BOB GARFIELD: With so many different channels of communication, Americans have fewer and fewer experiences we share as a nation. The half-time show last Sunday was one, but it can't compare to what happened February 9th, 40 years ago when the Beatles first appeared live on the Ed Sullivan Show. One of the top-rated broadcasts of all time, that show was seen by 73 million Americans, but in 1964, that amounted to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. OTM's Paul Ingles takes us back.
PAUL INGLES: Most people remember the Beatles' Ed Sullivan performance as their first on American television. Well, it wasn't. Sullivan made a deal with Beatles manager Brian Epstein for three CBS appearances in February 1964, but Ed got scooped by his NBC rival Jack Paar on January 3rd.
JACK PAAR: The Beatles are an extraordinary act in England. I think they're the biggest thing in England in 25 years. [BEATLES AUDIENCE AMBIENCE UP & UNDER]
BRUCE SPIZER: Jack Paar. He and Sullivan had been having a feud for years.
PAUL INGLES: Bruce Spizer is author of a new book on American Beatlemania called The Beatles Are Coming.
PAUL INGLES: His idea was to see if he could contact the BBC and get footage of the Beatles performing and air that on his program prior to Ed Sullivan showing the Beatles on his show, and that is precisely what he did.
JACK PAAR: These guys have these crazy hairdos, and when they wiggle their head, and the hair goes, the girls go out of their minds.
PAUL INGLES: Paar showed newsreel footage of British girls screaming at a Beatles concert, then film of a complete performance by the band. He announced that the Beatles would soon play live on Ed Sullivan's Show, but the plug did not appease Sullivan. Bruce Spizer.
BRUCE SPIZER: Sullivan was absolutely livid. In his negotiations with Brian, he was assured that he would be getting the first and exclusive appearance of the Beatles on American television, and he contacted his European talent coordinator, Peter Prichard and told him to cancel the Beatles. Fortunately, a day or two later, Sullivan realized it would be a mistake to cancel the Beatles, and he called up Peter Prichard and canceled the cancellation.
PAUL INGLES: And the advance publicity about the Beatles only got better. [AUDIO FROM 1964 RADIO BROADCAST]
JINGLE SINGERS: IT'S NOW NUMBER ONE, ON 77 WABC.
MAN: What, what, what, what--?
MAN: Go Beatles! Get 'em! [BEATLES' "I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND" UNDER]
PAUL INGLES: The Beatles, whose records had flopped in the U.S. in 1963, suddenly topped the charts, and by the time they landed in New York February 7th, the were dominating top 40 radio nationwide and charming the press who kept asking why the name Beatles?
RINGO STARR: John thought of the name Beatles, and he'll tell you about it now. [LAUGHTER]
JOHN LENNON: [LAUGHS] It does - it means beatles, doesn't it -- you know. That's just a name. It --you know, like shoe. His shoe.
PAUL McCARTNEY: The Shoes. You see, we couldn't have been called The Shoes for all you know.
PAUL INGLES: At rehearsals for the "really big shoe" as Sullivan often called his own program - (Sorry -- couldn't resist) - the Beatles took no chances with their sound. They helped the technicians mark the audio console with chalk so they'd remember precisely how the music and vocals should be mixed. Swamped with 50,000 ticket requests, CBS only had about 1500 to give away -- half for the evening's live show, and half for an afternoon dress rehearsal and taping of a Beatles segment to be broadcast two weeks later.
ED SULLIVAN: Now, ladies and gentlemen-- [SCREAMS] the Beatles! [SCREAMS]
PAUL INGLES: Leslie Samuels Healy was a 14 year old New Yorker in 1964, and one of her friends scored them afternoon tickets.
LESLIE SAMUELS HEALY: If you were there, you felt the electricity, the whole energy of the Beatles. Again, it was like nothing else I've ever lived through. [SCREAMING GIRLS]
BEATLES: [SINGING] "WHEN I SAY THAT SOMETHING, I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND-"
LESLIE SAMUELS HEALY: When Sullivan was going into all the commercials, the fans booed, the audience booed. They didn't want to hear about Pillsbury or Anacin. They wanted music.
