SHORTLY AFTER 8 P.M. ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9th, 1964, a short, stiff man with rubbery bloodhound features — Ed Sullivan, the host of the highest-rated variety hour on American television — addressed his New York studio audience and the folks tuned in at home over the CBS network.
“Yesterday and today, our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation,” Sullivan said in a nasally chuckling voice. “And these veterans agreed with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool.” He droned on for a few more seconds. Then the sixty-two-year-old Sullivan uttered the nine most important words in the history of rock & roll TV:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! Let’s bring them on!”
No one in Studio 50, the 728-seat home of The Ed Sullivan Show, at 53rd Street and Broadway, heard anything else for the next eight minutes, excepat a monsoon of teenage-female screaming. The Beatles — guitarist John Lennon, 23; bass guitarist Paul McCartney, 21; drummer Ringo Starr, 23; and lead guitarist George Harrison, two weeks shy of twenty-one — opened their U.S. debut performance with a machine-gun bouquet of twin-guitar clang and jubilant vocal harmonies: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You.” Forty minutes later — after songs and routines by Frank Gorshin, British music-hall star Tessie O’Shea and the Broadway cast of Oliver! — the Beatles returned to tear through both sides of their first U.S. Number One single, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
“But you could not hear them playing anything,” says John Moffitt, associate director of The Ed Sullivan Show, who was vainly calling out cues to the cameramen shooting the band. “The noise was incredible. Nobody could hear a thing except the kids in the audience, screaming. They overpowered the amplifiers. The cameramen couldn’t hear. Even the kids couldn’t hear anything, except each other screaming.”
Production assistant Vince Calandra had been a cue-card boy for Sullivan back in 1957, when Elvis Presley made the last of his three appearances on the show. “The reaction from the kids then,” Calandra claims, “was nothing close to what it was for the Beatles. I remember the producer, Bob Precht, who was an audio freak, just going, ‘Jesus Christ!'” “
It was deafening,” says Harrison’s older sister Louise, now seventy-two, who sat in the seventh row, surrounded by shrieking. Lennon’s then-wife, Cynthia, stood at the back of the studio, stunned by the reaction. “They’re more enthusiastic here than at home,” she raved to Beatles roadie Mai Evans.
Lennon himself couldn’t believe the din and devotion, even after playing to hysterical crowds and being chased by ecstatic mobs in Britain throughout 1963. “They’re wild, they’re all wild,” he said of the Americans. “They just all seem out of their minds. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
MEANWHILE, MORE THAN 73 MILLION people were watching the Beatles’ Sullivan performance on television — then the biggest audience ever glued to a single program and, forty years later, still one of the largest ever. And they got the whole show, including the music.
On TV, the snap and sizzle of Starr’s drumming and the crisp electric attack of Harrison’s and Lennon’s guitars cut through the female squall. Also, Moffitt notes, the group’s two vocal mikes were wired directly into the control room’s mixing desk, “so we didn’t lose that much singing on the air.” Viewers heard every “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” in “She Loves You” and high, wild “Woooo!” in “I Saw Her Standing There,” while Sullivan’s cameras cut back and forth between the Beatles’ magnetic poise — the cocky smiles and deep bows after each song — and kinetic shots of young women leaping in their seats and sobbing with delight.
Rock & roll was, by 1964, an established, sanitized presence on network television: on Dick Clark’s afternoon dance party American Bandstand; in Ricky Nelson’s singing cameos on the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. But Sullivan delivered the nation’s first blast of Beatlemania in extreme close-up, an unprecedented display of the liberating, openly sexual ferocity of live, loud rock & roll. In one hour and five songs, the hottest rock act in Britain became the biggest pop group in America, immediately transforming the character and future of a generation. In Studio 50, at one point in the broadcast, a musician in Sullivan’s house orchestra turned to a colleague in grim shock. “These are the people,” he asked, “who are going to be running the country twenty years from now?” The answer, of course, was: Yes.
“We knew we could wipe you out — we were new,” Lennon crowed years later, in his famous 1970 ROLLING STONE interview. “When we got here, you were all walking around in fuckin’ Bermuda shorts, with Boston crew cuts and stuff in your teeth.”
“John and I knew we were writing good songs,” McCartney told the magazine in 1987. “You had to be an idiot to listen to what we were writing and not say, ‘Hey, man, this is good. . . . We could even do well in America.’
