The night the Beatles played 'The Ed Sullivan Show' changed the world
February 5, 2014 11:18 PM
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.
Pittsburgh rocker B.E. Taylor as a teenage Beatles fan.
Norman Nardini in 1985.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even if you were watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" that night on NBC or "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters" on ABC, why would you even admit it?
Most TVs in America on the night of Feb. 9, 1964, were tuned to CBS where Ed Sullivan had "a really big shooo" with four lads from Liverpool.
In that hour between 8 and 9, everything changed.
It wasn't an accident that 73 million people tuned in for the Beatles.
"I can still remember the feeling leading up to it," says Herman Granati.
He was 11 years old, watching it in the family's "tiny" Beaver Falls home with his parents and three younger brothers, who would become The Granati Brothers.
It was 50 years ago today -- well, Sunday -- when a strange man named Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to America. That was a night that changed not just the musical landscape, but also led to the redefinition of our culture, from hair and fashion to art and politics.
But how well do you really know the Beatles? We've launched an interactive quiz today that will test your knowledge of their music, their personalities and even their work in movies and TV. Answer all 20 questions correctly and you'll be rewarded with a surprise epilogue. To play, go to www.post-gazette.com/beatlesquiz. Good luck!
"I was listening to KQV, and Chuck Brinkman was very instrumental in introducing the Beatles to Pittsburgh. Everyone was talking about it in the streets. The vibe in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife."
Within those few months, history was moving at lightning speed. President John F. Kennedy had been shot in November and, "The country," Mr. Granati says, "was in pretty much of a daze at that time. My childhood was gone after Kennedy. We kind of stumbled through everything at Christmas. And then as soon as the new year came Chuck Brinkman started playing the Beatles records, and you could feel a change in the year."
The day before the show he went to the barbershop for a Beatle haircut, or at least a shorter version.
"[The barber] was an old Italian guy. He gave me a bunch of baloney about it -- 'Why you wanna look like that?!' "
When he walked back out on the street, his dad was standing there with some other guys. One said, "Hey, look, there goes one of those Beatles now!"
If they had been listening to the radio, watching TV or flipping through Time or Life magazine, people knew what to expect from the Fab Four. Like a lot of people, future Houserocker Joe Grushecky, who grew up in Irwin, saw the Beatles on TV the month before.
"My father and I were watching 'The Tonight Show,' and Jack Paar showed a clip of the Beatles singing 'She Loves Me,' and they had on those collarless suits and the haircuts and the whole nine yards. I said, 'Wow, that's really cool.' I was taken by them."
That was on Jan. 3 and not the first time the Beatles were on television. "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" was first, airing a four-minute segment on the band on Nov. 18, using footage each of the networks shot in concert in Bournemouth, England.
Four days later, "The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace" aired coverage from British correspondent Alexander Kendrick, who reported from "Beatleland" that "an epidemic called 'Beatlemania' has seized the teenage population, especially female" with the "dishmop" hairstyles. Musicologists, he said, declared it no different than any other rock 'n' roll -- except maybe louder.
George Harrison agreed, explaining that the new Merseybeat sound "was more like the original rock 'n' roll."
"I don't think the music's very different," Paul McCartney said, and when asked about what they would do if it all ended, he noted, "It's stupid to worry about those things, because it could happen tomorrow or we could have quite a run."
A few hours after the segment aired, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and the Beatles segment, set to run again on the evening news, was tossed aside and forgotten. Walter Cronkite, no doubt seeing The New York Times Magazine piece on the band in early December or the Life magazine photo of "Princess Margaret Meets the Red-Hot Beatles," dug out the clip and aired it on Dec. 10.
After seeing the Paar show mention, Mr. Grushecky says, "I had another stroke of luck. I found one of their records in the Murphy's Five & Dime, a couple days before the Sullivan show, so I was actually listening to their music. It was the 'Meet the Beatles' record with their faces on the cover and you turned it on, and they sounded so familiar and yet so different at the same time."
