By Charles Passy
8 February 2004, The Palm Beach Post
A glance at the front page of The Palm Beach Post on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, reveals a Cold War-era world scarred by global tensions – in Cyprus, Cuba and beyond. And though no mention is made of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy two-and-a-half months earlier – even in a piece on the Kennedy family’s visit to Palm Beach – it’s hard not to read between the lines and see the story of a nation searching for solace.
But the real story of the day was waiting to be told.
At a television studio on the northern edge of New York’s theater district that night, four musicians from the working-class city of Liverpool prepared themselves for the performance of their lives.
When they took to the stage shortly after 8 p.m., singing songs about young love for a studio audience of 728 and – more significantly – a television audience of 73 million, a defining moment in popular culture was forever framed: The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.
It was the scream heard ’round the world.
Not a single, solitary scream, but something resembling a sustained national shriek – the sound of millions of teenage girls expressing their budding pop-idol consciousness.
The fuss was about those cheeky, stylishly dressed Brits – Paul McCartney, 21; John Lennon, 23; George Harrison, 20; and Ringo Starr, 23 – who made music that took all the basic, black- influenced elements of rock ‘n’ roll and transformed them into transcendently catchy ear-candy.
They were the symbols of a new generation destined to rock the world, literally and figuratively.
And it all started with that one performance 40 years ago, an event that is now being commemorated with a slew of books and other tributes, plus a new DVD featuring all four of the Beatles’ performances on the Sullivan show from 1964 to 1965.
Etched in memory
But watching the DVD is no substitute for the power of memory, even a memory that might be short on specifics. Like JFK’s death, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was a marker in many people’s lives, from those who were behind the scenes at the program to those who scrambled to watch it on any television at hand.
Florida Stage Producing Director Louis Tyrrell has a vision of his entire family – himself, his three brothers and his parents – piled into a bedroom to see the show.
“This was something like a landing on the moon,” Tyrrell says. “I remember their suits, I remember their hair, I remember it being like no other act we had seen before.”
Orval Simon-Bower, a history professor at Palm Beach Community College and veteran drummer, recalls that between The Beatles’ two sets that night, he cut a 2-foot-long dowel in half from his father’s workbench, emptied the basement trash can and fashioned himself a homemade drum kit – not bad for a fourth-grader.
And Rod MacDonald, a Delray Beach-based singer-songwriter, remembers a sweet sense of change in the air.
“What I remember feeling is a fist-pumping ‘Yes!’ feeling,” he says. “(It was like) at last there’s something talking to us.”
But that’s far from the only context in which to consider the event.
The American debut of The Beatles noted the arrival of television as a mass medium of unestimable power and influence. And it marked the birth of a television-fueled celebrity culture – for better and worse.
Without The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, there is no Michael Jackson on the Motown 25th anniversary special – or Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl. Maybe even no MTV, where the hottest video today is Hey Ya!, the hip-hop group Outkast’s witty takeoff on the Sullivan show hysteria.
“It’s when pop culture became the culture,” says Glenn Gass, an Indiana University professor and leading Beatles scholar.
And The Beatles’ debut heralded the defining musical movement of the ’60s: the British Invasion of the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and other bands.
In fact, it was the many failed attempts by British artists to find success in the States that made The Beatles so eager to conquer America. The Sullivan appearance was a calculated, cross- promotional effort involving not only The Beatles’ handlers, but also Sullivan’s network, CBS; the quartet’s main American label, Capitol; and the film studio United Artists, which would eventually release the ground-breaking Beatles bio-pic A Hard Day’s Night.
But Sullivan was the key, since his show was the premier platform for entertainers of all kinds – singers, comics, puppeteers, plate- spinners – in an era when the broadcast networks still held sway and color television was considered a novelty. (The Sullivan program aired in black-and-white.)
Fortunately for the Fab Four, the stone-faced MC got a taste of Beatlemania on a trip to England in October 1963, when he witnessed the group’s squealing fans welcoming them home from a trip to Sweden. “Who the hell are The Beatles?” he reportedly inquired. Within two weeks, he signed a deal with band manager Brian Epstein that included three appearances by the quartet the following year, including a live one from Miami the week after Feb. 9.
