Ladies and Gentlemen… The Beatles!
On February 9, 1964, The Beatles made what is often incorrectly considered their American television debut when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. (For you of the younger persuasion, The Ed Sullivan Show was a legendary variety show which ran in the U.S. from 1948 to 1973.)
In truth, The Beatles had been seen in film clips and recorded interviews before this in the United States. Notable among these early appearances was being featured on The Jack Paar Show. Paar, who saw The Beatles perform on the November 4, 1963 edition of the Royal Variety Show, afterward purchased a recording featuring The Beatles from the BBC, something that made both The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and Ed Sullivan furious. Sullivan even briefly decided to cancel The Beatles’ scheduled appearances, calling up the show’s European talent coordinator Peter Prichard and telling him to tell The Beatles’ manager that the deal was off. Fortunately, Prichard decided to wait a few days to make that call to see if Sullivan would change his mind. Sure enough, Sullivan called him a couple days later, not knowing Prichard hadn’t done what he asked, and told him to tell Epstein that the deal was back on if he still wanted it. The BBC even tried to rescind the deal with Jack Paar after Epstein threatened to cancel The Beatles’ appearances on various BBC radio shows if they didn’t, but Paar declined.
On Paar’s broadcast, he didn’t show The Beatles to promote them, however, but instead to poke fun at them and their fans. He later stated, “I didn’t know they were going to change the culture of the country with music. I thought they were funny. I brought them here as a joke.”
On the January 3, 1964 episode of The Jack Paar Show, Paar explained to his audience that he was “interested in The Beatles as a psychological, sociological phenomenon” and promptly showed clips of British girls screaming their heads off at a Fab Four performance, with Paar making fun of them the whole way, including stating,
I understand science is working on a cure for this. These guys have these crazy hairdos and when they wiggle their heads and the hair goes, the girls go out of their minds. Does it bother you to realize that in a few years these girls will vote, raise children and drive cars? I just show you this in case you’re going to England and want to have a fun evening. Now here are The Beatles.
He then showed The Beatles performing She Loves You, after which Paar mockingly stated, “It’s nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level.”
At this stage of the game, The Beatles had only just barely registered in the collective consciousness of Americans, thanks primarily to American DJs doing something of questionable legality. This started with WWDC DJ Carroll James who became interested in The Beatles after watching Walter Cronkite do a four minute story on the band on the December 10, 1963 edition of CBS Evening News. James than made some phone calls and managed to acquire a copy of The Beatles’ latest record via a British Airway stewardess.
Once James got the record, he began to play I Want to Hold Your Hand on his radio show, despite the best efforts of Capitol Records’ lawyers to stop him when they learned of it. This included sending him and his station a “cease and desist” notice only to have James tell their attorney, Walter Hofer, “Look, you can’t stop me from playing it. The record is a hit. It’s a major thing.”
You see, the record wasn’t supposed to be released in the United States until January 13, 1964, about a month before the band’s scheduled Ed Sullivan appearance. As a result of James and other DJ’s in Washington DC playing the record despite Capitol’s best efforts to get them to stop, Capitol decided to do a limited release of the album in Washington DC only. However, word got out among other DJs and copies of the record quickly found their way to radio stations across the nation.
With the record rapidly rising up the play charts, Capitol Records finally relented and released it nationwide on December 26, 1963. Within the first three days, it had sold a quarter of a million copies in the U.S. and just 13 days after that a million. Due to the unexpected demand, Capitol struggled to keep the record on the shelves, having to get its factories in L.A. and Scranton to switch to doing nothing but making copies of The Beatles’ record non-stop, and then further having to contract with RCA and Decca, among others, to also create copies of the 45 for them.
With this record being a near instant hit in the U.S., DJs across the nation began playing The Beatles’ other records over and over and over again. Because of this, the record labels Vee-jay and Swan both decided to re-release Beatles records that they’d previously purchased the rights to release in the United States and that had flopped initially. As a result, Please Please Me and She Loves You shot up the charts along with I Want to Hold Your Hand.
This all worked out great for The Ed Sullivan Show, who had originally signed the group in early November of 1963 when they were relatively unknown in the United States and the idea of The Beatles boosting ratings much on the episodes they appeared seemed unlikely.
It was in this freshly Beatle-crazed environment that The Beatles made their live performance debut on U.S. Television on February 9, 1964 with Ed Sullivan beginning the show stating,
Now yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that the city never has the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool, who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles. Let’s bring them on.
The show was watched by an all-time record (at the time) 73 million people, beating out Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the show which was estimated to have been watched by a little over 60 million people. (Although, it should be noted that Elvis’ appearance captured an 82.6% share of the nationwide TV audience, while The Beatles’ appearance rang in at 45.3%- a lot more people had TVs in 1964 than 1956.)
The show remains a landmark in television history, perhaps the single most notable moment in the history of rock ‘n roll, and is an indelible memory to those of us who watched the historic performance live.