“One of the cheekiest things we ever did,” McCartney added, “we said to [manager] Brian Epstein, ‘We’re not going to America till we’ve got a Number One record,’ because we knew it would make all the difference.”
Yet the Beatles could not have achieved so much, so fast, without Sullivan’s Sunday-night might. The Beatles actually appeared on American television for the first time in November 1963 to little avail — in NBC and CBS news reports about the group’s British success. (The CBS segment aired on the morning of November 22nd, a few hours before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.) On January 3rd, 1964, Jack Paar featured on his NBC talk show a BBC clip of the Beatles playing “She Loves You.”
Sullivan, however, had been a prime-time institution since 1948. A former sports reporter and Broadway gossip columnist, he combined a catholic booking policy — opera singers, ventriloquists, stand-up comics, acrobats, rock & roll pioneers such as Bo Diddley and LaVern Baker — with a golden gut for ratings. He was in London, at the airport with his wife, Sylvia, on October 3ist, 1963, when the Beatles returned from a Swedish tour to a tumultuous reception. At first, Sullivan thought everyone had turned out to greet the queen mother. But by November IIth, he was back in New York, negotiating with Epstein.
Technically, Sullivan refused the Beatles top billing. He reserved that honor for himself every week. But he granted the Beatles an extraordinary amount of air-time: opening and closing segments on February 9th and 16th — the latter on location from the Deauville Hotel in Miami — plus an appearance to be taped early on the 9th for broadcast on February 23rd. It was headlining status in all but name for a group without a U.S. hit. (Previous Beatles singles on Vee-Jay, Swan and Tollie had stiffed; Capitol would not issue “I Want to Hold Your Hand” until late December.) In return, Epstein accepted a total fee of $10,000, far less than the $7,500 Sullivan often paid big acts for a single show.
“I remember the reaction in the audience,” says Calandra, “when Ed started promoting the Beatles on the show, telling people they were coming. The first two weeks in January — nothing much. The third week, that’s when you heard the reaction from the kids.”
By the weekend of February 9th, he says, “We were told not to drive our cars into the city: “We’re going to barricade the streets.’ And normally Sullivan never came to rehearsals on Saturday. He would show up on Sunday for the rundown. But he came to rehearsal that Saturday for the Beatles. That was a sign: This was special.” Harrison was the first Beatle to disembark from Pan American Flight 101 at the recently christened John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Friday afternoon, February 7th. He was followed by Lennon (wearing a leather cap), McCartney and Starr.
HARRISON WAS ALSO THE ONLY BEATLE who had ever been to America before. In September 1963, he had taken a two-week vacation from British Beatlemania, visiting his sister Louise at her home in Benton, Illinois.
“We went camping, and he had a ‘wonderful time with my kids, being an uncle,” says Louise, who was eleven years older than George, married and had lived in North and South America since leaving England in 1956. She had never seen the Beatles perform or met George’s band-mates, although she passionately promoted the group’s records to area newspapers and radio stations.
But on the night before her brother left for England, Louise witnessed his U.S. solo debut: at a VFW hall where George sat in with a combo, the Four Vests, jamming on Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry numbers. “It was like a bolt of lightning went through the room,” she says. “When George finished singing, somebody came over to the bandleader and said, ‘That kid who’s trying out for your band tonight — you’d be crazy if you don’t hire him.’And I remember thinking, ‘This is only one of the Beatles. If he can make this impact on 200 people in the middle of nowhere, what must the four of them be like?'”
They were — from the minute they got off the plane in New York — funny, charming, obliging, amazed and assured. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (who later made the gripping Rolling Stones tour documentary Gimme Shelter) had been commissioned by Britain’s Granada Television to accompany the Beatles in America. The Maysles’ all-access footage — broadcast on CBS in 1964 as The Beatles in America and now available as an expanded two-DVD set — captures the group in cool command of the whirlwind they created and, at the same time, utterly astonished by it.
In a scene from their first day in New York, the Beatles sit in their suite at the Plaza Hotel, hypnotized by themselves on TV firing quips at hapless reporters during an earlier press conference at the airport. (“Will you sing something?” Lennon: “No, we need money first.” “What is the secret of your success?” Starr: “We have a press agent.”) During a chaotic photo call in Central Park, a paparazzo asks Starr, “Can you do that gesture with your arms once more?” “Why?” Starr replies tartly. “I haven’t stopped.”
