The Beatles’ golden moment: 50 years after Ed Sullivan

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by Punch Shaw,

from Fort Worth Star Telegram,

The Sears Silvertone television glowed with indistinct grays, whites and blacks as the hunched little man in a stockbroker’s suit announced in his oddly clipped cadence, “Ladies and gentlemen,” then, swinging around stiffly toward stage left, “The Beatles!”

And, after that, nothing was ever the same.

The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964 — 50 years ago — was one of the most significant moments in a period of American history that produced more than its share of game-changers. The incredible influence that the lovable mop-tops from Liverpool — John, Paul, George and Ringo — would have on music, social behavior, popular culture and even politics can be traced to that single broadcast.

Americans tuned into the popular variety show in staggering numbers — 73.9 million viewers, or about 40 percent of the population, watched, making it the most-viewed event in television history to that point. As the Sullivan audience let loose with piercing screams (could that wail really have been created by a crowd of only 728?) and the band launched into All My Loving, a generation of soon-to-be Beatles fans watching at home saw its collective dreams unfold right before its eyes.

For Ned James, a 13-year-old who spent his days hanging out at the Bruton family’s record shop in Fort Worth, the Beatles’ five-song set that Sunday evening on CBS sparked more than just a musical awakening.

The Beatles “made it possible to try anything you wanted to do,” he says now. “That’s what I gleaned from them. For a town like this, that broadcast was a breath of fresh air. … I think a big chunk of my individuality started there.”

many celebrations of that seminal moment, the most elaborate of which is The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles, a two-hour tribute set for 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS. It airs 50 years to the hour after the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on that same network.

To fully understand the importance of that night, it’s necessary to understand how significant Sullivan’s show was in defining American popular culture. In many homes, watching Sullivan on Sundays was a ritual observed as religiously as attending church.

The program, which defined the term variety show by presenting a wild mix of singers, comedians, ballerinas, acrobats, jugglers and even circus acts in any given episode, was not in the business of nurturing new talent.

Most of the acts appearing had already established themselves. That was the case for Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Their songs were already hits when they appeared on the show. What Sullivan did was legitimize them with the public.

If they were good enough for Ed, they were good enough for America.

So when the Beatles were booked, they were already topping the charts and causing near-riots at concerts in England. And their singles were soaring here. But the broadcast would be the first time most Americans ever laid eyes on them.

The Beatles — whose appearance was preceded by Sullivan reading a welcoming telegram from Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker — performed All My Loving, Till There Was You (from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man), She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand.

The set was a showcase for the Beatles’ strategy. They could dazzle with freshly crafted pop songs, but they were also so eager to please that they were willing to do a show tune.

Reaction to the Beatles’ Sullivan broadcast was intense on every front. Those who felt threatened by them responded with expected vitriol — even the suits and the show tune were not enough to appease them.

On the other hand, those wanting desperately to embrace them did so without reserve.

Beatlemania unleashed.

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