Beyond the misconception that this was the first time that Americans had seen The Beatles perform on TV, many today often think this was The Beatles’ only Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the truth is that, as previously alluded to, The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show a total of nine times.
For instance, on February 9, 1964, on the afternoon before their historic appearance, the boys also taped an appearance that included three songs performed before an entirely difference frenzied studio audience than saw them later that evening. This taped set was broadcast on Feb. 23, their third Ed Sullivan Show appearance in three weeks, even though it was technically their first performance on the show.
For the three-Sundays-in-a-row appearances that made TV ratings history, the Fab Four were paid the not-quite-munificent salary of $10,000 plus expenses, or about $75,000 today. Per episode, this was close to bottom-dollar pay for the show, earning even less than the “immortal” comedy team of “Brill and McCall” who appeared on the February 9th Ed Sullivan Show with The Beatles.
The Beatles being paid so little, relative to their fame at that point, was primarily because of two things. First, as mentioned, when the deal was being struck the previous November, The Beatles were only a hit in Britain. Their previously released records in the U.S. had all flopped. Ed Sullivan and his team were, however, aware of The Beatles’ success across the pond and potential, so were very interested in getting to be the first to show them live in the United States. The second reason they were paid so little was that Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was keenly interested in “spreading the gospel of The Beatles in the U.S.A.” and was not so much concerned about how much they were paid for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He just wanted Sullivan’s extremely vast audience to see The Beatles. Thus, Epstein pushed hard for The Beatles to get more than one appearance and to “get top billing” on the show, and consented to have them earn bottom dollar in exchange.
In the end, Epstein managed to negotiate three consecutive appearances for The Beatles. Epstein also claimed he got Ed Sullivan to state that he would give The Beatles top billing in all three shows. However, this latter point is thought to be unlikely given how unknown the group was in the U.S. when the deal was struck. It was only in the weeks leading up to their first Ed Sullivan appearance, when The Beatles’ records started shooting up the charts for the first time in America, that Sullivan started promoting The Beatles as a headline act on his show, rather than just a band who would be appearing on it.
Whatever the case, on the historic Feb. 9th show, the Fab Four sang five songs total, three at the beginning, and two more to wrap up the show. Other guests appearing that night included the troupe of the Broadway musical Oliver. This is notable because in the Oliver cast was a young British singer named Davy Jones, who in less than three years would become a member of one of The Beatles’ greatest mid-’60’s rivals in popularity with the teenyboppers, The Monkees. (See: Fascinating Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About The Beatles and the Monkees)
The second, February 16th Ed Sullivan Show Beatles’ appearance was broadcast from the Deauville Hotel in Miami beach, Florida, where the boys were relaxing, swimming, sunbathing, and getting a chance to meet Muhammad Ali (see: When The Beatles Met Muhammad Ali). Paul later said of their time in Miami, “We had never been anywhere where there were palm trees. We had a great time down there… We’d look down on the beach where the fans would write ‘I love John‘ in the sand, so big we could read it from our rooms.”
Technically the Beatles were not the headliner for this show, with the nod here going to Mitzi Gaynor. However, the Beatles were likely who most everyone was tuning in to see again. Sullivan introduced them stating, “And now, this has happened again. Last Sunday, on our show in New York, the Beatles played to the greatest TV audience that’s ever been assembled in the history of American TV. Now tonight, here in Miami Beach, again the Beatles face a record-busting audience. Ladies and gentlemen, here are four of the nicest youngsters we’ve ever had on our stage…The Beatles! Bring ’em on!”
This follow-up show was watched by 70 million people, just barely missing the record mark of the previous episode of the show. The third, taped, episode the following week drew just shy of 63 million viewers. On top of that, these three episodes were later in the year re-run and watched by a combined total of just shy of 91 million people.
On May 24, 1964, The Beatles made their fourth Ed Sullivan Show appearance in front of 47 million viewers, chatting on film about their upcoming movie A Hard Day’s Night. They offered a video clip from the film, a performance of them singing You Can’t Do That. (Funny enough, this song was to be the one song that was cut out of the finished movie.)
The boys taped six songs on August 14, 1965 for their most lengthy appearance on the show, which aired on September 24th. After this, The Beatles became pioneers in the art of the music video. At this point in their careers, it was just easier and less time-consuming to record videos and send them out, instead of actually traveling to television studios to perform live.
On June 5, 1966, they sent Ed Sullivan two recorded videos of them singing Rain and Paperback Writer.
On Feb. 12, 1967, the “strange-looking” new Beatles (all bearing mustaches, with John donning his granny glasses) performed in the videos of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever.
On November 26, 1967, the band performed Hello Goodbye via video. And on February 15, 1970, The Beatles made their final “appearance” on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing in the videos of Two of Us and Let It Be. (By this time, The Beatles had been disbanded as a working band for several months, though the official announcement wasn’t made until a couple months later on April 10th.)
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