LOS ANGELES -- Dave Grohl was on his way to rehearsals for a TV special marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' U.S. television debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" when the panic set in.
"Suddenly it hit me: Maybe I ought to listen to the record again before we rehearse it," the founding member of Nirvana and Foo Fighters said of his impending run-through of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with guitarists Joe Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. for "The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles."
The two-hour special will air Sunday (8 p.m. CBS), exactly half a century after the Fab Four's appearance on Sullivan's show kicked Beatlemania into high gear on American shores.
"Finally I thought, [forget] it!" he said later. "When I got there and sat down at the drums and started playing, all the fills were there -- they just came out [because] I've been listening to this stuff my whole life."
Mr. Grohl's moment of clarity about the DNA-deep resonance of the Beatles' music in his life was echoed repeatedly by the musicians who perform in the Beatles special, which piggybacks on this year's Grammy Awards show with performances by Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, Gary Clark Jr., John Legend, Pharrell Williams, emcee LL Cool J and, of course, the surviving members of the Fab Four: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
"We had no idea Ed Sullivan was the biggest show in America," Starr, 73, said. "We just knew we were coming to do some TV show. All we cared about was that we were coming to America. New York! Nothing else mattered."
Wonder not only vividly remembers the profound impact the Beatles' performance on the Sullivan show had on him as a 13-year-old musician but also recalled his early exposure to them while he was on tour in England.
"I'd heard them in England from being over there, and I was telling people about the Beatles, how they had a great sound, with these great chord structures," said Wonder, after his run-through of "We Can Work It Out," the 1965 Beatles hit that he brought back into the Top 20 six years later with his funky arrangement.
The show's tribute to the ongoing impact of the Beatles' music spurred the reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics, performing together for the first time in nearly a decade. Alicia Keys, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Ed Sheeran, performers from the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas Beatles show "Love" and George Harrison's son, Dhani Harrison, are among those featured in the Beatles special who didn't appear on the Grammy telecast.
Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale and actress-singer Anna Kendrick pump up the celebrity content with their introductions to various performances.
As for any pressure of singing Beatles songs with the two living Beatles looking on, Ms. Perry, who covers "Yesterday," said, "I really think there was more pressure yesterday [at the Grammys], no pun intended. Today, it's just about being part of this great cast of characters and having fun."
Grammy Awards telecast and Beatles special executive producer Ken Ehrlich said that the anniversary special, shot Jan. 27 in front of about 3,100 people who paid from $95 to $495 to attend, with proceeds going to the Grammy Foundation or Grammy Museum, has been brewing for at least 10 years.
"I started talking about this with [former Apple Records chief] Neil Aspinall around the 40th anniversary of the Sullivan show. But they weren't ready to do it then.
"It's been remarkable how this went from 'Will Paul and Ringo show up?' to them deciding they would perform to getting the call from Paul asking me, 'Can we talk about what you'd like Ringo and me to do together?' " he said. "I was so overly cautious about never daring to ask them to perform together. So to get that call from him -- I'm obviously thrilled they came to that conclusion."