"Who the hell are the Beatles?"
That was Ed Sullivan's reaction when he saw 1,500 or so fans outside a rainy Heathrow Airport on Oct. 31, 1963.
Fresh off its big television moment in England a few weeks before, the Beatles were passing through Heathrow on the way back from Sweden the same time Sullivan was there with his wife.
It reminded him of the hysteria that swirled around Elvis Presley about seven years earlier. A few weeks later he met in New York with Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who agreed to take a smaller fee if the Beatles could appear on the Sullivan show for three consecutive weeks.
In the meantime, the hits started coming. As the year turned, Bobby Vinton, the Singing Nun, the Angels and other hitmakers were bumped out of the top slots on the singles charts for the Fab Four's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (Jan. 25) and "She Loves You" (Feb. 1).
The first Beatles album released in the United States, "Introducing ... the Beatles" on Vee-Jay Records, arrived on Jan. 10 with neither of those songs. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" would appear 10 days later on "Meet the Beatles" from Capitol, which got into a long, back-and-forth legal dispute with Vee-Jay.
On Feb. 9, the biggest audience in television history at the time, a whopping 40 percent of the U.S. population, tuned in at 8 p.m. and didn't have to wait long.
Sullivan strolled out and announced that the Beatles had just received a wire from Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker wishing them "a tremendous success in our country." After commercials for Aero Shave and shoe polish, he returned to say that the city "has never witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles," and he brought them right on with Paul shouting "1-2-3-4-5" and singing "close your eyes and I'll kiss you," the opening lines to "All My Loving" to a wave of high-pitched screams and gasps from the crowd.
"I knew as soon as I saw the collarless jackets and Spanish boots and heard the girls screaming, I knew what I wanted to be," Mr. Granati says. "I had the playbook. We would emulate the way they stood on stage."
"We were sitting on the couch," says Aliquippa's B.E. Taylor, "and I was sitting in front of everybody, getting closer to the TV, and they weren't even done with their first song and I turned around to my mother and father and said, 'That's what I want to do!' "
"When those songs came out and you got to see it on Sullivan, it was earth-shattering -- totally, totally overwhelming," says Norman Nardini, who was at home in Churchill. "They were super-studs in my 14-year-old mind. I already knew I would spend the rest of my life doing this."
"It was like, boom, Dorothy walking out of the house in 'The Wizard of Oz' and the next day everything was Technicolor," Mr. Grushecky says.
"I was impressed," says Jimmy Beaumont, one of the few Pittsburgh artists to have hit the charts at that point, with the Skyliners' 1959 hit "Since I Don't Have You." With the group having split up in the summer of '63, he was pursing a solo career and watching Sullivan in the home of his Skyliner co-singer Janet Vogel.
"It was different music than we were," he says. "We were more into R&B and Motown. I could see how the trend was going though. I was a little concerned because I could see that the younger crowd, teenagers, were going to embrace it. Because they were good."
Having done Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," where lip-synching was the standard, he was impressed that the Beatles were going live.
The Beatles, of course, were road-tested veterans by then. Lennon and McCartney had hooked up in '57, and since forming in 1960, the Beatles had played several residencies in Hamburg, playing each day for "hours and hours on end."
"All My Loving," with a twangy Gretsch solo from a smiling George, led into "Till There Was You," a nice ballad from "The Music Man" for the older folks at home, during which the show overlaid the names of the Beatles, flashing "Sorry Girls, He's Married" when it got to John. The Beatles bowed and quickly burst into a joyous "She Loves You," with those perfect harmonies.
That CBS report had warned of "compulsive tribal singing and dancing." This was it in the living rooms of America. Elvis times four. Or maybe 3 1/2 considering Ringo.
What followed was 35 minutes of variety show fodder in between, ranging from some old musical theater lady going wild on a banjo to Pittsburgh's own Frank Gorshin (pre-Riddler) doing impressions of Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and such.
