In 2014, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first televised performance in America, I asked my father for his reflections. What it was like to watch The Beatles live, on TV, in 1964? He was only eight years old at the time, but distinctly remembers the event. “What we saw changed everything.”
Here’s the full story…
I’ve seen and loved many bands in my long life (60 and counting… when did the Jamfather get so old?), but none had the gravitas and impact of The Beatles.
Well, that’s not exactly true… Elvis Presley was pretty darn close. From 1956 to the early 1960’s, Elvis was the king of rock and roll. I was too young to live through the initial Elvis mania, but even as a child, I was well aware of his existence. He was the first artist to make black blues palpable for white audiences. It was a remarkable achievement, and opened the floodgates to a wave of great British rock bands.
Elvis with blues legend, BB King, in 1957 [via Elvis Collectors]
I mention this because The Beatles were heavily influenced by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and other blues/rockabilly artists. Through the early 1960s, The Beatles ultimately cultivated their unique sound. They were not as blues-heavy as the Rolling Stones, but the early influences were there.
Now, in the early 1960’s, there were only two ways to hear new music for free: the radio or on television. For TV, no one’s influence rivaled that of Ed Sullivan. His top rated variety show, the aptly named Ed Sullivan Show, could make or break an artist. An invitation to the Sullivan show for any artist was the mark that you had arrived. And you’d better not cross him…his word was the word of God.
Ed swiftly recognized that The Beatles were something monumental. He made sure that their first live televised performance in the US would be on his show. And, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. This was a seminal moment in history; a day burned into our collective consciousness.
The performance could not have come at a better time. The country was in a deep emotional depression after the John F. Kennedy assassination, and Americans were eager for anything to lift ourselves from that funk.
I was in my parents’ bedroom, huddled around our sole vacuum-tube-television with my two brothers, my Mom, and my Dad. What we saw changed everything. The long hair, the sharp suits, the cute well-scrubbed faces, the infectious personality, the audience of hysterical teenage girls, and the music… Oh their magnificent music! Beatlemania, broadcast live, right in our own home.
In total, The Beatles played five songs: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The Beatles – “She Loves You”
The Beatles – “All My Loving”
[Video: The Beatles]
We were absolutely transfixed. Hearing it on the radio was one thing, but seeing them live was incredibly captivating. The way they bounced and shook their hair on the “Yeah, Yeah Yeah” of She Loves You… the way George and Paul shared the microphone on the chorus… the way Ringo nailed that backbeat.
The next day at school (I was in 3rd grade), everyone was talking about the show. We had an innate feeling that The Beatles were a real game changer. We were right.
The Beatles conversation carried on through the day, the week, and, well, for the next fifty years.
Later that week, my Mom bought me the ‘45’ of “She Loves You” on the Swan label. The flip side was I’ll Get You. I should know… I must’ve listened to that ‘45’ over 10,000 times throughout the years. I still own it…a treasure that will undoubtedly be passed to my son David.
My grade school took Beatlemania and turned into a learning opportunity. I remember one poster that read: “I Want to Hold Your Hand… If it’s Clean.” Even then I knew it was kind of lame, but the impact affected everyone: from the youth to our educators.
So what was it that made The Beatles so great? The harmonies were wonderful, the musicianship was incredibly tight. But most of all, they wrote songs that were beyond legendary. And they made it look so easy. Lennon and McCartney no doubt had a gift from God. They were our generation’s Mozart.
As the 1960’s continued, my generation grew with the Beatles. We grew from the early career pop songs, to more soulful introspection of Rubber Soul, to the eclectic mix of Revolver (my personal favorite), to the psychedelic of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour, to the complete and harmonious body of work that in and of itself was a concerto: Abbey Road.
Yeah, that day in February 1964 changed the world musically, culturally and philosophically. The Beatles were not great for a single moment, but for generations. The Liverpool Lads took us on their broad shoulders and ushered us into a new era. The effects still resonate today, fifty years later. Now that’s a profound impact!