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Reuters/Mario Anzuoni POP ICONS: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr perform during the taping of “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles”, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on “ The Ed Sullivan Show.” The program will air on CBS at 8 p.m. Sunday. 

The Beatles changed the way TV viewed rock 'n' roll


If you were a grown-up on Feb. 9, 1964, and within reach of a television set, you might well have tuned to CBS to watch "The Ed Sullivan Show." After all, the competition was "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" on NBC and a short-lived Western on ABC called "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters."

Besides, maybe you were curious about this new singing group that was creating such a furor. Or maybe your kids were making you. Because if you were under 18, old enough to know the difference and not facing some sort of reprehensible and totally unfair punishment from your parents, you almost certainly did tune in to see the American television debut of the Beatles.

The Fab Four had arrived in New York just two days earlier to complete their incredibly rapid conquest of America. Virtually unknown in this country before the Dec. 26, 1963, release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Beatles flew in on the wings of that No. 1 single, along with the No. 1 album "Meet the Beatles" and a wave of teenage admiration that was quickly coined "Beatlemania."

Sure, America had seen its young people fall for pop stars before. Frank Sinatra made the girls swoon in the 1940s and Elvis Presley did it in the 1950s, but Beatlemania coincided neatly with the baby boom, giving it demographic clout that its predecessor fads couldn't muster.

In 1964, the last boomers were being hatched and the first ones were turning 18, and the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" was when the cohort showed the remarkable power of its remarkable numbers.

More than 70 million people watched the episode, making it the most-watched television show to that date. A number of legends have grown up around the appearance. We do know that George Harrison had strep throat and remained at the Plaza hotel during rehearsals. Road manager Neil Aspinwall sat in on guitar as the rest of the Beatles tried out the set Sullivan's people built for them.

The show itself went more smoothly. Sullivan introduced them prosaically, his last words drowned out by the screams from the audience. The Beatles launched into their latest single, "All My Loving," and history was in progress. During the second number, "Till There Was You," captions identified each of the Beatles by first name. Under John Lennon's was added, "Sorry, girls. He's married."

They did five numbers in all; three in the first half of the show and two in the second. A week later, after a stop in Washington, D.C., for their first American concert, the Beatles were in Miami Beach to join Sullivan's annual snowbird episode. The Beatles made a third appearance Feb. 23, although it had been taped Feb. 9 and the boys already were back in England.

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