Sunday night (February 9th) marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” A record seventy-three million Americans — more than a third of the U.S. population and considerably higher than the first Super Bowl TV audience three years later — tuned in. Some were habitual viewers of the popular weekly variety show. A sizable segment, no doubt, watched just to see what was the fuss about four British lads. But many viewers, largely pre-teen and teenage girls, were a legion of keyed up devotees, aware of the ruckus since the Liverpool quartet’s contagious pop songs became Top 40 radio staples in the weeks before their groundbreaking, two-set performance.
Although I was a fan of rock and roll for several years, when The Beatles came on the scene and Beatlemania snowballed from coast-to-coast, I thought it'd be a passing fad. The music was, at the time, unsuitable for what I considered my more developed tastes. I couldn’t help but hear their catchy tunes on the radio, but I was deliberately indifferent — and didn’t surrender until years later.
I suppose my principal motive for spurning the craze was because it appealed to hordes of screaming teenage girls, which would happen again, and I ignored again, when Bubblegum pop fleetingly materialized a few years later.
Beatlemania was underway before the foursome landed at JFK Airport, not long after it was named for the slain president, when "Please Please Me” topped the British music charts a year earlier. Before 1963 was over, and more than a handful of singles — “All My Loving” (the first song performed on the Sullivan show), “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and, arguably, the fan favorite, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — later, the craze was rockin’ the USA and spearheaded The British Invasion.
In the months and years following The Beatles U.S. radio and music chart debut, a barrage of British bands joined the musical assault, though none had the impact of the mop-topped quartet. Even as I shunned The Beatles, I favored the assortment of bands that followed them across the Atlantic, including The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, The Kinks, The Zombies and, perhaps, the Fab Four’s closest challenger, The Rolling Stones, with whom I toured 25 years later.
By the way, when host Ed Sullivan said, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!” the other acts scheduled to perform that night were plainly overshadowed. With the exception of impressionist Frank Gorshin, who later gained a measure of fame as “The Riddler” in the “Batman” television series, those performers — magician Fred Kaps, comedians Charlie Brill & Mitzi McCall, Welsh singer Tessie O'Shea, Georgia Brown and the Broadway cast of “Oliver!” and acrobats Wells & the Four Fays (Sullivan’s show was known for its eclectic lineup) — for the most part, were destined to become mere postscripts in Beatles’ history.
Ironically, that Beatles performance came five years after “February made me shiver…the day the music died,” as singer/songwriter Don McLean characterized it in his classic “American Pie,” after Buddy Holly, Ritchie “La Bamba” Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. American pop music survived that fateful episode, but The Beatles ignited and sustained a fresh rock and roll era, as McLean pointed out with these lyrics: “…While the sergeants played a marching tune, We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance, 'Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield…”
The Beatles arrival was timely as it provided a key distraction from the country’s ongoing anguish. It not only offered a degree of comfort and diversion, less than three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but it overlapped the blossoming Civil Rights movement, as well as the escalating struggle that turned into the divisive war in Vietnam.
In the band’s eight year existence, from 1962-1970, The Beatles wrote and recorded over 200 songs. I gradually paid attention to the group’s shifting music, which ultimately enticed me to irreversibly appreciate them shortly after the release of “Abbey Road,” on the heels of my Army discharge. Consequently, I came to savor “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Revolver,” “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) and “Let It Be,” the final release before they split up.
For a group that was together less than a decade, its obvious and understated influences on the Baby Boom and succeeding generations of musicians and music lovers are timeless and noteworthy.
To paraphrase the title song from perhaps their most acclaimed album, it was nearly 50 years ago today, the Fab Four came to play; they've never gone out of style and they’re still guaranteed to raise a smile.
It was far from a long and winding road that led me to appreciate The Beatles. As my musical tastes developed, I recognized their enduring effect on rock and roll, the enormous impact they had on our culture and, indisputably, America’s conscience.
And in the end, I loved John, Paul, George and Ringo — yeah, yeah, yeah!