A record setting 73 million people tuned in that evening making it one of the seminal moments in television history. Nearly fifty years later, people still remember exactly where they were the night The Beatles stepped onto Ed Sullivan’s stage.
In the weeks leading up to the performance, several Beatles records had already hit number one on the U.S. charts, and the radio airwaves were saturated with their tunes. The delirium and ground swell of anticipation surrounding The Beatles’ arrival from England had not been seen around since Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. But even that experience could not have prepared the Sullivan staff and the New York City authorities for what was about to happen.
The story of how The Beatles landed on The Ed Sullivan Show began with the group’s formation in Liverpool in 1960. They spent their first couple of years playing in small clubs throughout Europe. During late night gigs in the city of Hamburg, Germany, sometimes playing as long as eight hours a night, The Beatles perfected their act. However, it was not until an appearance on the British television show, “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium” and the 1963 release of their first album, Please Please Me that “Beatlemania” began to spread. That March the album hit number one on the British charts, and by the end of the year, The Beatles’ music permeated UK radio. The “Fab Four” even performed for the royal family. It was only after this burgeoning success at home did The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, choose to launch their American invasion. They decided when they had a #1 song on the U.S. charts, then they would lock in the date of their Ed Sullivan debut.
There are a number of stories regarding exactly how The Beatles came to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. The most popular is that in 1963, while arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, Ed Sullivan and his wife Sylvia encountered thousands of youngsters waiting excitedly in the rain. When Sullivan asked what all the commotion was about, he was told that a British band named The Beatles was returning home from a tour in Sweden. When he got to his hotel room, Sullivan purportedly inquired about booking the group for his show.
However, it was not until later that year that The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein reached an agreement with Ed Sullivan to bring the group to America to perform live for the first time on U.S. television. Following dinner at the Hotel Delmonico in New York City, a handshake between the two men sealed the deal for performances on three shows to air in 1964. In return, The Beatles would receive $10,000 for their three appearances and top billing.
Prior to their debut on the Sullivan show, The Beatles’ record “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was leaked in advance of its planned US release to radio stations across the country. When attorneys for Capitol Records were unable to stop American DJs from spinning the tune, the record label relented and, on December 26, 1963, dropped the album ahead of schedule. The record sold 250,000 copies in the first three days. By January 10, 1964 it had sold over one million units and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the number one song on the Billboard charts by month’s end. In the weeks leading up to The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Beatlemania went viral. Radio stations played the band’s music nearly non-stop; teenaged fans sported “Beatle” wigs, and bumper stickers across the country warned, “The Beatles Are Coming.”
The Beatles touched down at New York’s Kennedy Airport on February 7th, 1964. They were met by a throng of reporters and a hoard of three thousand screaming fans. Upon disembarking the plane, The Beatles were whisked to a press conference hosted by Capitol Records in which they playfully answered questions from the media.
When asked “How do you find America?” Ringo Starr jokingly replied, “Turn left at Greenland.”
While The Beatles spent the next two days cooped up at The Plaza Hotel, fans did all they could to get closer to the band. Groups of teenagers set up camp outside The Plaza, some even posing as hotel guests in an attempt to see their favorite group. As the show approached, over 50,000 requests for seats came into CBS. However, The Ed Sullivan Show, which originated from CBS’s TV Studio 50, could only accommodate an audience of 700.
For weeks, celebrities were calling in to get tickets for their kids. Walter Cronkite and Jack Paar scored seats for their girls; composer Leonard Bernstein tried but failed; while Richard Nixon’s 15-year old daughter, Julie, became one of the lucky few to get a seat. Even Sullivan himself had trouble getting extra tickets. On his show the week before The Beatles’ debut, Ed asked his audience, “Coincidentally, if anyone has a ticket for The Beatles on our show next Sunday, could I please borrow it? We need it very badly.”
It should be remembered that while this hullabaloo was happening, there was still an air of gloom in America. Just 77 days prior to The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan, President Kennedy had been assassinated. By now, the country was ready for some much needed diversion, and it came in the form of four young lads from Liverpool – their sound, their look, their energy and their charisma.
At 8 o’clock on February 9th 1964, America tuned in to CBS and The Ed Sullivan Show. But this night was different. 73 million people gathered in front their TV sets to see The Beatles’ first live performance on U.S. soil. The television rating was a record-setting 45.3, meaning that 45.3% of households with televisions were watching. That figure reflected a total of 23,240,000 American homes. The show garnered a 60 share, meaning 60% of the television’s turned on were tuned in to Ed Sullivan and The Beatles.
Ed opened the show by briefly mentioning a congratulatory telegram to The Beatles from Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker and then threw to advertisements for Aero Shave and Griffin Shoe Polish. After the brief commercial interruption, Ed began his memorable 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.”