“Luckily, we didn’t know what America was — we just knew our dream of it,” McCartney confessed in 1987, “or we probably would have been too intimidated.”
“They had total confidence,” says Louise Harrison, who finally met the rest of the band at the Plaza that weekend and was part of the entourage for several days. “George once said to me that he felt sorry for Elvis: ‘There was only one of him, whereas there were four of us. Whatever happened, it happened to all of us, so we could laugh it off.'”
In fact, on Saturday afternoon, February 8th, only three Beatles turned up at Studio 50 for rehearsal. George was at the Plaza, suffering from strep throat and running a 104-degree temperature. Unwilling to trust a celebrity patient to an outside nurse, the Plaza house physician left George in Louise’s care; she used ice packs to soothe his neck and gave him antibiotics hourly.
As Sullivan’s cameramen blocked shots for the Sunday taping and broadcast, Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for Harrison. When Aspinall left to tend to other business, Calandra was given a guitar and a Beatle wig — a gag from the crew — and sent to center stage in Aspinall’s place. “I was up there for three songs,” says Calandra, who didn’t play a note. “I didn’t know anything about music. But Lennon said to me, “Was this the stage that Buddy Holly and the Crickets played on?’ I said yeah. He went, ‘Wow!'”
The Beatles returned — with Harrison — the next day at 9:30 A.M. for dress rehearsal. “They came on time, with no attitude,” says Moffitt. When the Beatles weren’t onstage or facing the press corps, they hung out backstage — in dressing rooms 52 and 53, according to an original production memo — drinking Coca-Cola.
But when it came to music, the Beatles asserted themselves. After the dress rehearsal, Lennon and McCartney walked into the control room to hear a playback — a historic breach of decorum. Acts were not permitted there, much less allowed to have a say in on-air sound. “I was in shock,” says Calandra. “But what they wanted was not the usual Sullivan mix, where the lyrics were more dominant than the music and noise was kept to a minimum. The Beatles wanted the guitars and voices in equal balance.
“But they had such a likable attitude: ‘Can we do this? Can I suggest that?'” Calandra adds. “They were respectful and pleasant.” They also got the mix they wanted.
The only pre-show tension Calandra witnessed that day came as Sullivan wrote his introductions for the live show. “When Ed wrote his copy, that was his domain,” Calandra says. “You didn’t bother him.” Nevertheless, Epstein — who meticulously attended to every detail of the Beatles’ public image — strode over to Sullivan, leaned over the host as he wrote (“Which you never did,” Calandra notes) and said, with impeccable English grace, “I would like to know the exact wording of your intro to the Beatles.”
Sullivan looked up at Epstein and coldly responded, “I would like for you to get lost.”
THE BEATLES WERE ON THE AIR that night for about thirteen minutes. But the visual impressions they left behind are now pivotal rock & roll iconography: the tight, sharp cut of their black, Victorian-mod suits; the flying, pudding-bowl hair as the four shook their heads in unison during “She Loves You”; the individual shots of each Beatle with his first name superimposed on the screen and, under John’s, the famous line SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED.
Today, against the hypertensive editing and technicolor computer graphics that pass for music television, the black-and-white simplicity of the Beatles’ Sullivan debut seems antique, like a moving daguerreotype. But that broadcast — now part of a two-DVD set containing all of the Beatles’ ’64 and ’65 Sullivan spots, The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles (see “Meet the Beatles”) — still packs the exhilarating force of prophecy and, with the combined bedlam of music and screaming, barely controlled chaos.
That evening, the Beatles celebrated their triumph with a night out at the Playboy Club and at a hot New York discotheque, the Peppermint Lounge, where the Maysles got a juicy reel of Starr twisting on the dance floor with local fillies. Sullivan’s staff had little time for self-congratulation. “We didn’t talk about making history,” Moffitt admits. “It was more like, ‘What are we going to do next week? Not only are we doing this again — we’re on location.'”
Between Sullivan shows, the Beatles gave their first full-length concerts in this country, on February IIth in Washington, D.C., and two sets on the 12th at New York’s Carnegie Hall (co-presented by Sid Bernstein, who promoted the group’s 1965 and ’66 dates at Shea Stadium). Capitol Records’ plan to tape the Beatles at Carnegie Hall was reportedly foiled by the musicians’ union. But the Maysles’ footage from the Washington Coliseum suggests that the Beatles’ real opening night in America was also their last truly great rock & roll show, before touring became a numbing routine and a distraction from making records.
