The Beatles Play Ed Sullivan

In which I look back to possibly the biggest Sunday 9 February in history

On Friday 7 February 1964, everyone’s favorite quartet landed at JFK to famously deafening support. Two days later, they made their live American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Equally deafening, but not because of the music.

This was all four Beatles’ first time on American soil, and they seized the day. They raided record shops and threw traffic into confusion–not by doing anything, just by being there. Now-iconic stills captured them absorbing the city, particularly cavorting through Central Park (minus poor George, who spent most of the Saturday bedridden).

But there would be plenty more where that came from. 9 February was the first of three consecutive weekends on Sullivan for the group, with 16 February being a broadcast from Miami and 23 February a farewell from back in New York. After that it would be all of three months until Sullivan visited them in London as they prepared for the release of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night.

They would maintain a longstanding relationship with the popular host, thanks in large part to this momentous first performance. It was not their first appearance on American television, but it was their first live appearance on American television, and it couldn’t have been better timed. England had been in the grip of Beatlemania for several months already. CBS decided to get in on the ground floor and capitalize on it by airing a short prerecorded special–on the morning of 22 November 1963. By that evening, whatever visual impression the group had left on their overseas audience had been eclipsed by the tragic news of President Kennedy’s assassination, followed by a period of despair and deep uncertainty for the country. (The concurrent season was pretty symbolic as well.) So, as winter began to show hope of thawing out, who better to “rescue” America from its downward spiral than a quartet of cute, cheerful boys who played lighthearted songs?

The rescue was record-breaking. 73 million people, or forty percent of the population, tuned in that night. Not to mention the studio audience, which consisted of at least 700 and wreaked havoc for the band in terms of acoustics, chiefly that there…weren’t any.

Still, they played a great set across two segments. It went as follows:

“All My Loving”

“Till There Was You,” from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (a song they recorded for the Live at the BBC sessions that same year and for which Paul seemed to have a fondness–probably the music-hall upbringing talking)

“She Loves You”

“I Saw Her Standing There”

and, perhaps best-remembered,

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”

The images of the Beatles from this and the other Sullivan shows have defined and immortalized them in the public consciousness for decades. To the untrained eye they look indistinguishable, all mop-topped and suited; but, upon this latest revisit, I would argue that the most striking aspect of their “symmetrical” stage presence is Paul’s left-handedness. With the neck of his bass and the necks of John and George’s guitars pointing in opposite directions, there is a harmony to their spatial arrangement which is almost as pleasing as the harmony of their vocal arrangements. (Boy, am I proud of that conceit!)

Anyone who experienced it will tell you–and has told me–that this viewing was all anyone was talking about on Monday. It did a lot for Americans’ relationship with television; it did wonders for Sullivan’s status in the industry, just as the man had planned; and it was a milestone for the group on the fast track to world domination.

One of my favorite “legends” surrounding the event goes that the first thing John said to Sullivan when they arrived at CBS and stepped onstage was “Is this the stage Buddy Holly played on?” It warms my heart to know that, for a guy on the way to accumulating a worldwide fanbase, he was just a fanboy too.

And speaking of apocryphal stories: I read recently that Ringo, positioned in back atop his drum kit as he traditionally was, couldn’t hear a thing his bandmates were playing due to the crowd’s screaming, and so had to watch them and physically time his drumming in accordance with their motions. Tell me again how he wasn’t the best drummer in the Beatles!!

Image: The Beatles via Live for Live Music

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a New Englander living in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She writes and reads for a living; the rest of her time goes toward singing, dancing, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting far too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Follow her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio),

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