"There were millions of kids out there," Gorshin told the Post-Gazette years later. "I looked out the window and saw them and thought, 'How did they know I was going to be on the show?' ... But I followed the Beatles, which was good for me -- they were still screaming when I went out."
That wasn't quite true, watching the tape, but it's a good line anyway. (It wasn't until the third show that Sullivan had to scold the crowd to "calm down!")
The Beatles returned with Paul singing the band's second U.S. hit, "I Saw Her Standing There," George and Ringo grooving hard on the solo, and Paul and John doing a dual lead on "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
"Everyone had their favorite Beatle," Mr. Grushecky says. "I probably liked Lennon the most. He had a growl to his voice."
"I found myself liking George," Mr. Taylor says.
"George was my favorite because he was the coolest looking guy in the band," Mr. Nardini says.
"The next day David [his 3-year-old brother] wanted to be George," Mr. Granati says. "He was playing a tennis racket. Me and Ricky both fought over John and Paul. I think I gravitated toward Paul because of my R&B leaning, but John had that yearning in his voice that reached me."
Even though the Beatles were attracting screaming girls, there wasn't any sense that they weren't cool for guys to like.
"Everyone was screaming for Elvis and Frank Sinatra, too, but it was still really good music," Mr. Grushecky says. "When we thought of teen idols, we thought of Fabian, Frankie Avalon, just pretty boys. The Beatles, they were cute, but they could play, they could sing. All the guys in my neighborhood were scrambling to get guitars. Like overnight."
"The day after the show," Mr. Granati says, "every guy came into class with his hair combed down on his forehead. The teacher made every one of them go out and comb their hair back up."
"My birthday was three weeks away," Mr. Taylor says, "and I was supposed to get a bicycle, and I told my dad, 'I don't want the bike, I want the two Beatles albums.' "
Mr. Nardini, at 14, says he was gigging with a band, playing Chuck Berry and Ventures tunes. "Guitar instrumentals were popular among the bands here."
Suddenly a new challenge had been thrown down.
"I don't think we had the talent to even imitate it," he says. "The Beatles sang so well. John and Paul were both very high-level singers. They talk about what a great songwriting team much more than how they sang together."
Mr. Beaumont started adding some of the slower Beatles, and then Rolling Stones, songs into his sets.
Mr. Grushecky was in a musical household -- his dad played bluegrass -- but he had to get his hands on an electric. He looked everywhere, including a popular pawn shop in Braddock.
"I saved up my nickels, and by May I bought a Silvertone at Sears Roebuck. One of those jobs where the amplifier was built right into the case. I think it was 68 bucks."
Sullivan knew a good thing when he saw it, and he kept the train rolling. The Beatles were back live the following week in Florida and on tape the third week.
“The excitement of Feb. 9 carried over every Sunday,” Mr. Granati says, “because there were two more Beatles weeks, and then every Sunday you discovered a new band. Next came the Stones, and Peter and Gordon, and the Dave Clark Five, and the Searchers, and the Kinks, and the Animals. It made your head spin, really, things changed real fast. It wasn’t an invasion. It was a bombardment.”
Hermie Granati, Joe Grushecky, Norman Nardini and B.E. Taylor all formed bands and went on to release albums on major labels, comprising what is loosely known as the Pittsburgh All-Stars. They all still play out live.
The Beatles returned to Sullivan with more hair and more swagger for one final visit in September ’65. (Among the six songs were “Ticket to Ride” and “Help!,” and after Paul went solo on “Yesterday,” John sneered, “Aw, thank you, Paul. That was JUST like him … .”)
Before wrapping it up on the Apple Studios rooftop in London in January 1969, the Fab Four impacted the culture well beyond hair and guitars, influencing the way young people thought about fashion, religion, art, drugs, love, sex, war — and beards.
There was little context then for how long a rock band should last, not the slightest inkling that the rival Stones or Beach Boys might go 50 years.
So, it was short and sweet, but as McCartney hinted, “quite a run” for the biggest-selling, most influential and most important band of all time.
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