February 9, 2014 Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ Debut Appearance on ‘Ed Sullivan Show’

Posted February 10, 2014 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The fiftieth anniversary of a historic TV performance fuels the engine that later became ‘Beatlemania’

At 8:00 p.m. on February 9, 1964, most TV owners in the U.S. – an estimate 60 percent – were glued to their sets to catch a glimpse of a new phenomenon shaking the music world. It would later be called Beatlemania, the beginning of this musical movement capturing probably the greatest rock band of all time was being planted. And there they were, wearing black suits, white shirts and tie while sporting their classic moptop hair style. The Liverpool combo known as the Beatles – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – were transported into the homes across America, performing “All My Loving” and “She Loves You.” Later on, they worked up riveting performances of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “All My Loving,” Celebrating the release of their sophomore LP Meet the Beatles (on Capitol), the Fab Four gave Americans one of the greatest free concerts in TV history. After the show aired, Meet the Beatles soared to the very top of the Billboard album charts and it remained there until it was knocked off by their second album, becoming the first artist to do so.

What most Americans failed to see from their tubes was the epic pandemonium that totally surrounded the now-named Ed Sullivan Theater. Images of some of the mayhem were seen as the camera panned the exuberant crowd of screaming teens, something akin to Michael Jackson fan worship in the 1980’s. The crowd outside the CBS studio (CBS-TV Studio 50) swelled for eight blocks. More than 50,000 ticket requests were submitted to the show’s staff before the TV air date.

Not everything went according to plan, or was as picture-perfect as the press eventually made it out to be. McCartney wasn’t satisfied with the audio (“We weren’t happy with the … appearance,” said Paul, “because one of the mikes weren’t [sic] working.”). Harrison was also disappointed with the sound. Lennon’s vocals were mostly lost in the mix due to technical failures. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had them perform for bottom dollar in exchange of their long TV time, which included opening and closing the program.

But it was an occasion that launched the global takeover of the Beatles, an once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that most pop stars would die for.

According to data coming from the A.C. Nielsen Co., the show was watched by 74 million people and was seen in over 23.24 million homes. It’s a record that remains in the books for the most-watched TV show of all time.

Fifty years from the day, CBS will celebrate the historic moment in TV and music history with The Beatles: A Grammy Salute, airing at 8/7 central. It may cut into the millions who will be glued on the season premiere of The Walking Dead on the AMC network, and it may not reach the 60 percent of Americans that the original Ed Sullivan program obtained, but it will be something marvelous to watch. For some, it may even be the very first time that they will see clips and images of that historic day.

“The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was not broadcast in the large television market of Birmingham, Alabama,” Smashing Interviews magazine editor Marc Parker wrote on his Facebook wall. “WAPI-TV (CH 13) was the joint network affiliate of both NBC and CBS at the time, and while channel 13 tried to carry the most popular NBC and CBS shows, a lot of fairly popular shows did not air in the Birmingham area because of this arrangement.” The Ed Sullivan program was not seen in the Birmingham, Ala. market unless the antennas on certain television sets were able to pick up stations in Atlanta, Huntsville or Montgomery. In 1965, a CBS affiliate (WBMG) allowed homeowners in that region to finally watch The Ed Sullivan Show until its cancellation.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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