John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.
I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964. There are so many clichés. The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.” Both are true, of course. Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement. I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music. That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.
But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment. In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube. No PCs with internet. No texting or tweeting. No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.
Instant global communication was decades away. All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth. If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.
When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances. But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade. And there was often friction between the hosts and performers. For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music. So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.
Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly. He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild. Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however. Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.
Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse. He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.” According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.” Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back. Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.
After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music. Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others. So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material. Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).
The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.
Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.
Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.
So the stage was set for something new. A band that looked and sounded different. Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality. Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.
But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964. Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:
Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.
Don’t touch that dial!