Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Right around this time of the night, on a Sunday, exactly half a century ago, four lads from Liverpool stood before a relatively small audience on the Ed Sullivan Show and played music the way they had been doing night after night for years.
The cultural-changing difference was that The Beatles’ rabidly anticipated appearance attracted a much larger number of onlookers than those lucky enough to have entered the television studio in New York City on Feb. 9, 1964.
About 73 million of them, in fact.
When the Fab Four played “All My Loving,” “‘Til There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the impact was unexpected and rather immediate…and probably won’t ever happen again.
“The media has gotten so fragmented now … there’s 50 things in a marketing plan for an artist today,” said Revolt TV President (and former MTV executive) Andy Schuon. “The ability to fan that fire and to give it the kind of intensity that ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ could get doesn’t exist today.”
Nielsen says 45 percent of all TV sets in use at the time were tuned into the broadcast, with fans and the uninitiated alike gathered shoulder to shoulder in their living rooms. The Beatles landed on a trigger point when they hit America. It was a pop culture sonic boom spurred by talent, timing and luck that’s still rattling the windows.
“This was a seismic shift in American culture and it gave the teenagers not only a voice but a way of being, a way of thinking that had never occurred before,” Beatles biographer Bob Spitz said.
“Previous to the Beatles’ arrival here, teenagers were an appendage in the family. After that, the teenager became one of the dominant forces in the family. They became a marketable force and that didn’t happen with Elvis. This was pure.”
Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich, who produced this Sunday’s TV special “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles” on CBS (8 p.m. EST), vividly remembers the electricity surrounding the British band’s appearance as he gathered with friends at a boarding house in Athens, Ohio, near the Ohio University campus to watch the show.
A generation of baby boomers — teenagers just turning 13 and 14 — was poised for the moment: The relatively new medium of TV, the growing media culture in the U.S. and a burgeoning post-war affluence that allowed millions of teens to bond through the black-and-white broadcast that began with a mop-top shaking version of “All My Loving.”
“Entire families wanted to see what was going on here because the phenomenon of The Beatles arriving here was so spectacular, so different from anything we’d ever experienced before, and everybody wanted to look at it,” Spitz said. “The kids wanted to look at it because they wanted to be like The Beatles and the parents watched it because they wanted to see what they were up against. Really. It was kind of like a morbid fascination.”
It was a unique opportunity. Millions of kids and the equally young medium of television were coming of age. The two found each other willing allies. They combined with factors that made the moment so startling and powerful it simply can’t be recreated in our hyper-media age.
“At this moment Paul and I are the only two people who know what that experience was like and it was incredible. Incredible,” Ringo Starr said. ” … The Beatles are The Beatles — let’s be honest. There was no bigger band in the land, and I don’t really believe there is any today, you know?”
Here’s the Beatles’ full musical performance (five songs) from Ed Sullivan’s live broadcast on Feb. 9, 1964, via Vimeo: