“Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles!” It was those five magic words that changed the lives of 4 young lads from Liverpool, changed the course of music, and changed the world. February 9, 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the first time Paul, Ringo, John, and George stood before a whopping 7.3 million viewers on the Ed Sullivan show back in 1964. It was a milestone in music history that not only sparked the onslaught of the British Invasion, but also solidified music as a standalone form of entertainment.
The Beatles came to America at a time when the country was in dire need for something positive to grasp onto. Just two and a half months before their historical Ed Sullivan appearance, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The country was left in fear and grief because of such a devastating loss, and it would soon be entertainment that would lick the wounds of millions of Americans.
Let’s rewind to January 1964 just before Beatlemania started really gaining momentum in the US. The week of January 4, the top of Billboard charts were ruled by mostly pop vocal acts with Bobby Vinton’s ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ at number 1 and The Singing Nun’s ‘Dominique’ sitting at number 3. The Kingsmen classic ‘Louie, Louie’ rocked the number 2 spot as a bit of a dark horse amongst the more traditional 60’s pop sound that was popular at the moment. On the TV front, Americans were tuned into shows like Patty Duke, Dr. Who, and who could forget the “misadventures of the family staff of The Shady Rest Hotel and their neighbors of Hooterville?” Yes, Pettiecoat Junction. Even if you’re from a younger generation I’m sure you’ve seen Nick at Nite reruns of some popular 60s TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show and classic NBC western Bonanza. I don’t think anyone knew just how much February 9, 1964 would change the entertainment world.
In retrospect we’re able to see just how massive the impact of this event was even though it wasn’t quite as apparent in 1964. On a very entertaining episode of NPR’s “This American Life,” David Segal tells the story of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, a comedic duo from the 60’s who were lucky enough to get a slot on Sullivan opening up for the Beatles. It was the opportunity of a lifetime that the charismatic duo ultimately ended up bombing. Did they ever really stand a chance against one of the most highly anticipated musical performances of all time though?
Imagine that Charlie and Mitzi had performed the set of their lives. Would they have even grabbed any one’s attention long enough to distract them from Beatlemania that had overcome almost 40% of the country? That cultural shift to music as a premier entertainment source deserves some unpacking. David Segal raises a thoughtful point on This American Life that up until that point the only televised events that drew close to 7.3 million viewers were large sporting events and popular TV show finales. A viewership of that size for a music event was almost unheard of. Even more, that particular episode of the Ed Sullivan had various entertainment acts from Vaudeville, Broadway Star, and even circus performers. But, it was rock n’ roll that swept a nation. As soon as Paul sang “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you,” it was history.
50 years later, we can sit back and appreciate one of the most monumental events in rock n roll history and what it meant for the music industry. The two surviving members of The Beatles, Paul and Ringo, joined forces at this year’s Grammy Awards for a duet of McCartney’s ‘Queenie Eye’ from his 2013 album “New.” On February 9, the Grammy’s will also air a special to commemorate the anniversary of The Beatles’ US takeover. These two living legends, along with their late bandmates, continue to inspire generation after generation with their music. And, it all started way back in 1964 in that NYC studio in the Theater District.