Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles: When the Fab Four Met Ed Sullivan

How three visits on a Sunday variety show changed rock and roll forever in America

The Beatles with Ed Sullivan
The Beatles with Ed Sullivan

“Struck by lightning.” That’s how my father describes the sensation of watching The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. “I had never been so excited by any musical group or performance like that.”

It’s a definitive event from his childhood — as it was for millions of other Americans — as monumental as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The next day at school, it was all he and his classmates (and their teachers) wanted to talk about; in the days that followed, he remembers spinning his copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while he and his sisters pretended to be The Beatles, playing along on broomsticks as if they were guitars.

Listening to him talk about his memories of that performance 55 years ago, I realize that it can never happen again. The world’s gotten smaller, but the culture’s gotten larger; TVs have more than three channels, and “rock music” is no longer synonymous with “pop music.” It’s impossible now for any musical act, let alone a rock band, to have the cultural dominance that The Beatles once had. This isn’t to say that they were the last to reach that level of superstardom: Michael Jackson had it, Madonna had it, and it’s possible that Kanye West has it, though he’s losing his hold on it. But to see John, Paul, George, and Ringo playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while the audience whips itself into a frenzy — to hear the girls in the crowd shrieking from the song’s opening notes to its final chord — is to witness a kind of magic that doesn’t exist anymore.

It had only been a year, almost to the day, since The Beatles recorded 10 of the 14 tracks on their debut, Please Please Me, in 13 hours. Building on the momentum of smash singles “Love Me Do” and the title track, Please Please Me was a hit in the band’s native England, but most American listeners had no idea who The Beatles were. Capitol Records, the North American subsidiary of EMI (who also owned Parlophone, to which The Beatles were signed), refused to release the band’s early singles in the United States; the American press was similarly indifferent to the burgeoning Beatlemania across the pond. In fact, The Beatles’ weren’t covered by a stateside publication until October 29, 1963, when a writer for The Washington Post described the Fab Four as “four wide-eyed, wacky boys […] they look like limp, upside down dust-mops.”

Two days after that report, The Beatles were returning home from a short Swedish tour. Halloween was a stormy day over London, but that didn’t stop over a thousand young fans from waiting in the rain to greet the band at Heathrow Airport. It just so happened that Ed Sullivan and his wife were due to fly back to the US out of Heathrow at the same time. Sullivan asked who the crowds were eagerly awaiting, expecting it was a member of the royal family. Looking back in an interview with The New York Times years later, Sullivan compared what he saw at Heathrow to “the same sort of mass hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days.” In the moment, however, Sullivan said: “Who the hell are The Beatles?”

Variety shows don’t really exist anymore — the closest contemporary analogue would be a late-night talk show, à la Jimmy Fallon — so it can be difficult to convey just what appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show could do for one’s career. Sullivan, simply put, was a star-maker. (To his great credit, Sullivan was an early supporter of racial equality, inviting on literally dozens of black musicians and comedians, including The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Richard Pryor.) Years before, Sullivan had refused to book “Elvis the Pelvis,” wishing to maintain a clean and family-friendly program, only to recant when it became impossible to ignore Presley’s rising celebrity. Sullivan wasn’t eager to get caught flat-footed again, but he hadn’t the faintest idea who The Beatles — the cause of such pandemonium at Heathrow — were.

Fortunately, Sullivan’s European talent coordinator, Peter Prichard, did. Prichard was close with The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and facilitated a meeting between his boss and his friend upon the latter’s next trip to New York in November. Sullivan initially offered Epstein $10,000 for one appearance, but Epstein shrewdly asked for the sum to be split over three episodes, where the band would be given top billing and perform at the open and close of the show. Sullivan agreed.

But Capitol still wasn’t sold on The Beatles’ success and likely wouldn’t have been convinced if not for a fortuitous series of events. On Dec. 10, 1963, with the US still grieving President Kennedy’s death, Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening News decided to run a story that was meant to have aired on November 22 — the day the president was assassinated. The story, a bemused look at Beatlemania, was seen by 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland, who wrote to her local radio station, WWDC, asking: “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” A week later, WWDC DJ Carroll James had acquired an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which immediately went into heavy rotation as listeners called in to hear the song again and again. After WWDC rebuffed Capitol’s cease and desist letter, the label saw the light, releasing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. Within two weeks, one million copies of the single were sold in the US.

By the time The Beatles landed at the recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964, American Beatlemania had reached a fever pitch. Nearly 30 million Americans tuned in to The Jack Paar Program on January 3 to watch footage of a Beatles concert purchased from the BBC. (This infuriated Sullivan, who considered cancelling on the band before thinking better of it.) Vee-Jay Records pounced on Capitol’s early dismissals of The Beatles, releasing Introducing…The Beatles — the first Beatles album available in the US — 10 days before Capitol’s own Meet The Beatles! When The Beatles landed at JFK, they found more than three thousand new Beatlemaniacs waiting for them; listen to footage of their arrival, and the crowd sounds like it could drown out a jet engine.

Two days later, a record 73 million Americans — roughly two-fifths of the population — watched as The Beatles took the stage for their Ed Sullivan Show debut. The numbers are one way of explaining what a spectacle that this was, but the best way for you to understand that is to watch it yourself. If you were lucky enough to see it when it happened, it probably still elicits the same feeling of rapture as it did then; if this is your first time seeing it, you’ll understand why Beatlemania was called Beatlemania. There’s really nothing I can say about the performance that it doesn’t say for itself.

The Ed Sullivan Show would feature The Beatles two more times in the next two weeks. By the time of the band’s fourth and final in-person performance on August 14, 1965, the “British Invasion,” as it was called, was well underway. Following The Beatles’ lead, countless British rock bands — The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and Cream, to name a few — would go on to achieve commercial success in the US. Some of these bands would look to black American musical genres, such as the blues and R&B, for inspiration; on the other side of the coin, American artists like The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix tried to emulate a British rock sound. (Hendrix’s career, it’s worth noting, didn’t take off until he moved to London.)

The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show performance didn’t just alter the band’s trajectory, but that of rock music as a whole. It built a bridge between the two realms of rock music, giving British artists a new audience and American artists new sonic influences. Without it, you still have Highway 61 Revisited, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and The Doors, but there is no Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds, or Are You Experienced — or any of the countless records that owe their existence to the syncretism of American and British music. Writ large, rock history is full of what-ifs and unhappy endings: plane crashes, substance abuse, breakups (between musical partners or romantic partners — and sometimes, both). For once, it’s nice to look back on a moment when everything went right.

For a much more in-depth look at the series of events that led The Beatles to The Ed Sullivan Show, read Steve Greenberg’s The Billboard Cover Story – How The Beatles Went Viral, which was a vital reference for this piece.