by Amy Gold
The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show remains one of the watershed moments in television history. At the time, nobody could have predicted the impact the four lads from Liverpool would have on American audiences and American television, and certainly few people would have imagined that former newsman Ed Sullivan would become indelibly linked to the history of rock and roll. But together, the two combined to create a moment no one could ever forget.
The Beatles historic first appearance on American television took place live on Sunday, February 9, 1964. It was a pivotal time in America. Just a few months earlier, the country had looked on in horror as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A mood of gloom and depression had taken hold and Americans were in desperate need of something to lift that black cloud.
Ever a shrewd businessman, Ed Sullivan found the perfect solution in the young group from Liverpool who were enjoying tremendous success in their native England. Eager to bring that buzz both to the country and to his show, Sullivan struck a deal with their manager, Brian Epstein, and soon Beatlemania was touching down on American soil.
It landed with a fury that few had ever witnessed before. Throngs of screaming teenage girls crowded Kennedy Airport and hovered outside the Plaza Hotel in downtown New York where the band was staying. CBS’ Studio 50, where the Ed Sullivan Show was filmed, was quickly sold out as the Beatles-Ed Sullivan first appearance became the hottest gig in town.
… Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! Let's bring them on.
By the time Ed Sullivan was introducing the band to the deafening shrieks of the live audience, a record setting 73,000,000 Americans (and I was one of them) were tuned in to watch the show. The group played two sets, with other entertainers appearing between them - but, of course, all eyes stayed focused on the main guests of honor. (To say that they were a tough act to follow, especially on that particular night, would truly be an understatement.) They opened their first set with “All My Loving,” followed by “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You.” For their second set, they performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
After that historic night, everyone felt it would be nearly impossible to top that moment. The Beatles returned the following week, this time live from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach on February 16. The crowd was so rabid that the band had a difficult time just reaching the stage in the hotel’s ballroom where they were scheduled to perform. They eventually performed two sets amid screams so deafening you could barely hear them sing.
The Beatles performed again the next week, that performance having been taped before the actual Ed Sullivan-Beatles first appearance and held back for broadcast until then. They would come back one last time on September 12, 1965. This show was taped on August 14, a day before they kicked off their American tour. All told, their four appearances on the show attracted an audience of a quarter of a billion people. Their first two shows set a record and remain, by percentage of the population, the highest viewed regularly scheduled television programs of all time.
And, as they say, the rest is history. The Beatles would go on to rock superstardom, leaving a lasting impact on generations to come. But it was their collaboration with the staid Ed Sullivan that forever put them on the map. Together, this odd TV marriage made a historical impact that will likely never be matched. It was a once in a lifetime moment, with vibrations that can still be felt today.