(Credit: Norman Pakrinson)

How The Beatles cracked America: The Ed Sullivan Show

Looking back to the early 1960s, and considering the unprecedented success of The Beatles, it’s hard to imagine that even The Beatles struggled to garner media attention required in order to succeed within the music industry. The truth is, it was a long and arduous road for the four lads from Liverpool. 

The Beatles’ success in the States, really was an overnight story, whereas, in their home country of Britain, it took a few years of relentless touring, playing and convincing. The Beatles, for certain, owed a part of their success to the work of their manager, Brian Epstein, and their brilliant producer, George Martin, who was a trained composer and a magnificent record producer. When The Beatles finally did crack America, it would be – as it became the gateway to fame at the time – through the Ed Sullivan Show on live national television, of which millions of people tuned in for.

Before The Beatles were ever even signed to Parlophone records and had any songs recorded, they were popular in Liverpool but still had yet to conquer the rest of the country. They would eventually sign with the label and released their string of first singles with ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’, and ‘From Me To You’. Every successive single that was released kept getting bigger and better. As according to Billboard, “With The Beatles touring relentlessly, the screaming girls, the frenzied chase scenes, the whole carnival spread steadily, town by town. In late August, the band released its biggest hit yet- ‘She Loves You’, which became the all-time best-selling single by a U.K. act.”

As The Beatles began to rise to popularity, rock ‘n’ roll and the sexual revolution began to explode across the country. When a young female fan was asked about why she screams when she sees or hears The Beatles, she replied: “It’s not something I could say on the radio.” The first signs of Beatlemania (a term coined by the British media) arose when the group returned to Britain from touring in Sweden. The Beatles’ plane flew into London, where a group of more than 1,000 screaming fans were awaiting them. It just so happened that, none other than Ed Sullivan was at the airport as well and upon hearing the hordes of screaming fans, Sullivan assumed that they awaited the arrival of British Royal Family. When somebody corrected him, Ed incredulously replied, “Who the hell are the Beatles?”

It wouldn’t take long for Ed Sullivan to realise that having The Beatles on his show only seemed natural and inevitable. Later, the American host and broadcaster would aptly comment in a New York Times article, “I made up my mind that this was the same sort of mass hysteria that had characterised the Elvis Presley days.” George Harrison recalls that when did end up playing the Sullivan show, Presley got in touch with the lads from Liverpool: “We were aware that Ed Sullivan was the big one because we got a telegram from Elvis and the Colonel. And I’ve heard that while the show was on there were no reported crimes, or very few. When The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, even the criminals had a rest for ten minutes.”

In November of 1963, The Beatles were inching closer to their take over of the British Island, at which point they could focus their attention on cracking the States. They performed at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, at the behest of Queen Elizabeth. It was at this time when Lennon purportedly quipped, right before charging into ‘Twist and Shout’: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” It was a kind of a cheekiness that can only boast of confidence and a sure sign that the Liverpool lads had the British royalty and the press in the palm of their hands. Even the tabloids’ headline read the next day, “You have to be a real square not to love the nutty, noisy, happy, handsome Beatles.”

While Ed Sullivan’s impression of how The Beatles were greeted that day at the airport in London played a big part in his decision; Peter Pritchard, Ed Sullivan’s European scout, was the last push The Beatles needed. Pritchard saw The Beatles perform at the Royal Show, and conveyed the news to Sullivan of how the four lads wowed even the royalty. Sullivan would then meet with Brian Epstein in New York who had flown over there to secure a spot on Sullivan’s variety TV program. 

Screaming fans wait for The Beatles. (Credit: Alamy)

On February 9th of 1964, the world would change forever. This is the day that The Beatles cracked America by influencing millions with, what many consider, the most influential music concert, ever. An astronomical amount of people tuned into the show, somewhere to the tune of 73 million people. Paul McCartney recalls the time, “A lot of fathers did turn it off, but a lot of mothers and children made them keep it on. All these kids are now grown-up, and telling us they remember it. It’s like, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’.” 

Adding: “I get people like Dan Aykroyd saying, ‘Oh man, I remember that Sunday night; we didn’t know what had hit us – just sitting there watching Ed Sullivan’s show.’ Up until then there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis, and then, suddenly, The Beatles!”

Many musicians still comment on their appearance as being the single most important ‘aha!’ moment for their careers. A whole cast of them has commented on it over the years, which goes to show how far-reaching The Beatles’ legacy is. I think the whole world was watching that night. It certainly felt that way. You just knew it, sitting in your living room, that everything around you was changing. It was like going from black-and-white to colour. Really. I remember earlier that day, in fact, a kid on a bike passed me and said, ‘Hey, the Beatles are on TV tonight.'”

Tom Petty, a brilliant songwriter himself, who definitely picked up the jangly Rickenbacker bit from the Liverpool lads, quipped: “I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, and I thought to myself, ‘This means something.’ The Beatles came out and just flattened me. To hear them on the radio was amazing enough, but to finally see them play, it was electrifying.” 

This influence didn’t stop with fellow guitarists. Billy Joel, the piano man, would comment, “The Beatles really synthesised what I wanted to do. The single biggest moment that I can remember being galvanised into wanting to be a musician for life was seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

It is clear that The Beatles not only cracked America when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, but it seems like they conquered the world in its entirety. Once they had the show under their belts, it didn’t seem like anything or anyone could stop them. Their legacy continues, even to this day.

Watch footage of The Beatles perform ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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