Out of the dives
It was quite an amazing turn of events. Just a few years prior to the Sullivan show, the group was playing cellar clubs in Liverpool and seedy nightspots in Hamburg. But by the spring of ’63, the Beatles had started making a run on the British charts; America fell in step a few months later, thanks especially to Capitol’s savvy campaign, which included the distribution of mop-top wigs and “The Beatles Are Coming” stickers (“Put them up anywhere and everywhere they can be seen,” said a company memo).
When the quartet finally landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport on Friday, Feb. 7 – two days before the Sullivan appearance – they had the No. 1 single on the U.S. charts, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and one of the top albums, Meet the Beatles!
The screaming began with that airport arrival, when “rows of fans” greeted the group, according to Bruce Spizer’s definitive new book, The Beatles Are Coming! It continued throughout the next couple of days, when crowds stood outside The Beatles’ New York hotel, the venerable Plaza. By the day of the show, the Sullivan staff, which received an unprecedented 50,000 requests for tickets, had realized they were in slightly over their heads.
“There were 5,000 kids outside the studio, just screaming and crying and yelling. I said, ‘Uh oh,’ ” recalls Vince Calandra, a former assistant on the show who went on to a long career in television.
Calandra had gotten a taste of the madness on Saturday, when the Beatles had to fight the mob to attend a rehearsal at the studio – a rehearsal in which Calandra had to serve as a visual stand-in for George Harrison, who was nursing a sore throat at the hotel.
Most of the time, “The Beatles were virtual prisoners inside the Plaza,” photographer Harry Benson recalls in a new Norton Museum of Art exhibit of his Beatles photographs. Benson traveled with them from England to America and was in the limo – surrounded by screaming girls – as they left the Plaza for the Sullivan studio.
“They wanted to do all sorts of things, like visit the Playboy Club, which was only a block away, but they couldn’t get out of the hotel without being mobbed,” Benson adds.
As the madness built, ticketholders to the Sullivan show were hard-pressed to find their way to the theater. “I still have this vision of my mother arguing with a New York City cop, saying, ‘She has a ticket. Let her through,’ ” recalls Debbie Supnik, who scored a prized seat because she was among the first American listeners to contact the Beatles fan club in England. (Epstein had tapped her to help start the American club – until he realized she was all of 13.)
Supnik, now a California-based television executive, says the hysteria carried through inside the studio. “Ed Sullivan keeps coming out and telling us, ‘Quiet, quiet,’ ” she remembers.
Calandra remembers it as well – this strange sight of his normally placid boss nearly coming unglued. “He was saying things like, ‘Please have respect for the other performers,’ and it was like forget it. They were there for The Beatles,” he says.
And what if you were one of those other performers on the typically diverse Sullivan bill, which included magician Fred Kaps, impressionist Frank Gorshin, the Broadway cast of Oliver!, music- hall star Tessie O’Shea and the comedy team of Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill?
If you were smart, you tried to build off the excitement, as Gorshin did. (His routine – perhaps more pertinent today than ever before – revolved around the premise of what might happen if actors took over Congress.) But if you weren’t as fortunate, you stood there and “laid an egg,” in Brill’s words.
For The Beatles, however, there was nothing but the spotlight. When Sullivan welcomed “these youngsters from Liverpool,” the screaming took over before he could say his final words – “Let’s bring them on.”
Standing on a cleverly designed stage with arrows pointing in their direction – telegraphing the message that, yes, they were actually here – The Beatles opened with All My Loving. It’s a sunburst of a performance – easy and unforced. (And just in case there was any confusion as to which Beatle was which, the show later identified them by running their names across the screen, adding this note about John: “Sorry girls, he’s married.”)
The group offered two more songs in that first set – Till There Was You and She Loves You – and two more in a second set – I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand – near the end of the hour-long show. In each case, the screaming never stops, a point that is made when the cameramen repeatedly cut to young women in the studio convulsing as if inhabited by demons.
