Flashback: The Beatles Perform on The Ed Sullivan Show

58 years ago, on February 9, 1964, The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan show in NYC, creating one of the most seminal moments in television history. A record-setting 73 million tuned in to watch the Fab Four perform “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles with Ed Sullivan.

Consisting of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, The Beatles are one of the most influential bands to have ever existed. The group was formed in 1960 in Liverpool, England. They spent the first couple years playing small clubs in Europe and perfected their craft after playing eight-hour days in Hamburg, Germany. It wasn’t until their performance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium” and the release of their first LP Please Please Me that Beatlemania truly began.

Please Please Me by The Beatles full album.

Urban legend says Ed Sullivan first heard about the group when he and his wife were at an airport in London returning to NYC and witnessed 1,500 screaming fans welcoming The Beatles back from a successful tour in Sweden.

Actually, Sullivan found out about The Beatles before that, through his Talent Booker Jack Babb, and London-based agent Peter Prichard. Sullivan was eager to book the group but needed a selling point. Prichard said they had just performed in the Royal Variety Show where they were the first “long-haired boys” to be invited to appear before Queen Elizabeth II.

The Beatles meeting Queen Elizabeth II

On November 11, 1963, Beatles manager Brian Epstein met Sullivan in the Delmonico Hotel in NYC, and the deal was done with a handshake. The Beatles were booked for three performances, two live and one a taped rehearsal.

Before the debut performance on the Sullivan show, the group’s record “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was leaked before its planned US release. The record label was unable to stop the radio from playing it, so they released the LP earlier than expected, and it went to the number one spot on the Billboard charts before the month was over.

The Flight

The Beatles flew to America on February 7, 1964. When they arrived at the airport, they were surprised at the number of people there to see them. Paul McCartney commented on it during the Anthology sessions in the 90s.

There were millions of kids at the airport, which nobody had expected. We heard about it in mid-air. There were journalists on the plane, and the pilot had rang ahead and said, ‘Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.’ We thought, ‘Wow! God, we have really made it.’

5,000 fans, mostly young girls, were crowded on the balcony of one of the buildings at JFK, waving banners and screaming at the top of their lungs.

They were able to get so many people there because the group’s American record company promised that every person who showed up at the airport would get a dollar bill and a t-shirt. The receptionists at Capitol Records would answer the phone, “Capitol Records – The Beatles are coming.” Every radio station was talking about it too.

The Ed Sullivan Show

Paul McCartney spoke about their appearance on the show also during the Anthology sessions.

It was very important. We came out of nowhere with funny hair, looking like marionettes or something. That was very influential. I think that was really one of the big things that broke us – the hairdo more than the music, originally. A lot of people’s fathers had wanted to turn us off. They told their kids, ‘Don’t be fooled, they’re wearing wigs.’

The band rehearsed the day before, and George Harrison was feeling ill, and their road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for him to mark where everyone would stand.

Neil Aspinall standing in for George Harrison during the rehearsals.

Their live debut broke record for television viewing figures, as a record 73 million people tuned into the show. The group even got a telegram from Elvis Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker, wishing the group luck. Harrison made a witty remark about the show, during the Anthology sessions.

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.

The band came on and played “All My Loving” to an audience full of ear-splitting screeching from teenage girls. Then they played “Til There Was You,” and while the song was playing, a camera cut to each member of the band to introduce them, and when the camera cut to John Lennon, the caption said “SORRY GIRLS. HE’S MARRIED.”

The band played three more songs, “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and their number one hit “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” After the show, The Beatles were whisked away to the Playboy Club with a police escort.

The Beatles’ success on The Ed Sullivan show paved the way for the British Invasion, for groups like The Rolling Stones and The Animals. The group have also inspired the works of many bands, like the Ramones song “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl,” a parody of the tune “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” by The Beatles.

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