And That’s the Way It Was: The Story Behind The Beatles on Ed Sullivan

by Bruce Spizer
Beatlefan Magazine, Jan-Feb 2004

On Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, over 73 million Americans gathered around television sets to see what all the excitement was about. For several weeks American radio stations had been saturating the airwaves with Beatles music. The power of radio had led to sales of millions of Beatles singles and albums. For weeks, the country had been warned “The Beatles Are Coming!” The American press picked up on the story, with several magazines and newspapers running feature stories on the group. Two days earlier, CBS and ABC showed film of The Beatles’ arrival in America at New York’s Kennedy Airport on their evening news shows. But the big event was The Beatles’ first live appearance on American television, which took place on the country’s most popular variety program, “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

The excitement began shortly after 8 p.m. EST when Sullivan gave his famous introduction: “Now yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that the city never has the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool, who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles. Let’s bring them on.”

Sullivan’s last words were drowned out by the screaming young girls in attendance at CBS Studio 50. After Paul McCartney’s count-in, the group opened with one of the more popular tracks from their Capitol album, “All My Loving”. It was an energetic performance that showed The Beatles had total command of the situation. The girls yelled and bounced in their seats for the entire song. Upon its completion, the crowd screamed even louder and wildly applauded as the group bow in unison.

Paul took the spotlight again on “Till There Was You”. A lovely ballad from “The Music Man” that even the adults in the audience could appreciate. Although the girls were quiet at first, the screaming resumed early on, with one youngster shouting “Ringo” as George Harrison took a solo on his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar. During the song, the camera focused on each member of the group, with his first name superimposed on the screen. When it came time for John Lennon, “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED” appeared below his name. The relative calm of the ballad was quickly shattered by a rocking version of “She Loves You” that provided a bold demonstration of the big beat sound. The loudest screams occurred each time John, Paul, and George went “Woooo” and shook their heads. When it was over, The Beatles took their customary bow.

Thirty-five minutes later, Sullivan introduced the group’s second segment with a simple, “Ladies and gentlemen, once again.” The Beatles then played boot-tapping versions of both sides of their Capitol single, “I Saw Her Standing There” and the No. 1 hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” During these songs, as well as the earlier performances, the cameramen did a superb job of capturing The Beatles and the excitement of the event despite being unable to hear the director’s instructions through their headphones over the screaming girls. The last song effectively mixed long shots, close-ups, crowd shots and a move in and out on drummer Ringo Starr by a mobile crane camera.

After taking their bows, John, Paul and George removed their instruments and Ringo jumped down from his drum riser. The group then headed over to Sullivan to shake hands and wave to the crowd.

For many, The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was a defining moment comparable to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or man’s first steps on the moon. The powerful sounds and images of those performances are forever embedded in our minds. For 40 years, the story of The Beatles on Sullivan has been told in countless books, articles and documentaries, but often with myths and misinformation.

The official version of how Ed Sullivan learned about The Beatles begins on Oct. 31, 1963. On that day, Sullivan and his wife were at London Airport. It was an unusually busy day at the airport with the prime minister due to fly out and contestants for the Miss World contest (being held that year in London) arriving. Although the city was experiencing a heavy rainstorm that day more than 1,500 youngsters lined the rooftop gardens of the Queen’s Building and others congregated on the ground. Sullivan asked what all the commotion was about and was informed that it was for The Beatles, who were returning from a tour of Sweden. He replied, “Who the hell are The Beatles?” Sullivan was told that the Beatles were a well-known pop group. Although Sullivan would later claim that the incident caused him to immediately inquire into booking The Beatles on his show, the true story is a bit more involved.

Jack Babb, who was the talent coordinator for the Sullivan show, spent his summers in Europe checking out potential acts for the program. He was assisted by Peter Prichard, a London theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as his European talent coordinator. Prichard became good friends with Sullivan and Babb. He also knew Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who sometimes called him for advice.

During the summer of 1963, Prichard took Babb to see The Beatles on at least one occasion. Although The Beatles were developing a following on the British concert circuit and had two No. 1 singles and a chart-topping album, the group had yet to become part of the national consciousness. Because no British pop act had ever achieved prolonged success in America, neither Prichard nor Babb gave consideration to booking The Beatles on the Sullivan show.

