Ladies and Gentleman ... The Beatles!

By Ray McAllister | February 13th, 2014

Ray McAllister remembers The Beatles

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964

Ed Sullivan knew what he was about to unleash, though the rest of us couldn’t, when he announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen … THE BEATLES!”

A bomb went off. How else would you describe it?

Fifty years later, the fallout lingers.

I have just emerged from a time capsule of sorts, having watched the three broadcasts of The Ed Sullivan Show when the group appeared on successive Sundays in 1964: Feb. 9, Feb. 16 and Feb. 23. They are on DVDs given to me a few years ago by my parents.

I had little idea who the Fab Four were back then. It would be nearly two years before I would buy my first three albums (The others were Petula Clark’s Downtown and The Best of Herman’s Hermits. …Probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.), and though one was the Beatles’ latest, it was actually their eighth, Rubber Soul. I would go back and buy every predecessor. We all did.

Sullivan sure knew who The Beatles were. He had famously seen the screaming 15,000 at London’s Heathrow Airport awaiting their return from Sweden. This could be a second Elvis for his show.

But if Sullivan needed The Beatles, they needed him at least as much. Sullivan’s live show was the king of American TV (and now ranked by TV Guide as the 15th most important show ever). There was no better way to make inroads into America.

Even now, the excitement explodes out of those black-and-white shows.

There The Beatles are on the famous set, a circular platform with large arrows pointing downward to it from all directions. Paul, ever smiling, ever the cute one, starts “All My Loving.” There is bedlam.

The audience is part of the performance. Countless cutaways show screaming girls, who seem to fill most of the 728 seats in the theater (50,000 people had applied for those 728). At the end of the first song, the girls, many in party dresses, simply scream – and shake and bounce involuntarily. The few boys, most in coat and tie, applaud. They seem, frankly, stunned.

It is a new world.

Even “Till There Was You,” a slow Broadway ballad, brings a soft delerium. Names pop up over each Beatle in turn: “PAUL,” “RINGO” and “GEORGE.” Then “JOHN,” with the famous disclaimer, “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED:”(Lost to history is why that colony was necessary.)

The first set ends with “She Loves You.” The four sing “woooooooh” and shake their mop tops – you remember – and there is heightened screaming.

Even when they leave and Sullivan appears, he has to hold up his hand. “You promised,” he reminds the audience.

Other acts appear, no doubt thankful for the massive audience … yet cursing their luck. Only the cast of the musical Oliver!, headlined by Georgia Brown and a very young star (Know who he was? One of the all-time great trivia questions), seem comfortable.

The rest are deer in headlights. None can hear. A magician/comedian, Fred Kaps, bombs. His feels like a 1950s performance. An amateur’s performance.

A performance by someone who is not The Beatles.

The worst fate befalls a young married stand-up team, Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill. They will admit years later the evening had been a nightmare, “the worst thing that ever happened,” Brill says. Watch it now. Though microphones aid the home audience, the two literally cannot hear one another. Lines are uttered without rhythm, without humor, without response. Could it get worse? In their skit, McCall pretends to have a daughter: “She used to be one of the Beatles.” Brill: “What happened?” McCall: “Someone stepped on her.”(Guess how many laughs that gets?)

After the sacrificial lambs leave, Sullivan reintroduces The Beatles. The set is different, and Ringo, his drum stand elevated, barely clears the ceiling. Hardly matters. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” drive the decibel level through the ceiling. Even a stylish middle-age woman screams and bounces.

Sullivan congratulates the crowed afterward: “You’ve been a fine audience despite severe provocation.”

The Beatles’ debut would prove the most-watched TV show in history to that point. America was transformed – as pop music would be over the next decade. Even the crime rate that night was the lowest in a half-century. For the next week’s show, Mitzi Gaynor had been promised the head-liner’s spot – and she would get nine minutes to perform but they would be in the show’s middle. The Beatles were headliners, and they would be again the third week – even with a pre-recorded performance.

For another performer, that first night was transformative, as well. The young Oliver! star was 18-year-old Davy Jones, who would gain stardom in The Monkees, a TV show built around a Beatles-like group. Jones had sat in the wings that night and seen the fanatical reaction. “I thought, I want a part of this action,” he said later. “That particular night changed my way of thinking around.” Without Sullivan that night, he would never have taken the Monkees job. “If there hadn’t been a Beatles, there would never have been a Monkees.”

Or so much more.

More from Boomer