Fifty years ago today, four mop-topped lads from Liverpool with a loud new sound — the Beatles — made their American television debut on CBS’ The Ed Sullivan Show.
Even before the hugely successful broadcast that Sunday evening, a sense of history hung in the air, as hundreds of young fans set up camp outside the Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where the Beatles were staying, just blocks across town from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. More than 50,000 requests for the 700 available studio audience seats at that first show had piled up in the producers’ offices, with celebrities such as Walter Cronkite and Jack Paar pleading for tickets on behalf of their teenage daughters (among the fortunate handful who got in was Julie Nixon, the future president’s 15 year-old daughter).
Having worked in broadcasting and newspapers for decades, Sullivan was stunned by the pandemonium that suddenly engulfed him and the city, as he admitted while introducing the Beatles for the first time: “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,” he said. “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.”
Opening with “All My Loving,” the first set then spotlighted Paul McCartney singing “Till There Was You” and concluded with their number-one hit, “She Loves You”; the second set, closing the show, included “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” — all accompanied by an endless cacophony of high-pitched adolescent screams.
Who knew that was how a revolution would begin?
In honor of this poignant yet happy anniversary, Weekend Reader features an excerpt from Michael Tomasky’s terrific new e-book, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Beatles and America, Then and Now — available for $5.49 on Amazon.com.
How big an event was The Beatles’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show? The numbers are still staggering: More than one-third of the country watched—73 million people, in a nation then of 191 million. The equivalent today would be 100 or 105 million people watching something. That is true only of Super Bowls, typically viewed by 110 to 120 million Americans now (112 million, this recent one). The M*A*S*H finale in 1983 is still tops, percentage-wise; it got nearly half the country, 106 million out of 234 million. But outside of those two examples, nothing else quite stacks up, 50 years later.
The appearance lit a fire that raged across the country. Suddenly that back catalog of songs, the tunes that Capitol Records exec Jay Livingstone had insisted throughout 1963 wouldn’t do anything in America, now proved rather handy for the label, and for a few other clever ones as well. A label called Swan had purchased the rights to “She Loves You” in 1963, after Capitol took a pass. Swan immediately rushed out “She Loves You,” and, immediately, it went to #2. In late March it even dislodged “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from the top spot. Vee-Jay brought out “Please Please Me,” and a Vee-Jay subsidiary called Tollie released the band’s cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”
On February 21, the group flew home. By then they had the two top spots on the singles chart. By February 29, they had numbers one, two, and six. On March 7, one, two, and four. On March 14, one, two, and three. On March 21, one, two, three, and seven. On March 28, one, two, three, and four. That was mostly back catalog. March brought the release of a new song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and on April 4, the group claimed the top five spots on the Billboard singles charts, which had never happened before and has never happened since.
The album charts told a similar story. On February 1, The Singing Nun was at the top. The only rock’n’roll records in the Top 10 were the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe and Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco soundtrack; calling the latter rock’n’roll is being perhaps a tad generous, but he was The King, so let’s give him that one. Peter, Paul, and Mary had three albums in the Top 10. Two positions were held by none other than John Fitzgerald Kennedy. One was the BBC’s tribute to JFK performed by the cast of the innovative current-events television series That Was the Week That Was, which featured David Frost and Roy Kinnear (who the following year played the pudgy bumbling scientist in Help!). Why it was credited to Kennedy I’ve no idea. The other was an album of excerpts of Kennedy’s most important speeches. Joan Baez and the West Side Story soundtrack rounded out the Top 10 of that final pre-Beatles week.