By September 1963, The Beatles were gaining coverage in the British press and were receiving tremendous radio and television exposure. But their big break through was a widely-watched and well-publicized television appearance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium”, which was televised throughout the U.K. during prime time Sunday evening and was the British equivalent of “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The Beatles headlined the Oct. 13, 1963, Palladium show, which was seen by more than 15 million people. The bedlam caused by the group both inside and outside the theater caught the attention of British news editors, who elevated The Beatles from a successful entertainment act to a national news phenomenon. The Daily Mirror described the hysteria as “Beatlemania!” The term stuck.

The Beatles’ triumphant Palladium appearance was quickly followed by the Oct. 31 airport reception witnessed by Sullivan and their playing before British high society at the Royal Command Performance, also known as the Royal Variety Show. Their presence on the Nov. 4, 1963, show drew more attention than the arrival of Royal Family. The Beatles, who were seventh on the bill of 19 acts, impressed the upscale crowd with “She Loves You”, “Till There Was You”, “From Me To You” and “Twist and Show”. Prior to ripping into a rousing rendition of their closing rocker, Lennon said, “For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” While Epstein viewed John’s remarks as being a bit risque, he was relieved that the crowd seemed charmed by the Beatle’s cheeky humor. Before the show, John had joked to Brian that he was going to ask the Royals to rattle their “fookin’ jewelry.”

The next day Epstein headed to New York with Billy J. Kramer, a 20-year-old singer who was one of the other acts he managed. The primary purpose of the visit was to promote Kramer, whom Epstein hoped would develop into a successful cabaret crooner capable of headlining shows in New York and Las Vegas. The other purpose of his visit was to explore why The Beatles hadn’t “happened” in America and, more important, perhaps do something about it by “spreading the gospel of The Beatles in the U.S.A.”

Prior to leaving for New York, Epstein was contacted by Prichard, who said he should try to get The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and offered to negotiate a deal. When Brian said that he would rather handle the negotiations himself, Prichard told Brian to call him when he got to New York so that he could set up a meeting with Sullivan.

As Epstein’s plane was heading to New York, Prichard began workout his pitch to Sullivan for The Beatles. He later called Sullivan and gave him a report on the Royal Variety Show. Prichard mentioned the tremendous response The Beatles received and recommended that Sullivan book The Beatles for his show. Sullivan, remembering the large crowd at London Airport, was interested, but needed an angle to promote the group, which at the time was still unknown in America. Prichard informed Sullivan that The Beatles were the first “long haired boys” to be invited to appear before the Queen of England. That convinced Sullivan to consider the group for his show.

Epstein’s 1963 appointment book indicates he met with Sullivan at his suite at the Delmonico Hotel on Monday, Nov. 11. This was followed by a 5 p.m. dinner meeting the next day at the Delmonico Hotel’s restaurant.

The initial meeting was apparently attended only by Epstein and Sullivan. They tentatively agreed that The Beatles would appear on Sullivan’s Feb. 9, 1964, show live from New York, and then the following week on a special remote show broadcast live from th4e Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach. Bob Precht, Sullivan’s son-in-law and producer, was asked to attend the second meeting during which the deal was finalized. Upon his arrival at the Delmonico, Precht was introduced to Epstein and told by Sullivan that the manager had a great group of youngsters who were going to be “really big”.

Although Sullivan paid up to $10,000 for a single performance, he offered Brian $3,500 for each show. He agreed to pay the group’s transportation and lodging. Realizing the importance of having his boys on the Sullivan show, Brian agreed to the deal provided The Beatles received top billing. Although Brian claimed Sullivan gave in to this demand, it is unlikely that Sullivan did more than agree to consider top billing for the group. By the time the first show aired three months later, Sullivan eagerly promoted The Beatles as the headline act. However, Mitzi Gaynor received top billing for the Miami Beach Show. Precht suggest that in addition to the two live programs, The Beatles should tape a performance for alter broadcast. The parties agreed on a payment of $3,000 for the taped segment, thus bringing the total for the three shows to $10,000. As was often the case with Epstein’s negotiations, the deal was then sealed with a handshake.

After leaving the meeting, Precht began having second thoughts about featuring the unknown British band on the show and called Sullivan at his suite to voice his concerns. Sullivan assured him that he felt it was worth the investment. And that ended the matter. The decision had been made. Sullivan later told The New York Times, “I made up my mind that this was the same sort of mass hit hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days.”

