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Beyond Ed Sullivan: The Beatles on American television

Sunday, 9 February 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the American television broadcast of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. For many writers on pop music, the appearance on the Sullivan show not only marked the debut of the Beatles in the United States, but also launched their career as international pop music superstars. The mass exposure to millions of television viewers rocketed the Fab Four to national prominence in the United States, and created a chain reaction for stardom in the entire world.

The Beatles, 1963
The Beatles, Stockholm, 1963

While the charisma and quality of the Beatles’ music drew great popularity in 1964, the group’s success was assisted by the entrepreneurial skills of American television, notably by the expertise of Ed Sullivan. However, several other television broadcasts predated the Sullivan show appearance, and laid the groundwork for the Beatles’ stardom in the United States. In particular, two news stories about the Beatles were aired in November 1963, four full months before the Sullivan appearance. This, plus another taped appearance by the group by another entrepreneur, NBC’s Jack Paar, paved the way for the Beatles’ stardom in the United States.

The Ed Sullivan Show

Ed Sullivan began his career as a journalist throughout the 1920s and worked his way into the position as theater columnist for the New York Daily News when Walter Winchell left the paper in the early 1930s. Sullivan was also a host for Vaudeville theaters, serving as master of ceremonies for a number of shows during World War II. He broke into television as host of telecasts of New York’s Harvest Moon Ball on CBS, and was asked to host a weekly variety show called Toast of the Town in 1948. The show would be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.

With his journalistic experience, Sullivan was able to use his contacts to attract a wide range of celebrities on the show. He attracted comedians such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Broadway stars like Julie Andrews, jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, and even opera singers like Maria Callas and Robert Merrill. However, Sullivan may be best known for bringing rock‘n’roll to the small screen. He had Elvis Presley on the show on 6 January 1957, and many rockers such as Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and many others thereafter.

Sullivan’s embrace (or at least tolerance) for rock music paved the way for the Beatles. Sullivan reportedly heard (or heard of) the Beatles during a trip to London and decided to put them on his show. He offered the band $10,000 to appear, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, would be a somewhat modest $75,000 in today’s dollars.

As the show opened on that historic night in 1964, Sullivan reported that Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had sent a telegram to the Beatles wishing them luck. In his introduction, Sullivan also used the increased viewership to plug some of his other acts on previous shows, notably Topo Gigio (the Italian/Spanish mouse puppet created by Maria Perego), Van Heflin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr. But the tension to hear the Beatles was palpable, and he segued into a commercial quickly, promising the Beatles after the break.

The appearance by the Beatles almost didn’t happen. George Harrison reportedly had a sore throat the week before, but by broadcast, was better. So, the Beatles went live with their full line-up, performing five songs that night: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

News stories

While the Ed Sullivan appearance marked the first live US TV appearance of the Beatles, the groundwork had already been laid to introduce the band to the United States a few months earlier. NBC News did a four-minute story on the Beatles that was broadcast on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on 16 November 1963, three full months before the Sullivan show. The feature was narrated by reporter Edwin Newman, who would later anchor the NBC News.

Not to be “scooped” by NBC, CBS News also produced a five-minute piece on the Fab Four, which aired on 21 November, the eve of the fateful day on which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Alexander Kendrick, CBS’s London Bureau Chief taped the story, which showed footage of the Beatles performing in England, and the story ended with Kendrick ruminating on the social significance of the group, representing England’s youth, or at least England’s youth as they “wanted to be.”

The Jack Paar Program

Also predating the Sullivan Show, the first prime time film footage of the Beatles actually aired on 3 January 1964. The person responsible was another entrepreneur—NBC’s Jack Paar. Like Ed Sullivan, Paar was not a TV celebrity “natural” and came to television as a master of ceremonies. After World War II, Paar made some appearances in a few low-budget films, and made his way to television as a game show host. He was chosen as the regular replacement for Steve Allen as the host of NBC’s Tonight Show in 1957. Paar did not have Allen’s musical talent, nor his talent for sketch comedy or practical jokes, but was able to surround himself with unusual talent to market his show. While not as “wooden” on stage as Sullivan, Paar tended to be low-key and conversational, rather than charismatic and presentational. Like Sullivan, Paar also had a flair for discovering unique talent and is often credited for discovering, or at least popularizing, such off-beat characters as comedians Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart. Paar left the Tonight Show (ushering in the Johnny Carson era) in 1962, but went on to host a weekly variety show called The Jack Paar Program, that aired on Friday nights on NBC. It was on this program that he introduced the Beatles to the United States.

Like Sullivan, Paar had heard of the Beatles while in London and decided to show some film footage of the band as a joke. “I thought it was funny,” he quipped later on a television retrospective. He admitted that he had no idea that the band would change the course of music history. On the 1963 broadcast, after showing the footage, he quipped: “Nice to know that England has risen to our [American] cultural level.”

The episode with the footage was taped on 16 November 1963, the same date as the NBC news story (undoubtedly the story was fed to Paar from the network news bureau), but was not aired until 3 January 1964, undoubtedly delayed by the Kennedy assassination. Paar’s film clip still predates the Sullivan appearance by more than a month.

Would the Beatles have made it as superstars without the entrepreneurial efforts of Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar to give them TV coverage? The answer is undoubtedly yes. But the mass exposure they receive through American TV broadcasts by Sullivan and Paar (as well as NBC and CBS news) laid the groundwork for the Beatles success by presenting the group to millions of television viewers in the United States, and the world.

Image: The Beatles i Hötorgscity 1963, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Hembree

    What a hoot! In defense of Huntley, Brinkley (even Ed Newman) and Paar, they didn’t know what hit them. Nobody did. I always tell my kids, no one ever did and no one ever will hit like that. One moment you’re listening to Pat Boone, the next thing you know, WHAM! like nothing you ever heard before. And then they speak and they really ARE cool!

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