FORT WAYNE — It was 50 years ago today.
On the Sunday evening of Feb. 9, 1964, when the British pop group the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the most popular variety program on television. America was emerging from its winter of despondency. Seventy-six days had passed since Jackie Kennedy, shrouded with a black veil, lit the eternal flame at the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite of her assassinated husband.
But just as a nation mourned together, it also arose together – or at least much of it. Many of the country’s older sect did not grasp the unexplained fascination of these four young men from Liverpool, with their long hair and their loud music and their “yeah, yeah, yeah.” Just as they were beginning to accept Elvis, gyrations and all, along comes four seemingly just like him, only with much longer hair.
The younger generation – those who would be sent to Vietnam and grow into adulthood beneath the baby boomers label and claim the Beatles as part of the soundtrack of their lives – not only embraced their defiance, they didn’t care what their parents thought or said about this new group. In just one black-and-white televised hour, which consisted of five songs, America’s youth had subconsciously formed an invisible coast-to-coast bond and consolidated its allegiance to four musicians they had never before seen perform live.
Whether young America or whether the Beatles themselves knew it at the time, history was being made. And because of their catalog of musical magnificence – historians place them with Bach and Beethoven and Mozart – it will last all of our lifetimes and beyond.
It may be difficult to fathom 50 years later in these present days of instant everything and the casual miracle of social media, but the music of the Beatles arrived before their images. By the time they debuted on the Sullivan show, they had the No. 1 song in the United States with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” thus establishing themselves as a rock ’n’ roll force months before their live television appearance.
In effect, Sullivan’s own network scooped itself in early December 1963 with a four-minute segment about the Beatles on the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.” What quickly followed was a domino effect that could not be contained. Immediately after the Cronkite telecast, young fans called their local radio stations, asking why couldn’t they hear the Beatles. Disc jockeys demanded the same of their station managers. Weeks before the official scheduled release by Capitol Records, copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and its flip side, “I Saw Her Standing There” were spinning relentlessly over the airwaves in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
With a string of hits on the British charts and multitudes of screaming worshipers, the Beatles had overtaken their native England. They had performed for the Queen. And after a mid-October 1963 television appearance at the London Palladium, the morning headline in the Daily Mirror gave it a name: “BEATLEMANIA!”
Like a ripple that began off Great Britain’s western coastline, Beatles momentum swept across the Atlantic and grew in intensity along the way. It was during the 8 p.m. hour of Feb. 9, 1964, when the oncoming tidal wave made landfall onto the shores of New York, reaching Broadway and the stage of CBS Studio 50.
Sullivan was resplendent the night of the broadcast. Dark suit. Slicked-back hair. Even though late-night NBC host Jack Paar beat him to the punch a month earlier when he played a BBC taped performance of “She Loves You,” it is Sullivan who receives the historical credit for introducing the images of the Beatles to 73 million viewers, many of whom surely watched the tragedy of their president’s death and the unforgettable days that followed.
“Now, yesterday and today, our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation,” Ed begins in his twitchy, nasal tone, “and these veterans agreed with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves ‘the Beatles.’
“Now tonight, you’re gonna be twice entertained by them; right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! Let’s bring them …”
Shrieks from the studio audience smothered Sullivan’s final words as his right arm windmills toward the stage.
The camera cuts to a wide shot of four young men in identical black suits, black ties and white shirts. Their dark hair is long, combed onto their foreheads and covering the tops of their ears. The three in the foreground hold guitars. Behind them is a drummer on a circular riser. The one on the left looks over his shoulder and quickly counts, “One, two, three, four,” and the group breaks into “All My Loving.”
As if one master switch could ignite the emotions of millions, the nation became simultaneously mesmerized, including a 3-year-old Fort Wayne boy named Kenny Taylor.
“I can actually remember it,” says Taylor, a longtime Fort Wayne guitarist whose former rockabilly group, the Blue Moon Boys, once played in Liverpool and on the site where the original Cavern Club stood. “I remember going crazy; seeing them on TV; going nuts.”
Seamlessly, the Beatles segued from their opening number into “ ’Till There Was You” – a saccharine ballad from “The Music Man” that even mom and dad who were also watching could consume. It was during that song when the CBS cameras gave close-ups to each Beatle, whose first names only were superimposed on the screen. Paul was the one who was singing. Back on the drums was Ringo. The sullen one in the middle was George. Also playing guitar and trying to add harmony from a poorly amplified microphone was John. “Sorry girls, he’s married,” was the added message beneath John’s name. They closed the first segment with the rocking “She Loves You” that had the girls in the studio audience squealing and bouncing in their seats.
Other acts followed, including cast members from the Broadway musical, “Oliver!” Onstage, singing “I’ll Do Anything” as the Artful Dodger, was 19-year-old David Jones. A few years later he would abbreviate his first name to Davy and find incredible fame with a made-for-TV group called the Monkees who, at their peak in 1967, exceeded the Beatles in record sales. But at the time, very few cared about Oliver or David Jones. The studio audience clamored for more of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
With John Lennon’s microphone corrected, the group returned with its two-sided 45 rpm hit, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” When they were finished, the boys up front laid down their guitars, Ringo hopped from his riser, and all four rushed to Ed’s side, shook his hand, waved to the adoring audience then exited stage left.
“Well, it’s still supposed to be the largest viewing audience ever in the States, you know – with the States being the biggest showbiz town ever,” Paul McCartney said of the telecast in the 1995 documentary, “The Beatles Anthology.” “It was very important. I still get people talking to me about it now, you know. It was like, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ ”
George Harrison, in the same anthology series, added, “Later, they said, there was the least reported – or there was no reported – crime. Even the criminals had to rest for, like, 10 minutes while we were on.”
Twelve-year-old Rick West also sat in front of the television that night inside his Miami home.
“I remember my dad, in particular, going, ‘They’re just screaming! They’re just screaming!’ ” said West, 62, who adopted the nickname of “Doc” and is a longtime Fort Wayne disc jockey at WXKE-FM Rock 104 and music historian. “He was like, ‘Boy, that’s a bunch of crap.’ And of course, Ed brought them back the next couple weeks or so, and his attitude didn’t change. He didn’t get it.
“The funny thing was, my stepmother in Miami ended up working at a radio station, WFUN, so my father, for the first time, switched to Top 40 radio. That was a couple years later,” West says. “And then my father goes, ‘You know what? Those Beatles aren’t too bad. I actually like them.’ ”
It was 50 years ago today when we first saw the Beatles. America would never be the same.