For nearly a month after booking The Beatles, Sullivan probably gave little if any, additional thought to the British act. But that changed on Dec. 10, 1963, when he saw a four-minute story on the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite”. Shortly after the program ended, Sullivan called Cronkite to ask him what he knew about “those bugs, or whatever they call themselves.” His inability to remember the group’s name was typical Sullivan. “Those bugs” were still virtually unknown in America, but Sullivan sensed that was about to change. After all, if Cronkite deemed The Beatles newsworthy, America would soon catch on. Three days later, CBS issued a press release announcing that “The Beatles, wildly popular quartet of English recording stars, will make their first trip to the United States Feb. 7 for their American television debut on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ Sunday, Feb. 9 and 16.”

This announcement encouraged Sid Bernstein to contact Epstein in hopes of booking The Beatles for concerts at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. Although some accounts stat that Bernstein called Brian several months before Sullivan booked The Beatles, this is not correct. In a 1964 interview, Bernstein stated, “I kept reading about The Beatles [in the British papers] and then when Sullivan had signed them I got Epstein’s number…and called him up.”

In addition to prompting CBS to begin promotion of The Beatles’ upcoming appearance on the Sullivan show, Cronkite’s decision to broadcast The Beatles story on Dec. 10 set forth a domino effect causing Beatlemania to explode in America nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. That evening, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, MD, viewed The Beatles performing “She Loves You” on the CBS news and like what she saw and heard. Marsh wrote a letter to her favorite radio station, WWDC, referring to The Beatles’ appearance on the news and asking, “Why can’t we have this music in America?” DJ Carroll James, who also had seen The Beatles on the news, arranged to have a copy of the group’s latest British single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, delivered to him by the BOAC airline.

On Dec. 17, 1963, exactly one week after the CBS broadcast, James had Marsha Albert come down to the station to introduce the song on his radio show. After the song ended, James requested that listeners write in to let him know what they thought of The Beatles. Bust most couldn’t wait and began calling the station immediately. According to James, the station’s switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with eager listeners phoning in to praise the song. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was immediately added to WWDC’s playlist and placed in heavy rotation.

It didn’t take long for Capitol to learn that a Washington station had jumped the gun by playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” four weeks prior to its scheduled release date of Jan. 13, 1964. Capitol telephoned WWDC and requested that the single be pulled off the air, but the station refused. Capitol then hired New York entertainment attorney Walter Hofer, who represented Epstein, The Beatles and the song’s publisher, to contact the station and demand that WWDC “cease and desist” playing the song. According to Hofer, James told him, “Look, you can’t stop me from playing it. The record is a hit. It’s a major thing.”

Realizing that they could not stop WWDC from playing the record and believing that this was an isolated incident that would not spread elsewhere, Capitol decided to press a few thousand copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to send to the Washington area.

This strategy might have worked had James opted to keep his exclusive; however, he apparently sent a tape of the song to a disc jockey buddy of his in Chicago, who then played it on his show. Listeners in the Windy City also reacted favorably towards the song. When a St. Louis disc jockey played a tape of The Beatles’ new song, his station was hit with tons of requests for it.

With Christmas less than a week away, stations in three major markets were playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In addition, tapes of the song were circulating among the nation’s disc jockeys. Capitol quickly came to the realization that the genie was already out of the bottle. The company also remembered that radio airplay was essential for sales. Capitol’s job was to get stations to play The Beatles. It made no sense to try to halt airplay just because the record’s scheduled release was weeks away.

Although record companies traditionally did not issue any new product during the holiday season, Capitol was beginning to realize that there was nothing traditional about The Beatles. The company pushed up the single’s release date to Dec. 26, 1963. Capitol also realized that its initial factory requisite of 200,000 units would be insufficient to meet demand. Word went out to its factories in Scranton and Los Angeles to step up production by having all pressing machines exclusively manufacture the Beatles 45. In addition, Capitol subcontracted with other companies, such as RCA and Decca, to press additional copies of the single.

Distribution of The Beatles record began the day after Christmas. New York’s WMCA immediately played the song, with rivals WABC and WINS following shortly thereafter. Soon, all three stations placed the song in heavy rotation. The same patter was repeated throughout the nation. Boosted by saturation airplay at a time when American youngsters were out of school for the holidays, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was an instant best seller with over 250,000 copes sold in its first three days of release. By Jan. 10, 1964, the record had sold over one million units.

