Today, we remember it as a pivotal event in music history and American pop culture.
Back then, it was exciting. Massively hyped. Sort of silly. Utterly amazing.
And, most of all, it was great fun.
It was 50 years ago today, on Feb. 9, 1964, that the Beatles made their first live U.S. television appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was the first of the legendary group’s four appearances on what was then the country’s premier variety show, and history tells us it was watched by more than 70 million screaming, curious and skeptical viewers, an astounding number both then and now.
And when it was over, nothing — music, pop culture, fashion, the 1960s themselves — would ever be the same.
But the Beatles’ introduction to mainstream America wasn’t merely a historical event. It was a personal one, too, and those who saw it remember it to this day, while many of those who didn’t watch it caught up eventually and, just like that first wave of Beatlemaniacs, were changed forever.
Dennis Mitchell has spent a hefty chunk of his career chronicling the story of the Beatles through his nationally and internationally syndicated radio show, “Dennis Mitchell’s Breakfast With the Beatles” (which airs locally at 7 a.m. Saturdays on KQLL (102.3 FM, 1280 AM), and online www.beatlesradioshow.com).
Yet, Mitchell — who will celebrate the Sullivan anniversary by playing audio of the three February shows starting with the first one this weekend and the second and third shows over the next two weekends — missed that first Beatles Sullivan appearance and had to resort to a bit of creative subterfuge to catch the second.
“The first week, my dad would not allow (the show) on our brand-new Silvertone TV,” Mitchell recalls. “So I plotted and planned through the week.”
The plan: Mitchell, then 9, would just happen to be at a friend’s house when the second Sullivan show started. Then, he’d just happen to become overinvolved in playing a board game with his friend while, in reality, watching the second appearance of the Beatles.
It worked, pretty much, says Mitchell, who got to watch the show for about 45 minutes before his parents insisted that he come home immediately.
But more than the trio of Sullivan appearances, “it was all about the follow-up,” Mitchell continues. “The impact hit when we took what we saw on the TV screen and fired up the record player and sat in our rooms and listened to the songs.
“It was like a flash going off in your face. Ed Sullivan was big, but once that green dot (on the TV tube) went away, it was what we heard. I couldn’t get enough. All of those first songs were great and we loved them, but we wanted more and wanted to go deeper.
“No one sparked that kind of desire in us. It wasn’t the Beach Boys. Perry Como didn’t. We didn’t want the stuff that was coming out of our radio until now. It had an element of familiarity to it, but put together in such a way that there was nothing else like it at all. That was completely unique.”
For newly minted Beatles fans, the Sullivan appearances were merely the first steps of a journey, Mitchell says.
“Yes, some of the older folks — my dad, for example — saw them as a gimmick with a capital G. It took years and years before my dad admitted he liked ‘Yesterday,’ and he was not alone. A lot of older folks were just dismissive of the entire thing and, frankly, were hoping it wasn’t going to stay around.”
But, for Mitchell and many other Beatles fans, life without the Beatles “wouldn’t be what it is.”
Musician Lon Bronson did catch the Beatles’ first Sullivan appearance. He was almost 5 years old then and ever since has considered himself “a die-hard Beatles fan.”
”I recall, as a child, which might have been around the same time, listening to a 45 of ‘She Loves You,’ the 45 with the black label,” says Bronson, whose Lon Bronson All-Star Band plays regularly at Sunset Station, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and other venues around town. “I can still picture it in my mind, and I was, literally, like 4 years old. I would sit and listen to that over and over again.”
So, he says, when the Sullivan appearance arrived, “I remember sitting with my family in front of the television and watching.”
It made an impression. That summer, during a family vacation trip from New Hampshire to California — “A summer vacation much like the Chevy Chase vacation,” Bronson adds — the young Bronson became family-famous for the Beatles impression he had created.
“I would pretend to play guitar like I saw on the Ed Sullivan show and shake my head and bow, the whole thing, and attempt to sing as best a 5-year-old could,” he says. “But it was like the hit of the summer for my relatives and family.”