Art of the scream
Though she can’t remember whether she attended the evening performance or the earlier dress rehearsal, Kathy Cronkite, the then 13-year-old daughter of legendary TV newsman Walter, was among the possessed in the audience – and she describes it today like an out- of-body experience, particularly when it comes to the screaming.
“It’s like talking in tongues would be. It takes over and comes out of the deepest part of your being,” she recalls. “It was a very strong physical sensation. I remember that.”
So do those who shrieked from home. “We went crazy,” recalls Theresa Cook, a West Palm Beach hair stylist who saw the show at a girlfriend’s house in her small Ohio town. “Crying and touching the TV. Falling on the floor screaming. (My girlfriend’s) mom thought we were nuts.”
Of course, some did more than scream. For a generation of future rockers, from Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel to your everyday garage-band musician, the night is often cited as the great inspiration.
Take Tommy Shaw, lead guitarist for Styx. He watched the show from his family home in Prattville, Ala., having heard “rumblings about this new group” from Britain.
“As my parents commented on the decay of society’s youth that these long-haired Englishmen seemed to be ushering in, something clicked inside of me for the first time. Let’s see, the grown-ups are upset by them, the girls love them. I like this!” he recalls, adding that the next day he began “seeking out older musicians in the neighborhood, who showed me how to play I Saw Her Standing There.”
Still, not everyone watched The Beatles that night.
Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, a Palm Beach resident who grew up in Jacksonville, says he was “turned off” by what he saw as “a poor reproduction of what Chuck Berry and Little Richard and others had already done,” citing a common criticism of the early Beatles. And the “cutesy” aspect of the group was another negative. “This was not ‘music’ to me,” Trucks says, although the foursome’s later albums earned his admiration.
And all the way in Japan, The Beatles were hardly registering – at least according to Yoko Ono, the conceptual artist who went on to become Lennon’s second wife. “In the newspaper, there was a tiny article about mop-head boys. Very tiny,” she recalls.
A landmark moment
But on the other side of the globe, it was a different story, regardless of the fact the mainstream media was slow to pick up on the phenomenon. (There’s no mention of the Beatles on Sullivan in the Feb. 10 edition of The Palm Beach Post,” but the editorial page on Feb. 11 took a crack at those “untonsured and ululant” singers who prove that “the British Isles are sinking.”)
The TV audience, the largest in history to that point, represented a huge chunk of the U.S. population – more than one- third by census figures. For those gathered around the console screens that were the centerpiece of many American homes, the night became a milestone, an event recalled years later. Even if you couldn’t remember the details of the performance, you could remember where you were.
U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-West Palm Beach) has a recollection of adjusting the TV antenna at his family’s Lake Osborne Estates home, so he could better pick up the signal of the CBS station in Miami. Beatles historian Bruce Spizer remembers the supper of macaroni and cheese he ate that night.
Did The Beatles sense the the significance of the occasion? Members of the group always remarked that playing Ed Sullivan was the “big one,” as Harrison once put it. “On the plane to New York they kept saying, ‘We’re going to meet Ed Sullivan, Ed Sullivan.’ He was like the pope to them,” Benson recalls.
But part of the joy of watching the quartet was that they never seemed to take anything too seriously. The Beatles accepted each gig as another day’s work – a hard day’s night, but a fun one all the same.
And they didn’t need more than voices, guitars and drums to sell their infectious songs. Too many artists mistake the trappings of their American debut for the real cause of the excitement.
“People have tried to clutch at the superficialities,” says Martin Goldsmith, author of The Beatles Come to America, another new book on the subject. “They have decided, ‘If we can have a huge crowd greet us at the airport, if we can have a police escort through the streets, if we can have teenagers chasing us through the halls of our hotel, we’re just like The Beatles.’ ”
But they’re not.
On Feb. 9, 1964, The Beatles served up youth in an unspoiled package at a time when America – and the world – needed it most. As the years passed, their music would become more sophisticated, even darker, to suit a decade that would turn ever more complex.
Now there are only two Beatles left – Paul and Ringo – to share the memories. But what blissful memories they are.
Sullivan always promised his audience “a really big show.” One Sunday night four decades ago, four young musicians from Liverpool gave them the biggest of all.