Fifty years ago this morning, a lot of teens and pre-teens were even more fidgety than usual in church, if they made it there at all.
That night – Feb. 9, 1964 – the Beatles were to make their first of three consecutive Sunday night appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s difficult to describe for anyone not alive at the time the fever-pitch intensity of the buildup to that moment.
In the pre-Internet days, America had never actually seen the Beatles perform, except maybe briefly in a network news clip. But their domination of the radio airwaves in the weeks leading up to their trip to the U.S. and the “Beatlemania” that had gripped this side of the Atlantic ensured that the audience would be huge, and that American pop culture would never be the same.
That’s not to shortchange Elvis. After all, it was John Lennon who said, “Nothing really affected me until Elvis.” Tupelo’s native son certainly changed the music and cultural landscape and in many ways made possible the advent of the Beatles – and the eclipsing of his pop preeminence. Just eight years before, a rising Elvis had skyrocketed to even greater fame after appearing on Ed Sullivan.
But the Beatles were a juggernaut – and a marketing phenomenon – never seen before or since.
That night 50 years ago their Sullivan show appearance was seen by 73 million Americans, a record at the time. That compares to 111.5 million who watched the most-viewed Super Bowl of all time last weekend.
But here’s the catch: In 1964, there were 192 million people in America. In 2014, there are 317 million. So with 38 percent of the country watching the Beatles that night and 35 percent for last Sunday’s game, the Beatles still drew a higher percentage of the country than the most-watched Super Bowl ever – and staged a much better show.
Like so many, the first time I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio I knew this was something different, something big. And I was just in elementary school, a year or so into listening to Top 40 AM radio primarily because I shared a room with a teenage brother.
There was something immediately captivating about that sound, with its raucous, driving beat, its great harmonies and its sheer joyous energy. And like most everyone else my age, I wanted to know as much as I could about these “mopheads.”
My brother and I were the fans. My older sister, sandwiched between us, was a horse-loving tomboy not yet acclimated to the demands of pop culture. She wanted to watch Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color that night – on our one black-and-white TV – which was, not coincidentally, the start of a three-part series on “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.” Our mother brokered a compromise: We’d watch the Beatles that night, our sister would get Disney the next week, and we’d decide about Round 3 later.
Probably like you, if you are of a certain age, I remember that night and that show vividly – Ed Sullivan, with his strangely awkward countenance, shouting over the screams of teenage girls, “Ladies and gentlemen … the Beat-els!” The closeups of John, Paul, George and Ringo in their Edwardian suits. The smiles, the winks, Paul’s bobbing head and of course, the incredible music.
From that day forward, we grew our hair a little longer – as long as our parents would let us – and many of us longed to play guitar in a band. A few actually cranked up in garages here and there.
My mother, right about so many things, was wrong about the Beatles, whose music she predicted wouldn’t last. She lived to see it become my children’s favorite, and there’s no end in sight.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.