The Beatles 50th anniversary: Ed Sullivan rocked America 50 years ago with the Fab Four

Paul McCartney, left, and Ringo Starr. “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America” airs 50 years to the day, date and time of The Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Paul McCartney, left, and Ringo Starr. “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America” airs 50 years to the day, date and time of The Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Courtesy of CBS

Fifty years ago Sunday, on Feb. 9, 1964, via “The Ed Sullivan Show,” America met the Beatles.

It was not the group’s first appearance on American television. CBS News had reported, dismissively, on British “Beatlemania,” and Jack Paar had aired on his talk show a clip of the band playing in England. Their music was on the charts, finally: After a year of outright refusal, Capitol Records (an American arm of EMI, the Beatles’ British label) was finally releasing and promoting their records. In “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the band had its first U.S. No. 1. About 3,000 fans greeted the Fab Four at the airport when they arrived in New York two days earlier.

But the Sullivan show was different. The TV version of vaudeville’s “playing the Palace,” it conferred a seal of approval, even of importance, on the acts that appeared there. On the air since the dawn of the medium and watched regularly by many millions, it was a national institution, a family tradition. (“Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” from the 1960 musical “Bye Bye, Birdie,” is a meditation on his very name.)

The Beatles would have happened here whether they played “The Ed Sullivan Show” or not. Indeed, for many the only reason the show is remembered is that the Beatles were on it, but they might not have happened so explosively, so definitively, so fast. Their first appearance on the show, which they opened and closed, was estimated to have been seen by a record-breaking 73 million viewers, or one in three Americans, and they appeared the next week as well, remote from Miami Beach, and the week after that, on videotape.

Not everyone who watched was converted, of course. If they were relatively friendly revolutionaries, with their pressed suits and bemused grins, professional politesse and malt-shop lyrics, they were revolutionaries nonetheless. Their energy was fearsome, their wit sharp and their hair, by local standards, was for some confusingly long.

Now that everything is at our fingertips, a swipe or click away at any moment anywhere, it is hard to conceive of the effect they once had. The revolution had actually been televised then. In a media world that requires a surfeit of “news,” appearances by musicians are still talked about, especially if in some ways outrageous. (What Will Miley Do?) But the world does not change overnight, as it seemed to in February 1964, when, legend has it, legions of kids ran out and bought Rickenbacker guitars and Cuban-heeled boots, grew their hair and started writing songs.

The importance of that moment to the group’s American fortunes was underscored by Capitol using images from the Sullivan show on the covers of “The Beatles’ Second Album,” released in April, and “Something New,” which came out in July. But television appearances, from teen-pop shows to Morecambe and Wise’s popular British comedy-variety series, had already played an important part in their career, building them through 1963 into household names in Britain, where they were regarded as lovable lads and invited to play for the queen.

It’s no accident that their first film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” which began shooting soon after the group’s return from the U.S. and is a kind of edited, enhanced version of the life they were living, largely concerns a television appearance. (That film, and its zanier follow-up, “Help!,” also gave birth before long to “The Monkees,” which was both a product of a traditional TV network and a step into the avant-garde: Producer Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson would, between them, have a hand in “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and the surrealist post-series Monkees movie, “Head,” written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson.)

After the Beatles quit touring in 1966, television was their main instrument of public appearance. There was “All You Need Is Love,” performed as part of a worldwide satellite telecast in 1967. There were promotional films – precursors to the video clip, and instructions, in a way, on how to read the songs – for the single sides “Rain,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Hey Jude,” “Revolution” and “Let It Be.” They came to New York in 1968 and went on “The Tonight Show” (guest-hosted by Joe Garagiola) to announce the formation of Apple.

“Magical Mystery Tour” was a BBC Christmas special before it became a film in the U.S. Each of these appearances, live or filmed but often shown only once, constituted an unmissable event, made more valuable by the scarcity of such events.

They are, to be sure, an institution now themselves. Though still working, enviably vigorous and recognizably themselves, the surviving Beatles are in their 70s now. One of them lets himself be called “Sir Paul.”

It’s easy to overstate the influence of a pop band on history, and yet it is hard to understate the importance of this one. They weren’t necessarily the best band at all things. But no other group mixed talent and ambition, curiosity and opportunity, elegance and approachability, ease and urgency, to such a degree, or so attractively. As a unit, they contained all the tensions that would ultimately break them apart; but while they held together, the mix was powerful.

Paul and Ringo sang together last week as old bandmates and permanent Beatles. It was lovely and moving. And if it didn’t change the world, well, they had done that already.