Remembering the Beatles on Ed Sullivan
by Paul A. Zuckerman
Baby boomers of a certain age (including me) were uniquely situated in experiencing the Beatles first-hand and to claim the groups’ music as their own. To those born even a few years later, the Beatles’ influence had permeated into virtually every aspect of Western culture. Their music had become ubiquitous, the backdrop to an increasingly discordant society.
For those who were older, the adults or near-adults, the Beatles were an alien, and often disdained, phenomenon. Listening to some of the early TV news broadcasts in November 1963 (that aired just days before President Kennedy was shot), you can hear the dismissive and condescending tones of the newscasters who simply did not get what the Beatles were all about.
Jack Paar, who broadcast a clip of the Beatles just a week before their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, didn’t get it either. To him, the Beatles were just a joke, something that his more sophisticated “adult” audiences would find funny. Thankfully, though, Sullivan saw something more in the Beatles after witnessing first-hand Beatlemania in England.
To young Americans, that appearance on the Sullivan show was the defining moment that rerailed popular music and the culture. It was the yang to the yin, the alpha to the omega of another defining moment, the assassination of JFK only a few months earlier.
Whereas the assassination had united everyone in mourning, the Beatles signaled the coming of the cultural divide that split society asunder in the ‘60s. Yet, the Beatles eventually triumphed, and many skeptical adults began to succumb to their charms and ever-developing musical sophistication. “Yesterday,” released only a year and a half after the Sullivan show appearance, became the most recorded song in history. Even the guardians of the cultural keys began to recognize the Beatles were not just about noise.
Of course, the Beatles opened the gates to groups that were just about noise. But, even at the volumes the Beatles played it (and to hear themselves over all of the girls’ screams they had to play it loud!), their music was always more than just volume. They had a knack for the catchy melody, the toe-tapping beat, the sing-along lyrics. Even as their lyrics and themes evolved from simple love songs to sophisticated and, at times, profound works, the Beatles never lost sight of the basic elements that had propelled them to the top.
Some say Beatlemania served as a release after the Kennedy assassination, a means for young Americans to let the mourning go. But that doesn’t really explain the incredible success the Beatles achieved in Britain and throughout most of Europe during 1963. And it diminishes the impact of their fresh sound, their distinctive look and the changes they signified.
Indeed, looking at the number one songs in the months before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” shot to the top of the charts, the cultural shift is clear. After the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” hit number one in August 1963, the charts were dominated by songs like “Blue Velvet” and “There! I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton, “Deep Purple” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, “Dominique” by the Singing Nun. Not bad songs—but a far cry from rock ‘n’ roll!
Listening to the Beatles in their early interviews, they didn’t think that their music was all that different from what came before. They borrowed from American rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, soul, country & western—but what came out, married to a uniquely British sound, was fresh, different and innovative.
Other performers, of course, had transformed the musical scene. Bing Crosby was once a singing idol and women swooned at Frank Sinatra’s early appearances. None of them, however, seemed as dangerous as Elvis when he emerged on the scene. Elvis exuded sex, with his twirling hips and growl.
The Beatles, in contrast, seemed “safe,” despite their long hair. They had shed their black leather jackets and rough edges long before they hit the Sullivan show. But the Beatles, with their sly wit and cheekiness, and fresh-faced look, skyrocketed to new levels of fame and influence, and rather than being short-lived fireballs, they kept on burning as they constantly pushed their music in new and innovative directions.
Many of us reflect on where we were the day Kennedy was shot, the night of the great blackout, when man first landed on the moon, and all the other seminal events of the ‘60s. But there was only one place each of us was for that first Beatles appearance on the Sullivan show—ensconced in front of our living room TVs (unless, of course, we were lucky enough to be in the studio audience that night).
For me, it was a 1950s black & white TV with a screen barely larger than some tablets are today. Ed Sullivan was the weekly fare at our house so there was no battle for the dial (we had no remote). My sister was not home that night, having abandoned the family TV for her friend’s color set, but my parents certainly were, and we gathered around the TV.
I wasn’t much into music yet, but I knew who they were and was caught up in the excitement as much as anyone. I can remember them playing the hits—surprised they played a tune from Music Man (“Till There Was You”)—and found it amusing when they flashed the names of all four Beatles but, under John’s name, there was a little note—“Sorry girls; he’s married.” My personal favorite was, of course, Paul for obvious reasons!
After the Sullivan show, I didn’t run out to take up a musical instrument, as did many others, but did begin to amass my record collection (up to that point my collection consisted of a couple of Howdy Doody 45s and Peter Pan with Mary Martin) with two 45s—“I Want to Hold Your Hand” (which I still have, with the picture sleeve) and soon after “She Loves You” (no picture sleeve available, alas.).
Months later, when the “A Hard Day’s Night” film was released, a group of us staying in a Catskills bungalow colony went to see the movie in Ellenville—we came in a few minutes late, during the singing of “And I Love Her”—and stayed for another full showing. And, I saw it again when I got back home. If the Beatles exploded on the Sullivan show, it was “A Hard Day’s Night” that cemented their stature as superstars. And, that September, my parents bought me the soundtrack to the movie, my very first record album—on which I wrote #1, the first of what would become a very long list of albums, CDs, tapes, etc.
But, there was a problem. The only record player we owned was one of those portables , a little box with a tinny speaker. So, the next day, I convinced my parents we needed to buy a real record player, and we went out to a huge appliance store in East New York and purchased my first stereo—it was just a record player, no radio, with two hardwired speakers, but the speakers could be placed on either side up to a couple of feet apart. That old stereo served me well for many years! And, over the next few years, the Beatles’ albums dominated my record purchases.
I collected the Beatles trading cards that first year. (Eventually, I gave them to George, a girl I liked—heck, everyone liked her, but she was elusive. She was called George because of her incredibly fanatic devotion to all things Beatles, especially John. In fact, she ended up with my Beatles White Album within two weeks after I had bought it. She sweetly borrowed it from me and I didn’t get it back for three years!)
And my hair grew longer—quite long, in fact! Of course, nearly every other young male, and quite a few older ones, were also letting their hair grow out. Long hair on men can clearly be laid at the Beatles’ doorstep! Although not all the other radical changes of the ‘60s can be traced to the Beatles, the group often led the way, and heavily influenced culture, politics and the media for the remainder of the decade. And, without a doubt, their explosion of “noise” led to a revolution in music—not only the British Invasion groups that followed in their wake—but to a whole reawakening of rock ‘n’ roll.
And, the Beatles remain my favorite group of all time. It was very upsetting when the group broke up. But, in the end the impact and influence of the Beatles can hardly be overstated.
Which one is the author?