The Beatles rocked America 50 years ago

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A half-century ago, the rumpled old newsman Ed Sullivan was the heir to the vaudevillians.


The Sunday night variety show on CBS-TV that bore his moniker had something for all ages, tastes and inclinations – Broadway casts, comedians, opera singers, puppeteers, movie stars and just about any other imaginable diversion and amusement. It was all presided over by Sullivan in reassuringly grumpy, grandfatherly fashion.


On Feb. 9, 1964, the lineup was not atypical for “The Ed Sullivan Show” – Fred Kaps, a magician doing card and salt shaker tricks, the cast of the musical “Oliver!”, Pittsburgher Frank Gorshin serving up impersonations, the acrobats Wells & the Four Fays, and singer Tessie O’Shea belting some show tunes.


Sullivan would sometimes showcase the latest “combo” or picture-perfect teen idols the kids were listening to on their transistor radios, and the show on Feb. 9, 1964, was no different.


“Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation,” Sullivan said, “And these veterans agree with me that the city has never quite witnessed the excitement stirred by these four youngsters from Liverpool who called themselves the Beatles. Now, tonight, you’re going to twice be entertained by them, right now and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen... ”


And a revolution began.


A little less than three months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas created a “flashbulb moment” that no one could ever banish from their minds, the country experienced another, but this one was of a happier sort. If you talk to anyone now in their late 50s or into their 60s, they’re likely to remember in vivid detail where they were and how they felt when they saw John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time 50 years ago tonight. Some might have swooned. Some might have resolved to grow their hair and grab a guitar. Some might have been a little perplexed, just like their parents and grandparents, with that propulsive beat and the slangy shouts of “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” But, for many people, the arrival of the four Britons in America in February 1964 was the demarcation line of when the Sixties truly began.


“I remember how different it sounded on the radio,” said Terry Hazlett, the former Canonsburg borough manager who writes a column focusing on television and radio for the Observer-Reporter. “A lot of what was on the radio were all the Bobbys, all the bland male vocalists. It just wasn’t really exciting music.”


Drawing 73 million viewers, the Feb. 9, 1964, broadcast of “The Ed Sullivan Show” was, for years after, the highest-rated television broadcast in America’s television history. Pulling in both the recently converted and curiosity-seekers, it caused such a hullabaloo that even the Rev. Billy Graham broke what he said was a personal prohibition against watching television on the Sabbath. After it was over, Graham pronounced that the Beatles were “a passing phase – symptoms of the uncertainty of the times and the confusion around us.”


The enormous impact the Beatles had on America was indicative of their immense talent and charisma, but it likely would not have been as mammoth in a more media-fractured environment. Fifty years ago, there were just five television stations, at most, in most markets – an independent operator, affiliates from the three major networks and, maybe, a public television station. Radio was almost exclusively an AM province, with the development of FM and its more free-form ethos only in its nascent stages. Hometown newspapers and national magazines were how most people got news beyond the headlines. Getting something as exotic as a record from Britain would have been next to impossible in most places.


Because of that, the Beatles could go from being something that no one was talking about to something everyone was talking about in a matter of weeks. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart and its accompanying album, “Meet the Beatles,” was No. 1 on the album chart by the time the group turned up on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By the end of March, they nailed down the top two positions on the album chart and the top five positions on the singles chart, a feat that has never been repeated.


It was, simply, a case of the floodgates being opened in America. The Beatles first charted in Britain 16 months before they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Beatlemania built quickly throughout Britain and parts of Europe. But, through most of 1963, they made no headway in America.


Capitol Records, a subsidiary of EMI Music, the British company that owned the Beatles’ British label Parlophone, consistently declined to release the band’s records, dismissing them as faddish junk that would never pass muster with audiences in the former colonies. So smaller American labels, such as Vee Jay, a Chicago-based imprint that mostly specialized in gospel and rhythm and blues, and Swan, a Philadelphia outfit that once had Dick Clark as an investor, rolled the dice with them and came up empty.


It was a Washington County native, however, who played a key role in finally getting the Beatles into the American market.


Frustrated by Capitol’s intransigence regarding the Fab Four, Beatles manager Brian Epstein called Alan Livingston, who hailed from McDonald and was the brother of composer Jay Livingston. Livingston was then the company’s president, and Epstein implored him to not only release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in America, but give it $40,000 worth of marketing muscle.


Livingston agreed.


“He recognized their potential,” according to Bruce Spizer, a New Orleans attorney who has written several books about the Beatles, including “The Beatles Are Coming!”, a 2004 volume about their first flush of American success.


Though many people have claimed – and probably exaggerated – their own importance in bringing the Beatles to America, Spizer explained that Livingston’s take on events “rang true to me” when Spizer interviewed him in retirement at his California home, several years before his death in 2009. “Over the years, if I had a problem with an organization, I eventually go to the top,” said Spizer.


Closer to his old stomping grounds, Bill Cameron was not necessarily the type of record-buyer Livingston might have envisioned becoming a Beatles fan, but Cameron, who had just turned 9 and was in the third grade in East Washington, was nonetheless smitten. “I hadn’t heard of the Beatles until the Friday before,” said Cameron, now a theater professor at Washington & Jefferson College and a guitarist in a cover band that plays several Beatles songs. “When we got back to school on Monday, everyone was talking about them.”


Before too long, both “Meet the Beatles” and another album, “Introducing the Beatles,” arrived in the Cameron household and his fandom was cemented.


“That Sunday night, when they were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ I was hooked from that point until this point today,” he said.


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