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The surreal moment when Ed Sullivan forgot who Paul McCartney was

Ed Sullivan was of a breed of entertainer you simply do not get anymore. The ultimate definition of the mid-20th-century American television personality, he was at his peak in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and was undoubtedly a product of his time. 

Although he was much more than solely a TV personality, as he was a syndicated columnist for publications such as the New York Daily News and a prolific impresario, it was as the host of The Ed Sullivan Show that he really made his mark on popular culture.

A staunch anti-communist and lover of all things clean-cut, he gained notoriety for asking many of the musical guests on his shows to either change lyrics in their songs or change what song they planned on playing based on him deeming the subject matter too choice. Those who clashed with Sullivan and his production team included The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Doors and Bob Dylan, to name but a handful.

Aside from some of the slightly unsavoury butting of heads his show seemed to invite over the ’60s, particularly with the proponents of the countercultural movement, one must remember that by mainstream American audiences, Sullivan was hailed as the ‘Starmaker’. 

His show is credited with helping to launch the careers of Elvis, The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five. These are just three examples taken from an extensive list of the era’s best-beloved acts who became household names after appearing on it.

It is safe to say that The Beatles‘ first appearance on the show on February 9, 1964, is the most iconic. At the height of ‘Beatlemania’, the episode was broadcast from the show’s home of Studio 50 in New York City, and it saw over 73 million people tune in. It was such a mammoth feat that even today, nearly 60 years later, it is still hailed as one of the largest viewing audiences ever recorded in the US. 

Given that The Beatles’ performance was one of the standout episodes out of over 1,000 shows, you’d expect that Sullivan would have remembered who the band were, particularly because their performance is widely credited with cementing the show’s place in pop culture history.

However, in a 1990 press conference, Paul McCartney revealed an instance where he crossed paths again with Sullivan in the early ’70s. 

After expecting some form of a brief conversation with the celebrated TV host, Sullivan actually had no idea who McCartney was. Allegedly, McCartney tried reminding Sullivan who he was, that he was one of The Beatles, but Sullivan couldn’t remember and simply nodded and smiled, shook McCartney’s hand and left. 

Even for the often aloof Sullivan, this seemed out of character. Nonetheless, the story needs context. Although we’re unsure of the exact date this encounter took place, in 1971, the show was cancelled by CBS after 23 years, owing to the star’s decline in health. Fast forward to October 13 1974, and Sullivan passed away aged 73. 

In a 2021 interview with Howard Stern, Sullivan’s friend, Joan Rivers, explained that Sullivan has actually been suffering from dementia for much of the end of his life, and this explains the strange anecdote. For a man with such a prominent personality, this has to be why he couldn’t remember McCartney.

Regardless, it must’ve been a humbling experience for McCartney, who at that time was still coming to terms with the fact that The Beatles had ended, and his subsequent project, Wings were only just starting to take off, which presents the era as a strange one for the ex-Beatles man.  

More significantly, the anecdote exhibits a starkly different character to the domineering, steadfast character of Ed Sullivan that we’re all so familiar with, showing him in a more candid light than he has ever been shown.

It serves as a stark reminder that we’re all human, and none of us are one dimensional. Regardless of our perceived flaws, we’re will all succumb to nature.

Watch The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show below.