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Beatles' road to rock history started before 'Ed Sullivan Show'

The fan frenzy that erupted after the Beatles' 'Ed Sullivan Show' appearance was the result of musical talent, managerial chutzpah and marketing genius.

February 08, 2014|By Randy Lewis
  • The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr on drums, and John Lennon perform on the CBS "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York.
The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr on… (Associated Press )

It was the pop culture equivalent of the Big Bang, a televised moment that changed music for decades to come.

Fifty years ago Sunday, the Beatles made their U.S. live television debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" as 73 million people tuned in, the largest audience in history at that time. The English band's appearance ignited American hysteria over the group and its music on a scale unmatched to this day.

In the shorthand of history, it appears to be a moment of spontaneous combustion. In reality it was the result of musical talent, managerial chutzpah and marketing genius.

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But at the time, not even John, Paul, George or Ringo were fully aware of what was to come.

"We were busy — it was crazy at home," drummer Ringo Starr, 73, said in a recent interview. "We thought we were just coming to do some TV show. We were like, 'We're going to America!' — that's all I could think, we're going to America where all the music I ever loved came from. That was the big news for me."

From early on, the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, was determined to break his band in America.

"His conviction in the Beatles' qualities was unshakable from the start," said Mark Lewisohn, author of a new biography "Tune In: The Beatles — All These Years, Vol. 1." "He believed ... that they would be the greatest."

But through most of 1963, even the band's label wasn't taking much notice. Executives at Capitol Records, the sister label of Britain's EMI-owned Parlophone Records, deemed their music unsuitable for American audiences and repeatedly declined to release soon-to-be Beatles' classics including "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You."

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"I would occasionally take an EMI record, English in particular, and release it in the United States with no success whatsoever," Capitol's then-president, Alan Livingston, says in historian Bruce Spizer's 2003 book, "The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America." "There was just no interest in English artists here."

True enough. Cliff Richard was the biggest pop star in England before the Beatles came along, selling millions of records at home. The best he could do in the U.S. was No. 25 for his late-1963 version of the 1950s pop-R&B ballad "It's All in the Game."

What's more, lead guitarist George Harrison found no awareness of the band when he came to America in September 1963 to visit his sister, Starr said.

"He said, 'It's going to be tough,' " Starr recalled.

That would soon change, as Beatlemania took hold in England — and American news outlets began to take notice.

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On Oct. 6, 1963, the Los Angeles Times published a London Times story about what had erupted out of the seaport city of Liverpool. Reporter Derek Jewell presciently noted:

"One genuine novelty, however, may make the sociologists twitter," he wrote. "Their talk reveals them as very much part of that questing, confident, cool, sharp and unshockable stream which has come of the grammar schools in the last decade."

The Beatles' refreshing candor, energetic music and irreverence won them a spot performing for the royal family at the Royal Variety Show in London on Nov. 4. That high-profile gig helped boost their profile across the pond.

The Beatles' name came up in Sullivan's world as early as summer 1963, when the show's British talent scout, Peter Pritchard, took notice of the quartet's rising popularity and the intense fan reaction during their performances.

Pritchard used the performance before the royals as further ammo in urging Sullivan to put them on his show and helped arrange for Epstein to come make his pitch directly.

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Epstein persuaded Sullivan not just to put the Beatles on his weekly variety show but to guarantee three appearances. Even more remarkably, Sullivan consented to giving them top billing on the first show even though at that moment they were an unknown quantity in the States.

And vice versa. "We had no idea [Sullivan's show] was that huge," Starr said. "We just thought it'd be a break-in to America. And New York — we were in New York, for God's sakes. It was incredible."

The deal with Sullivan was the ammunition Epstein needed to cajole Capitol President Livingston to release their music in the U.S. and, equally important, to commit to spending $40,000 — a hefty amount in 1963 — promoting the Beatles' new single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Capitol slated it for mid-January release, ahead of the Feb. 9 Sullivan show debut.

Things were starting to change: Time and Newsweek magazines carried reports about the Beatles in their issues of Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, respectively. Then all three major American television networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — dispatched film crews to a Beatles' Nov. 16 performance in Bournmouthe, England.

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