More seriously, “I have them to thank as the genesis of my whole career,” Bronson says. “They’re the ones who got me to think about music. If you come to see my band, there’s a ton of Beatles in my playlist, and it’s because of that direct transference. It came directly from those earlier memories.
“You can’t downplay the influence these guys had. You could try to rewrite history and say, ‘It could have been another group that would come a few months later.’ But I think, really, there’s been no other group that prolific. It’s about the right place at the right time with the right lineup, the right personnel, and I don’t think it could have been duplicated by anybody else. And when you go down the list of people they’ve influenced — (Led) Zeppelin, Cream, (Jimi) Hendrix and keep on going — you go, ‘Wait a minute. They all have roots back to the Beatles.’ ”
Bronson plans to spend some time today commemorating the Sullivan anniversary by watching the entire show in real time, at the same time as it would have aired four decades ago.
“And here’s the epilogue to the whole thing” he adds: His own kids, ages 12 and 15 and musicians both, are Beatles fans, too, and without, Bronson says — or at least without much — prodding.
“For me,” Bronson says, “that’s victory.”
Back in 1964, comedian Sammy Shore was performing all over the country. Since 1959, he also had been doing a regular gig as Elvis Presley’s opening act. But while Shore had performed on Sullivan’s show, he wasn’t booked on the shows with the Beatles and, like most Americans, watched them perform on TV, at home.
“I had heard about them, being in the business, of course, and I knew they were coming to America and they were big stars in England,” Shore says.
And, as he watched, Shore was impressed.
“You just saw that Paul McCartney was, and is still, a very talented man,” he says. “And all the guys were very talented people and they put it all together.”
He wasn’t convinced that they were, at least at that point, anything more than another good vocal group made up of talented people. But Shore was surprised by the fervor he saw in the screaming studio audience. Shore had seen music fads come and go but says he never had seen anything “that crazy.”
“These Beatles gave them, especially the young girls, that wonderful feeling of being special,” he says. “The Beatles were the ones that turned their lives around. You could see it in their young faces.
“It was just a special night in America when the Beatles did the Ed Sullivan show.”
Sally Steele didn’t catch that first appearance because she was too young. But Steele, publisher and editor of Vegas Rocks! magazine, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in August, soon became a Beatlephile, mostly through the animated Saturday morning series that ran from 1965 to 1969.
Soon, Steele says, “I was collecting Beatles dolls, and I still have some of them to this day.”
She laughs. “So it’s like a lifelong pursuit of Paul McCartney, and I’m still pursuing him.”
What was the appeal? “As a young girl, I’d have to say, to be honest, it was probably the way they looked,” Steele says. “Then you started listening to the music and, after that, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the complete package.’ It was so amazing.”
In the years since, “some of us never grew up,” Steele jokes. “I was playing in bands all through the ’80s and ’70s, and we were all influenced by the Beatles in different ways.
“There have been so many great musical artists over the years, and I write about them every month in the magazine and I look to do more. But in all honesty, I’ve got to say that the Beatles said it all. You can’t write or talk about anything that the Beatles didn’t already do.”
Mick McCoy, producer of “B-A Tribute to The Beatles” at Planet Hollywood Resort — and who plays Paul in the show occasionally — wasn’t born when the Sullivan show aired. But he did catch videos of the shows when he was about 14 and was enthralled by what he saw.
“Oh, man, I’m a Beatles superfreak,” he says. “I wasn’t around to see it firsthand, but I’ve probably watched it more than anybody else you’ll ever talk to.”
McCoy grew up in an era when Paul McCartney’s band was called Wings and when he, himself, was more into classical music than pop music. But in the Beatles’ music, he found a sophistication and daring that surprised him.
“I understand why girls liked them. They were cute,” McCoy says “But I was coming from a musical point of view and was just going, ‘Wow, these guys got it down,’ you know? Those compositions, I don’t care if you play it in a string section, a pop group or as vocals, those compositions hold up.”
Even today, McCoy says he’s never met a musician who doesn’t count the Beatles as a musical influence. And, on the other side of that equation, he adds, the Beatles “made a lot of people want to be musicians.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.