Another historic plateau gets reached today as 50 years ago, The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a television program which wound up exposing the Fab Four to millions of Americans right in the comfort of their living rooms and ultimately became one of the most-watched programs in television history.
Like many things The Beatles did during their hugely successful and illustrious career, the Ed Sullivan appearance stands as a high water achievement on the foursome’s resume. The band — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — had just touched down on American soil two days prior at JFK Airport to a huge brassy noise, as reporters and cameramen came in droves, almost seemingly climbing on top of one another to get the scant amount of intimate time they could with music’s new darling boys. The ensuing press conference was a massive success and that oft used, yet perfect adjective called Beatlemania was perfect to describe all the festivity as these native-born Liverpudlians enveloped the entire city of New York and the entire nation with their effortless grace and attitudinal charm. Millions upon millions of people either shrieked in delight or moaned and groaned in confusion; it simply depended on one’s age bracket. But that Sunday night’s performance at CBS Television Studio 50 in Manhattan would not only be the sonic bridge to make the entire country stand up and realize that The Beatles were a solid, here-to-stay entity, but a sonic bridge that eventually almost the entire world would cross again and again.
It was almost a no-brainer to pick the Sullivan show for the big, vast national showcase for the band. The program, which had been on CBS-TV for almost 15 years at that point, had already carved its niche in television history when it featured a young Elvis Presley on it a few years prior to massive success. In fact, a lot of what transpired by the sheer delightful lunacy and joyful melee of the Beatles arrival had almost experienced the same kind of spinning top frenzy with Elvis’ appearance on the show. That appearance in a way to the birth channels of rock and roll was almost like when it turns color in the film The Wizard of Oz from the drab black and white hues the picture had been from the outset. It has been documented many times that the influence of Elvis Presley ran mountain high and river deep, especially to people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Simply put, without Elvis, (and Buddy Holly too) there would have never been any Beatles. And strangely enough, in terms of becoming high profile in America, there may never have been the type of success that Elvis and eventually The Beatles had if it weren’t for Ed Sullivan.
To many of this generation, Ed Sullivan is an almost unknown figure and face, only really a name associated with The Beatles’ appearances on his program. But for almost 25 years, from 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show (originally called The Toast of the Town) showcased pretty much everybody from the entertainment world. He would jam pack each program with talent, and in the wake of the success of his show, he became massive fodder for so many impressionists with his physical mannerisms (Sullivan was tall and lanky with what many critics coined a “stoneface”), who tried to ape Sullivan’s natural inflections and voice patterns, which mainly included parodying his voice, which had a staccato lilt to it like a broken Smith-Carona typewriter attempting to type. The quote “Really Big SHEW” (Sullivan’s phonetic pronunciation of the word “Show”) became almost Americana folklore in the pop cultural world and instantly recognizable with him. And while he himself couldn’t even tell a joke, or sing, or dance (Sullivan had been a newspaper reporter before his jump to television), underneath all of that, Ed Sullivan was deft and adept at finding the right mix of people, and it almost created a circus type atmosphere on his program each and every Sunday night. A typical Sullivan program could be as diverse as showcasing talent like a ballet troupe, magicians, musical performers, funny segments; it really ran the gamut of variety, and in a way, may be THE metaphoric poster child for the word “variety show.” It also set the stage for countless rip-offs and like-minded programs, most of which had varying degrees of success. The spirit of the variety show that Ed Sullivan masterminded still exists to this very day in some capacity, any show that showcases talent, be it amateur hour or slick professionalism, owes some sort of nod to what Ed Sullivan laid forth.
And now, having The Beatles on his program to perform their songs, the chart toppers and album cuts, was a major coup for Sullivan. American television had shown this foursome here and there prior to their appearance on Sullivan — clips of them had been shown on Steve Allen’s and Jack Parr’s programs — but they were just quick modes of whetting curiosity that had been spreading like wildfire ever since the first notes of music wafted to American shores. With Sullivan, this was going to be the first time on a hugely lit stage, the hub of a big American television production, with a live audience that was undoubtedly going to be inhabited by mainly screaming, young teenage girls, who found an awakening two-fold, both in themselves and externally, at the power this on-the-surface seemingly innocuous music had over them.
The Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where they played five songs to 74 million at-home viewers, has been seen many times since the original airing. After the historic first performance, the boys came back for a few more as the months went on and then eventually still kept their Sullivan ties strong by sending him promotional videos they shot for their songs to air on the program (songs like “Rain,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Hello Goodbye,” and “Revolution” to name a few). In a way, it was like the relationship Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali had had, in which they both needed each other to create a certain form of success for them during each others heydays in the mid 1960s. The same with The Beatles and Ed Sullivan, by appearing on the program, it obviously created more success for both entities tenfold, something either party never forget as the 1960s wore on.
Most Beatles fans gloriously remember that moment as it originally happened and most second, third, and fourth and even further generations have seen its many clips or complete performances. And what pretty much everyone agrees on, whether you are 17, 27, 47 or 77, is that The Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan was paramount, legendary, a moment for the ages. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show is sort of ingrained in the National consciousness and will remain there forever and ever. The images burn too strong to ignore or eventually erode away with the passage of time, as all this rightfully so brouhaha in the last few days by the world media commemorating and celebrating the 50th anniversary of their performance proves it. It was, is, and always will be, a really big SHEW indeed.
Tonight at 8pm ET, CBS is marking the 50th anniversary event with a 90-minute special, called The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, which will see some of today’s most popular artists cover The Beatles songs performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be a part of the special as well.