Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Beatles' First Appearance on Ed Sullivan

"Tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England's Beatles."

Ed Sullivan
Feb. 9, 1964

The Ed Sullivan Show introduced America to many performers who went on to become icons, bestowing a kind of legitimacy on them, but, even for a show on which that was routine, today is the 50th anniversary of something that was truly special — and is still regarded as a milestone in the story of U.S. culture — America's introduction to the Beatles.

Lots of people — including Sullivan himself — expected it to be a repeat of the Elvis Presley experience. Elvis made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to much media fanfare nearly eight years earlier, but it wasn't his first appearance on American TV. He had previously been on shows that were hosted by Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

Fifty years ago tonight, however, was the Beatles' very first live appearance on American television, and it drew an audience of 73 million — a number that has been exceeded several times since but was a record at the time.

The Beatles played five songs in their Ed Sullivan Show debut. They sang "All My Loving," "Till There Was You" and "She Loves You" in the first half of the show, then they played "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in the second half.

A two–hour CBS special, "The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles," will be shown tonight at the same time as the original show. I plan to watch it. I wonder if it can capture the Beatles' "endearingly goofy" personae, to quote Andrea Peyser in the New York Post.

I work with college journalism students, who do seem to appreciate the Beatles' music, but I don't think they fully grasp what happened 50 years ago today, and I am skeptical that a TV program will change that.

"It is almost impossible to convey to anyone under 50 the immense impact and import of that event," writes Mark Hendrickson in Forbes, "because nothing comparable to it has ever happened."

That about says it all.