For half an hour, playing mostly ravers such as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the Beatles cranked up the guitars, vocals and body language. Lennon stamped his foot on the floor between songs like an impatient racehorse; Starr thrashed his drums with such precise fury they seemed about to tumble off the riser. The band performed under woeful conditions: on a bare square stage in the center of the hall (the Coliseum was a boxing arena), through an appalling PA and without spotlights. Every three songs, the Beatles made a quarter-turn, to face a different part of the crowd; Starr had to be his own roadie, rotating his kit with Mal Evans. But the music was supercharged garage rock: the Beatles’ Cavern and Star-Club days writ large. The Beatles knew they had hit the jackpot, and they reveled in the frenzy and adoration surrounding them.
They found more of the same when they got to Miami on February 13th. While Sullivan’s crew readied the Deauville Hotel’s convention room for the February 16th telecast, fans overran the building, pressing the doorbells to each room, Moffitt says, “thinking in their great innocence that a Beatle would come out and say, ‘Hello, how are you today?’ The hotel guests were irate. I don’t know how many moved out.”
On Sunday, the Beatles stayed in their rooms until showtime. As Sullivan made his opening remarks, the group stepped from an elevator and tried to cross the Deauville’s lobby, through a lunatic army of teens. The police formed a flying wedge around the Beatles, slowly cutting through the kids. “Meanwhile,” Moffitt says, “we’re on the air. Someone is signaling to Ed, ‘They’re not here.’ Ed started to ad-lib, then went to a commercial” — at which point the Beatles burst through a door at the back of the hall, raced through the audience and onto the stage.
The Beatles reprised four numbers from the previous week, adding their third British single, “From Me to You,” and the ballad “This Boy,” a stunning demonstration of liquid three-part harmony, sung by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon, shoulder to shoulder, at a single mike. At the end of the show, gathering the Beatles around him, Sullivan lathered on the love. “Richard Rodgers, one of America’s great composers, wanted me to congratulate you,” he said, “and tell the four of you that he is one of your most rabid fans.
“And,” Sullivan quickly added, “that goes for me, too.”
Nearly every Sunday after that, Sullivan featured a hot rock, soul or Top Forty act in the lineup. The Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Supremes, the Byrds, the Doors, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin were just some of the legends and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who sang for Sullivan in the wake of the Beatles, until CBS canceled his program in 1971 after 1,087 shows. The Beatles themselves kept returning, mostly in video clips, until 1970.
“The later music acts — Ed didn’t like them very much,” Moffitt notes. “He knew they got ratings. But he truly loved the Beatles. He was really proud of them. It was almost like he was their godfather — Uncle Beatle.” In October 1974, four years after the Beatles broke up, Sullivan died of cancer. Uncle Beatle was seventy-three.
ON FEBRUARY 21ST, 1964, THE Beatles flew from Miami to New York, then on to London aboard a Pan Am plane with JET CLIPPER BEATLES emblazoned on the side. Two nights later, the Beatles were back on The Ed Sullivan Show, playing “Twist and Shout,” “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — all previously recorded on the afternoon of February 9th. The screaming, like the band, was on tape. In Studio 50, Calandra says, “the excitement was not there. It was just another eight and a half minutes of songs.”
But nothing was back to normal. With their immediate conquest of The Ed Sullivan Show and, by extension, America, the Beatles became the world’s most important and successful rock group. They still are. And rock & roll is now a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week fact of television, from The Tonight Show to Total Request Live. MTV Unplugged, Live Aid, Behind the Music, American Idol, even the Queen and Ramones songs you hear between plays in professional sports telecasts: They are all descended from that one night, February 9th, 1964. Music acts still perform almost nightly on the Studio 50 stage. The building, rechristened the Ed Sullivan Theater, is the home of Late Show With David Letterman.
Louise Harrison recalls sitting with George in his living room at Friar Park in England, watching the Maysles brothers’ film. It was years after the Beatles had split. “George was looking at himself, with the Beatles, coming down the steps of that plane,” Louise says. “And he said to me, ‘If we had had any idea of how important this turned out to be, we would have been scared stiff. But look at us — a bunch of cheeky chappies. We were just enjoying ourselves.'”