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The Beatles American Debut on The Ed Sullivan Show

Ed Sullivan, John Lennon, Ringo Starr & Paul McCartney
Paul shows Ed his Hofner bass guitar
February, 1964. "All My Loving"; "Till There Was You"; "She Loves You"; "I Saw Her Standing There"; and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Trivia buffs know these titles as the five songs performed by the Beatles on their first Ed Sullivan TV appearance. Yet, after that seminal TV broadcast, the response was far from trivial.

The Beatles were immediately panned by critics upon their arrival in the United States. February 9, 1964, on The Ed Sullivan Show, was the Sunday evening which marked their first live television spot. The reviews, according to most newspapers on the following Monday morning, made it clear that the band couldn't carry a tune and that they were nothing more than a passing fad. However, American public response told a different story: the Sullivan broadcast garnered 73 million viewers, a record for TV viewing at that time.

Even before the broadcast, Elvis Presley sent a telegram to Sullivan saying, "My manager and I wish the Beatles a tremendous success." This sentiment was in no way sincere, as Elvis had quite a bit of resentment for the Fab Four, simply because they did nothing short of knock him out of his then current number one spot. Without a doubt, American fans of the new British musical group were already screaming in anticipation of their arrival.

But just what had caused the Beatles' meteoric rise in popularity, even before they had set foot on U.S. soil?

Ed Sullivan wearing a Beatles wig
Ed Sullivan in a Beatles wig

To answer this question, we need to go back three months, to November 1963. Epstein had just booked the Beatles to appear as headliners on Sullivan for February of the following year. The Beatles, however, had expressed their reluctance to make an American debut. And why? Because as of yet, they had no hit, no number one song in the American market. However, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland was about to change all of that.

It was Marsha who, on December 10, happened to view the Walter Cronkite CBS News segment featuring the obscure British musical group. She wrote a letter to WWDC, a Washington, DC radio station, urging them to play their music. The DJ, Carroll James, decided it might not be such a bad idea to procure one of the Beatles' newest singles, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"—direct from England—and play it on the air December 17. Telephone calls immediately poured in. The single went onto the radio station's regular playlist. Soon afterwards, Capitol Records got wind of this and realized they needed to step up their American release date of the single from January 13 to December 26. And by the second week of the new year, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was not only the number one hit single—it had sold over one million copies.

Thus, it came as no surprise that when John, Paul, George, and Ringo got off their plane at Idlywild Airport (newly renamed JFK Airport only one month after President Kennedy's assassination) on February 7, fans were ready to mob them. America was still in the doldrums from losing its beloved President and was in dire need of cheering up. The Beatles filled that need in short order. Come Sunday night, the Sullivan studio audience was packed with teenage girls, who moaned and screamed during Sullivan's introduction, and even moreso while the group performed. And so it went: Sullivan invited them back for two consecutive shows, and the phenomenon of Beatlemania began with unchecked enthusiasm.

Related Video
Beatles Debut in America on the Ed Sullivan Show
Segment about the Beatles debut in America on the Ed Sullivan Show, Feb. 9, 1964. With commentary from a few celebrities.
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