At last, John, Paul, George and Ringo came onto the stage, opening with “All My Loving” to ear-splitting screeches from teenaged girls in the audience. The Beatles followed that hit with Paul McCartney taking the spotlight to sing, “Till There Was You.” During the song, a camera cut to each member of the band and introduced him to the audience by displaying his first name on screen. When the camera cut to John Lennon, the caption below his name also read “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED.” The Beatles then wrapped up the first set with “She Loves You,” and the show went to commercial. Upon return, magician Fred Kaps took the stage to perform a set of sleight-of-hand tricks.
Concerned that The Beatles’ shrieking fans would steal attention from the other acts that evening, Ed Sullivan admonished his audience, “If you don’t keep quiet, I’m going to send for a barber.”
As hard as Ed tried to protect them, the other acts that night suffered from the excitement surrounding The Beatles. Numbered among those performers were impressionist Frank Gorshin, acrobats Wells & the Four Fays, the comedy team of McCall & Brill and Broadway star Georgia Brown joined by the cast of “Oliver!”
The hour-long broadcast concluded with The Beatles singing two more of their hits, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the delight of the fans in attendance and those watching at home.
The show was a huge television success. As hard as it is to imagine, over 40% of every man, woman and child living in America had watched The Beatles on Sullivan.
A week later, the February 24th issue of Newsweek magazine’s cover featured a picture of The Beatles with the title, “Bugs About Beatles.” Inside, the review of The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show began, “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 article ended with the following prediction, “…the odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”
So much for adult odds makers. But even at that, it was impossible to imagine what a lasting impression the night would leave.
John Moffitt, then Assistant Director of The Ed Sullivan Show recalls, “Nobody realized the impact to come, how momentous it would be. We didn’t talk about making history. It was more like, ‘What are we going to do next week? Not only are we doing this again, we’re on location.’”
That’s because The Beatles’ second appearance on February 16th, 1964, was broadcast from The Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. Moffitt remembers how fans took over the venue, and when it was time for The Beatles to perform, a teaming throng of teenagers blocked the group’s access to the ballroom. As security guards wedged a passageway through the crowd for The Beatles, the show was being broadcast to America. Unaware of the delay, Ed was about to introduce them. Moffitt recalls…
“Ed is saying ‘And now, here are—(a beat)—The Beatles right after this.’ And he went to a commercial. And during the commercial, finally at the end, The Beatles broke through, they came running up the aisle, they got hooked up, and I believe there was one microphone that didn’t get hooked up. But you couldn’t tell because all you could hear was the screaming.”
Audio difficulties aside, the boys plowed through “She Loves You,” “This Boy” and “All My Loving” for their first set, then turned the stage over to the comedy team of Allen and Rossi (“Hello, Dere”), singer/dancer Mitzi Gaynor, acrobats The Nerveless Knocks and monologist Myron Cohen.
The Beatles returned to close the show with performances of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me to You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” After they finished, Ed called them over and congratulated them, passing along word that legendary composer Richard Rodgers was one their “most rabid fans.”
Again, The Beatles on Sullivan proved a huge ratings success, nearly duplicating the record-setting performance of their first appearance. The second show also attracted 40% of the American population.
The Beatles third and—according to their contract—final performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was technically their first. The show was taped prior to their live February 9th debut, but saved for broadcast until February 23rd, 1964. On this show, The Beatles sang “Twist and Shout”, “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Other guests that night included stand-up comedian Dave Barry, Gordon and Sheila MacRae, and the legendary American jazz singer Cab Calloway.
On September 12th, 1965, The Fab Four returned to the Ed Sullivan stage one last time. They played “I Feel Fine,” “I’m Down,” “Act Naturally,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” and “Help!” This performance was taped in New York on August 14th, 1965, just one day before The Beatles kicked off their North American Tour with a concert at Shea Stadium that set the attendance record for an outdoor show at the time.
The final appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, like those in February 1964 aired in black and white. However, at the end of the evening, Sullivan broke the news that the following week, his show would start broadcasting in color.
So The Beatles were just a week from having their performance captured and preserved forever in color.
These four historic Beatles performances on The Ed Sullivan Show featured 20 Beatles songs—seven of which became Number One hits. Cumulatively, the four shows attracted an audience of a quarter of a BILLION people. In terms of percentage of America’s population, the first two shows remain the highest viewed regularly scheduled television programs of all time.
The Beatles’ success on The Ed Sullivan Show paved the way for future rock ‘n’ roll groups dubbed the British Invasion, including The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Peter and Gordon, etc.
The genius of The Beatles and the American institution that was The Ed Sullivan Show combined to create one of the most defining and indelible moments in the history of music, television and pop culture. It was a remarkable convergence that came at a special time in America, making an impact on the world that will never be duplicated.
Yeah, yeah, YEAH!