Beatles were writing their own material. I don’t know why, but you got it from the way they delivered it and you got it from the fact that it had this unique flavour. I’d already begun writing a few lousy songs and maybe one or two good ones (laughs), but certainly The Beatles were an impetus. Now I’m making the differentiation between imitating them and letting them inspire because immediately – within months – there were tons of Americans imitating The Beatles’ general song structures and trying to get these B sections with melodious vocal parts and so on, whereas at every step the Spoonful was trying to avoid being one of these groups that were obviously using an English-ish name and so on. We were from New York (laughs).

“So that night both Zal and I’ve got guitars with us ’cos we’re never without them. The guitars start to come out, the performance goes to [mouse puppet and Sullivan show regular] Topo Gigio or something and I say, Hey, have you ever heard Etta Baker? I play one thing and he does this ridiculous accompaniment of, like, Hubert Sumlin-plays-Etta Baker that was so cool. There were two Beatles segments, so they come back a second time and they do their thing and, again, we’re all, ‘Oh this so cool!’ and we’re all commenting, ya know, that this is what happens when guys play together so often that they can’t be shook. Then the show’s over and we continue to play and then it’s late and we all fold the stuff up and go home.

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“For the next four days, Zally and I are like schoolgirls. We’re calling Cass – and Cass told this story on us for years. First she heard from me. [I said], That was the most interesting guitar player I’ve ever heard. The most unconventional, the most genre-busting I’ve ever heard. Zal is calling her: ‘Hey, do you still have that guy’s phone number? That’s the cleanest guitar player I’ve heard – the cleanest finger-picker,’ he said. Of course, she’s reporting all of this back to both of us. So The Lovin’ Spoonful spun out of that night. It really did spin right out of The Beatles’ performance and what was going on around the performance and in between segments. That was my first Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan show!”

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