As you surely know by now, The Beatles invaded the U.S. by way of the Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago yesterday. What you may not know is that they appeared for three consecutive Sunday night broadcasts that year, beginning on February 9, 1964. That performance garnered a record 73 million viewers and took place at the now historic Ed Sullivan Theater. The second show on February 16 was broadcast from Miami Beach where the then-Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston were promoting their famous bout on Feb. 25. The third broadcast, February 23, showed a performance taped earlier in the day of the original Feb. 9 appearance. Watch all three of those ’64 broadcasts above. (The band made a final live appearance on the show on August 14, 1965—watch “I Feel Fine” from that broadcast below.)
It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of The Beatles—the American press, the screaming hordes of teenage fans, even certain British politicians—but the first Sullivan appearance was a gamble, arranged by their very savvy manager Brian Epstein to break the band in the States. Sullivan stood behind the band’s initial headlining booking, despite his producer’s objections, later telling the New York Times, “I made up my mind that this was the same sort of mass hit hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days.”
Sullivan, the legend goes, first noticed the crazed response the band inspired (see above) when he witnessed “more than 1,500 youngsters lin[ing] the rooftop gardens of the Queen’s Building and others congregated on the ground” at Heathrow airport after the group returned home from a trip to Stockholm in October, 1963. While the actual story of the first booking is a bit more complicated, writes Beatles’ historian Bruce Spizer, it still speaks to Sullivan’s impeccable instincts.
What was it like to be a viewer of that first broadcast as a young fan? Above, Dennis Mitchell, host of the “Breakfast with the Beatles” radio show, remembers the moment. “Everything changed after that,” he says. Although the Sullivan broadcasts are memorable for all sorts of historical reasons, “in the end, after it all,” says Mitchell, “it was the songs, it was the music.”
Seeing it on Ed Sullivan was overwhelming, and the start of it all, but then we took it into our bedrooms with the record players and got deeper into the music, because we knew that even though they’d done four or five songs on the Ed Sullivan show, there was more.
As the band evolved politically and stylistically, says Mitchell, their fans “were all along for the ride. And they genuinely, it was almost like a magic wand, changed things by changing themselves.” Could such a cultural moment happen again? “No,” says Mitchell, “not at the level that it did and not with the significance that it did.” In the fifty years since The Beatle’s arrival on U.S. shores, the world seems to have become both more fragmented and more closely drawn together, but we live in such a vastly different media landscape than the one that produced the Ed Sullivan Show—and the lasting fame of Elvis, The Supremes, and The Beatles. After fifty years of post-Beatles’ pop music, it’s impossible to imagine a television performance having such a widespread impact that it almost singlehandedly transforms an entire generation.