On February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. (For those of you unfamiliar, The Ed Sullivan Show was a hugely popular, legendary variety show which ran in America from 1948 to 1973. If you can imagine American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, and multiply it times 20, that was how popular The Ed Sullivan Show was in the 1960s. Pretty much everyone watched the show.
The Beatles had been seen in clips and recorded interviews before this, but this was their actual performance debut on U.S. television. The show was watched by an all-time record (at the time) of 73,000,000 people. The show remains a landmark in television history and is an indelible memory to any of us who watched the historic performance.
The show is, quite possibly, the single most important moment in the history of rock and roll. Like September 11, 2001 or the day President Kennedy was assassinated, no one who witnessed this show will ever forget where he or she was at the time.
A Series of Three
Although this appearance is thought of by almost everyone as "The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show," the truth is, The Beatles appeared on the show nine times. On February 9, 1964, on the afternoon of the historic appearance, the boys actually taped an appearance as well, to be broadcast two Sundays later. They sang three songs before a frenzied studio audience, and this taped set was broadcast on February 23rd, making it their third Ed Sullivan Show appearance, even though it was taped first. (For these three-Sundays-in-a-row appearances, the Feb Four was paid the not-quite-munificent salary of $10,000, plus expenses.)
The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, had made sure in his negotiations that The Beatles would "get top billing" on the show. One can only imagine the bizarre irony of The Beatles being billed below the immortal comedy team of "Brill and McCall" (read on).
The First Show
On the historic February 9th show, the Fab Four sang five songs in total, three at the beginning of the show, and two more to wrap up the show at the end. Other guests appearing on the show that night were a pretty actress/singer named Mitzi Gaynor, Frank Gorshin (a talented impressionist who was to achieve his greatest fame playing The Riddler on the popular Batman TV series a few years later), the comedy team of Charlie Brill & Mitzi McCall, and the troupe of the Broadway musical Oliver! Irony of ironies -included in the Oliver! cast was a young British singer named Davy Jones, who in less than three years would become a member of The Beatles' greatest mid-'60s rivals in popularity with the teenyboppers, The Monkees.
During the broadcast, each of the four Beatles' names were up on the TV screen to identify them to the curious American viewers. Although it seems unthinkable today, at this point in time, most Americans couldn't tell one Beatle from another. None of them had achieved any kind of individual identity as yet. While Paul crooned "Til There Was You," the sign under John Lennon read, "Sorry girls, he's married."
Although, as we know, the crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater watching The Beatles was chock full of young girls screaming their lungs out, a lady in the audience claims her infant, held in her arms, slept through the Fab Four's performance (!!!)
The Second Show
The February 16th Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast from The Beatles' hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, where the boys were currently relaxing, swimming, and sunbathing. This followup show drew similar ratings to the first, and the boys came across great again. They had spent the afternoon playing in front of a studio audience to warm up for their later appearance, which was broadcast by satellite.
On May 24, 1964, The Beatles made their fourth Ed Sullivan Show appearance, chatting on film about their upcoming movie A Hard Day's Night. They offered a video clip from the film, a performance of "You Can't Do That." (Ironically, this song was to be the one song which was cut out of the finished movie.) The boys taped six songs on August 14th, 1965, for the September 24th Ed Sullivan Show. This was to be their most lengthy appearance on the show, albeit a taped one. After this, The Beatles became pioneers in the art of music video. At this point in their careers, it was just easier and less time-consuming to record videos and send them out, instead of actually traveling to television studios to perform live. On June 5, 1966, they sent Ed Sullivan two recorded videos of them singing "Rain" and "Paperback Writer."
The "New" Look
On February 12, 1967, the "strange-looking" new Beatles (all bearing mustaches, with John donning his granny glasses) performed in the videos of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." The studio audience, upon seeing the "new look" The Beatles had adopted, were slightly shocked, clearly baffled, and a bit taken aback.
On November 26, 1967, the band performed "Hello Goodbye" via video. And on February 15, 1970, The Beatles made their final "appearance" on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing in the videos of "Two of Us" and "Let It Be." (Ironically, by this time, The Beatles had been disbanded as a working band for several months.) So, although The Beatles were featured on The Ed Sullivan Show nine times, they only actually appeared at the Ed Sullivan Theater once -on the historic February 9th show.
Paul McCartney appeared there in the years after, once on an MTV Up Close special in 1992. Ringo Starr was to go back and play the Ed Sullivan Theater with his "All-Starr Band" in 2000. And more recently, both Paul and Ringo have made appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, which films in the Sullivan Theater.
One last note of interest: Whatever became of the drums Ringo played on that classic February 9th, 1964, first Ed Sullivan Show? Answer: Paul McCartney broke them! According to drummer Jim Keltner, when Paul came over to visit John in 1974, he was playing on Ringo's drum set, when Ringo wasn't around. Jim Keltner: "Paul broke Ringo's drum head while we were playing. I went 'Oh my God, that was the Ed Sullivan head!' He said, 'Oh, I'll get him another one.'" There is no record of Ringo's reaction when he found out the news.