Back in 2014 when fans celebrated 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 four members perform 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 1960s, Elvis was the king of rock and roll. I was too young to live through the initial Elvismania, but even as a child, I was well aware of his existence. He was the first major artist to make the blues and similar styles originating from black musicians palpable for white audiences. It was a remarkable achievement and opened the floodgates to a wave of great British rock bands the decade after.
I mention this because The Beatles were heavily influenced by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and other blues/rockabilly artists of the 1950s. Through the early 60s, The Beatles ultimately cultivated their unique sound. They were not as blues-heavy as the Rolling Stones, but the same early influences were there.
Now, in the early 1960s, there were only two ways to hear new music for free–the radio or on television. For T.V., 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.
Sullivan and his producers swiftly recognized that The Beatles were something monumental by the end of 1963. He made sure that their first live televised performance in the US would be on his show, and, on February 9th, 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 for young Americans. The United States was in a deep emotional depression after John F. Kennedy was killed that prior November and Americans were eager for anything to lift ourselves from that collective 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 – “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – Ed Sullivan Show
[Video: The Beatles]
The Beatles – “All My Loving” – Ed Sullivan Show
[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” line in “She Loves You” to the way George and Paul shared the microphone on the chorus and the way Ringo nailed that backbeat.
The next day at school (I was in third 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 their “She Loves You” single 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. It’s a treasure that will undoubtedly be passed to my son David.
My grade school took Beatlemania and turned it 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 inspiring and great? The harmonies were wonderful, and the musicianship was incredibly tight–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 1960s continued, my generation grew with the Beatles. We grew from those pop songs in their early days, to more soulful introspection of Rubber Soul, to the eclectic mix of Revolver (my personal favorite), to the psychedelia heard throughout 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!