ED SULLIVAN: Let's take a moment right now for an interesting idea from Pillsbury. [BOOING FROM AUDIENCE]
LESLIE SAMUELS HEALY: But there was more booing I think they had to cut out when other people were being introduced.
ED SULLIVAN: And now ladies and gentlemen a very fine novelty act, Wells and the Four Fays, so let's bring them out with a really nice... [INTRO MUSIC]
PAUL INGLES: It was typical Sullivan. The Beatles -- plus magicians, acrobats, Vaudeville style comedians and a few big stars of the day, all destined to become answers to Beatles trivia questions. After the afternoon taping, the theater was emptied, and the sound technicians took a dinner break. A new audience came in for the live broadcast, and when the techs returned, they found that all the chalk marks on their console indicating the perfect Beatles mix had been erased by the cleaning crew.
ED SULLIVAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! [SCREAMS]
PAUL INGLES: The CBS sound team had to wing it through one of the most important live music broadcasts of all time.
BEATLES: [SINGING] CLOSE YOUR EYES, AND I'LL KISS YOU, TOMORROW I'LL MISS YOU, REMEMBER I'LL ALWAYS BE TRUE...
PAUL INGLES: Also winging it were the cameramen who, because of the screaming, couldn't hear any of the director's instructions. The crying, bouncing, squealing fans caught on camera were the envy of girls across the country who had to watch it on TV. Alyse Kosarin, a college student in Ohio at the time, saw the show on a communal TV set in the lounge of her dorm.
ALYSE KOSARIN: We're down there in our robes and slippers, watching, and not necessarily screaming, but kind of squealing inside. I can remember a very different reaction by some of the girls. Actually they just - they - like why are you going downstairs? What's so important about the Beatles? But there were those of us who felt that we -- it was something that we needed to see, because they were so much a part of everything that was happening then. [BEATLES FINAL CHORD, SCREAMS]
PAUL INGLES: In the days that followed, the ratings for the broadcast were announced: 73 million viewers, the largest TV audience ever. Sullivan historian Jerry Bowles.
JERRY BOWLES: I think whatever reservations the American media may have had, they were easily overcome, and particularly when the, when the newspapers saw those ratings, those 73 million people. They knew that somebody out there was paying attention. [AUDIO UP FROM ED SULLIVAN SHOW]
ANNOUNCER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, from Miami Beach, the Ed Sullivan Show.
PAUL INGLES:The next week, another 70 million or so tuned in to see the Beatles in a scruffier Sullivan show broadcast from a ballroom at Miami's Deauville Hotel. Everything about this remote broadcast felt loose. The Beatles chatted up the audience, the temporary stage creaked, and the sound mix was a bit off. But author Bruce Spizer says there were still great moments.
BRUCE SPIZER: One of the really wonderful performances was on "This Boy." You had all three of the Beatles sharing one vocal microphone, and it seemed to be a very intimate moment.
BEATLES: OH, AND THIS BOY COULD BE HAPPY JUST TO LOVE YOU BUT OH MY-- THAT BOY WON'T BE HAPPY TILL HE SEES YOU CRY-- [SCREAMS]
PAUL INGLES: After Miami, the Beatles never performed live for Sullivan again. They furnished him and other shows with taped performances and films that many see as precursors to music videos. But nothing matched the energy of that first live Beatles show on February 9th. It's still one of the most requested videotapes at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. Arthur Smith is curator of a Beatles in America exhibit there.
ARTHUR SMITH: It augered a new age of popular culture in which it became sort of a, a-- international youth culture. There's something fairytale-like or mythic about the Beatles, and to be able to watch that actually happening, unfolding before your eyes, is an incredible experience.
PAUL INGLES: Four Sullivan shows featuring the Beatles are out now in a DVD set, and 40 years after being in the Sullivan audience, Leslie Samuels Healy decided to make a personal Beatles pilgrimage. She got tickets to David Letterman's February 9th show in the Ed Sullivan theater. She wanted to sit in the same space where she saw the Beatles -- live. For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles.
BEATLES: BE GLAD-- YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAHHHHH-- [SCREAMS]
copyright 2004 WNYC Radio