Jack Paar

Although Sullivan was the first American TV host to book the Beatles, television personality Jack Paar pulled a coup by broadcasting a filmed performance of group on his NBC show over a month before their scheduled Sullivan show appearance on CBS. Paar had seen the group in London at the Royal Variety Show on Nov. 4. He purchased film from the BBC, including shots of screaming girls and The Beatles performing “She Loves You”.

Epstein was furious with the BBC for selling the Beatles performance to a rival of Sullivan and worried that Sullivan would be angry. Epstein had promised Sullivan the first and exclusive American television appearances of The Beatles. Epstein threatened to cancel The Beatles’ radio shows on the BBC if action was not taken. The BBC tried to rescind its licensing of the film, but Paar refused to budge. Sullivan was furious and phoned Prichard to cancel The Beatles. Fortunately, Prichard decided to wait a few days before calling Epstein. Sullivan cooled off when he realized what a hot ticket The Beatles were becoming and canceled his cancellation before Epstein ever knew.

Paar’s motivation for showing The Beatles on his program was not to herald the coming of the next big thing, but rather to make light of the band’s success in their homeland. He later admitted, “I didn’t know they were going to change the culture of the country with music. I thought they were funny. I brought them here as a joke.”

On Friday, Jan. 3, 1964, the announcer for “The Jack Paar Show” read the guest list for the evening’s program, including “from London, a special film appearance of the sensational rock ‘n’ rollers, The Beatles.” Paar began his program sitting alone on a wooden stool giving a monolog. After running through topics such as teenagers and driving, he abruptly shifted gears and talked about The Beatles. After assuring viewers he was only “interested in The Beatles as a psychological, sociological phenomenon,” he showed film of girls going wild at a Beatles concert. As the film continued, Paar gave a running commentary, which was often interrupted by laughter from the studio audience. “I understand science is working on a cure for this. These guys have these crazy hairdos and when they wiggle their heads and the hair goes, the girls go out of their minds. Does it bother you to realize that in a few years these girls will vote, raise children and drive cars? I just show you this in case you’re going to England and want to have a fun evening. Now here are The Beatles.”

Paar remained silent during the filmed performance of “She Loves You”, which ended with shots of screaming girls. After his studio audience politely applauded, Paar dead-panned, “It’s nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level.” After laughs from the studio audience, Paar informed his viewers that “Ed Sullivan’s going to have The Beatles on live in February.” Apparently feeling the need to justify his broadcast of The Beatles to his sophisticated followers, Paar explained that “our interest was just showing a more adult audience that usually follows my work what’s going on in England.”

Much to the surprise of Paar and nearly everyone else, what was going on in England would soon be happening in America. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” raced up the charts and was soon No. 1 in Billboard, Cash Box and Record World. Vee-jay and Swan, two independent record companies that had previously issued Beatles songs in America that were initially ignored, re-released their records in hopes of cashing in on The Beatles’ phenomenal success. Swan’s “She Loves You” and Vee-jay’s “Please Please Me” quickly followed the Capitol single to the upper reaches of the charts. Capitol’s “Meet the Beatles!” and Vee-jay’s “Introducing The Beatles” would soon hold down the top two spots on the album charts. With three hit singles and two albums to program from, radio stations were saturating the airwaves with Beatles music.

By February 1964, The Beatles had become part of the American consciousness. To ensure that the group’s arrival in the States would not go unnoticed, Capitol Records provided details of the group’s itinerary to New York’s radio stations, who encouraged their young listeners to greet The Beatles at Kennedy Airport even though it was a school day. On Friday, Fed. 7, more that 3,000 teenagers stood four deep on the airport’s upper arcade to greet The Beatles as they stepped off Pan American Airways Flight 101 shortly after 1:20 p.m. The crowd was even larger and more vocal than the crowd Sullivan had witnessed at London Airport 15 weeks earlier.

Shortly before 7 that evening, The Beatles watched themselves on the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” while relaxing in their Plaza Hotel suite. As they exited the plane, Cronkite stated that, “The British invasion this time goes by the code name Beatlemania. D-Day has been common knowledge for months, and this was the day.” The group was then shown at their airport press conference as Cronkite continued, “The invasion took place at New York’s Kennedy International Airport.” After a few sound bites from The Beatles, Cronkite gave his traditional sign off, “And that’s the way it is, Friday, February 7, 1964.” And that’s the way it was. Forty-nine hours later, 73 million Americans would gather around television sets to see The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And America would never be the same.

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