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50 years ago, Ed Sullivan brought America the Beatles
Fifty years ago, the Beatles flew to America to perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" thinking it was just another TV appearance -- not too different from what they'd done in their homeland, Britain, or around Europe to that point.
And certainly nothing of cataclysmic importance.
"It was being in America that was so exciting," Ringo Starr told reporters during Grammy Week recently in Los Angeles. "All the music we loved was in America...I could feel the buzz, even on the plane. It was so exciting." But, Starr added, he and his bandmates "didn't know while we were playing that 70 million people were watching" -- or the impact they were having from the first notes of "All My Loving."
The Beatles' first Sullivan appearance was, as the title of a CBS special commemorating its anniversary notes, "The Night That Changed America." Barely audible above the screams of youths in the studio audience and in front of living room TVs around the country, it redefined popular culture and rock 'n' roll music's place in it. It announced the arrival of new heroes at a time the country desperately needed them, in the wake of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas less then three months before, with his successor Lyndon Johnson facing off with Fidel Castro over the U.S. seizure of fishing boats near Florida, with military action in Vietnam and Civil Rights protests at home both escalating.
And it enfranchised a generation to make its own mark, whether that meant growing their hair a bit longer or picking up guitars and starting their own bands.
"Everybody who saw that show wanted to be in a band -- wanted to be in THAT band," recalls Mark Rivera, Billy Joel's longtime saxophonist and a frequent member of Starr's All-Starr Band. "Seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I knew unequivocally that I wanted to be a musician."
Benmont Tench, the keyboardist in Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, was living in Panama with his family and actually missed the Beatles' first Sullivan appearance. But after picking up on the excitement and hearing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on the radio "made sure to watch the next week, and the Beatles just took my head off, like they did with everybody. All the cliches are true about the Beatles. There's no hype. They made it 3D. They made everything in color. You can't overstate it."
The Beatles had, of course, been a big deal in the U.K. since the fall of 1962, when "Love Me Do" hit the British Top 20 and launched Beatlemania across the pond. Ed Sullivan caught the buzz the following year, when he arrived at London's Heathrow Airport to witness a mob of fans greeting the group, which was returning from Sweden. An impressed Sullivan booked the band, which didn't yet have a deal to release its music in the U.S., for two appearances on his show, paying a bargain $3,500 per episode plus air fare.
Interestingly, the Sullivan show wasn't the Beatles' first time on U.S. TV appearance; on January 3 "The Jack Paar Show" aired a pre-recorded segment, which helped launch the Fab Four's campaign in America. But by the tie the group hit Sullivan, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was a No. 1 hit and Capitol Records, the U.S. wing of Britain's EMI, was "fueling the fire every bit we could," according to Fred Martin, the company's publicity chief at the time. The label made sure that by the time of the Sullivan appearance some 5,000 Beatles wigs has been distributed to disc jockeys around the country -- though Capitol had abandoned a plan to have the UCLA cheering section hold up
cards spelling out "The Beatles Are Coming" during halftime of the 1964 Rose
"As the hype caught on, it was like a snowball," Martin remembered. "If you were standing in the way, it rolled right over you and took you along with it. But if they hadn't been so musically talented in addition to everything else, all of the hype wouldn't have worked."
Not everybody agreed, however. The New York Times pooh-poohed the Beatles phenomenon, and the New York Herald Tribune called the band "75 percent publicity, 20 percent haircut and five percent lilting lament." But they were the exception; the rule was at JFK International Airport when the Beatles landed the morning of February 7, greeted by 3,000 screaming fans and a media horde.
The Beatles, of course, thought the crowd was for Johnson or some other dignitary.
On the set the Beatles impressed the Sullivan staff as "the most professional, polite, always on time, asking if we wanted to do it again," according to show director Tim Kiley. "They were just thoroughly nice, which you couldn't say for all the groups we had."
Vince Calandra, the Sullivan production assistant who stood in at the Feb, 8 dress rehearsal for an ill George Harrison, adds that the group "sat in the control room and listened to the playback of their tapes, being very critical. They were very loose people. Even at that young age, they seemed to know what they wanted."
The Beatles played two sets live on the Sullivan show, thirteen minutes total -- delivering "All My Loving," "Till There Was You" and "She Loves You" in the first and "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" during the second. The group also filmed performances of "Twist and Shout," "Please Please Me" and another "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for later broadcasts, when America was in the firm grasp of its own bout of Beatlemania.
"Oh, it was definitely earthshaking," remembers Dewey Bunnell of the group America. "It was spectacular. It had as big an impact as it could have had on anyone from that generation or that age. My family watched the Sullivan show and we were mesmerized like the rest of the world."
Well, maybe not the world. Back in the U.K. "none of us had a clue what Ed Sullivan was," says Peter Frampton, who backed Starr on this year's Grammy Awards performance and was part of the house band for CBS's star-studded "The Beatles: The Night That Changed America -- A Grammy Salute." "Even (the Beatles) thought they were just doing a TV show in New York. They had no idea, and we had no idea. It didn't mean anything to us at that point.
"Then we in England saw on the news that the Beatles had taken America by storm, just like they had done over here, and it was like, 'Wow...' "
The rest, as is often said, is history. The Beatles went on to become nothing less than the biggest, most successful and most influential band in history, with the first Sullivan performance taking on an iconic enough status to merit the 50th anniversary celebration that's surrounding it. It also brought Starr and Paul McCartney, along with the widows and children of John Lennon and George Harrison, together for the most extensive Beatles reunion in years, from the Grammys to "The Night That Changed America" -- which Frampton says has been a joy to witness.
"I think they both had reservations," Frampton says. "In fact, Paul mentions that on the show; He said, 'How do I honor myself?' It's sort of weird in a way, but I think the fact there were so many phenomenal people that came to the table that wanted to be part of it to honor them that it was only fitting they should come on at the end and show us how it's really done -- and boy, did they do that.
"It's a phenomenal end of the show. It was very moving. There were a lot of not-so-dry eyes in the house."
"The Beatles: The Night That Changed America -- A Grammy Salute" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, on CBS. Performers include Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Katy Perry, Maroon5, Alicia Keys and John Legend, Imagine Dragons, Joe Walsh, Dave Grohl, Jeff Lynne, John Mayer and Keith Urban, Eurythmics, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams and Brad Paisley, and Gary Clark, Jr. Check listings or visit www.cbs.com for more information.
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