Beatlemania! 40 years ago today, the Beatles changed America forever
By David Fricke
February 19, 2004
hortly 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, except 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 Mal 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 31st, 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 11th, 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 airtime: 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."