C.J. Marshall: Significa: A legacy to last for centuries
"Ladies and gentlemen ... The Beatles!"
- Ed Sullivan, Feb. 9, 1964
With those words, exactly 50 years ago, on a previous Sunday night, the world changed forever.
I was around at that time, but unfortunately I did not see the broadcast of the first American performance of the Fab Four from Liverpool. It was past my bedtime and so once we got finished watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" I went straight to bed. Which is just as well, because at the tender age of 6 - almost 7, mind you - I probably wouldn't have been very interested in a musical performance. I preferred clowns and animal acts in those days.
Still, even at that age, it was impossible not to notice the affect The Beatles was having on the American public. Everybody was talking about it, including my mom, although not in a positive fashion. She made it plain that she didn't like The Beatles, and good son that I was, I decided they couldn't be worth listening to, based upon her observations.
As a result I didn't have much contact with the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo during the 1960s, which of course was their heyday. However, when the 1970s rolled around, I began to take a closer "listen" to The Beatles music, and discovered that I liked a lot of what I was hearing. I mean after all, who could not like "Hey Jude," or "Eleanor Rigby," or "Back in the U.S.S.R.," or any of the other innumerable hit songs. So I began to take a guilty pleasure in listening to The Beatles, which continued for several years until during one conversation with Mom, she said almost casually that she liked listening to their music too.
"But I thought you didn't like "The Beatles," I said, referring to the initial comments she had made back in 1964. Mom then told me what she didn't like back then was the screaming that was part of the broadcast during The Beatles performances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
In preparing this article, I called Mom and asked her if she had seen their initial appearance back in 1964. She confirmed that she had, but only remembered it vaguely, and reconfirmed that she did not like the screaming which came from many audience members during the performance. She also said she wasn't impressed - remember they were just one of many up and coming rock groups at the time - but later did come to enjoy their music when she heard it without all the audience participation.
Again, in preparation for this, I viewed The Beatles first performance on Ed Sullivan - it's available on youtube if you're interested - and found the screaming to indeed be overwhelming. Many years after the performance, one of the assistant directors on the Ed Sullivan Show revealed that the screaming was in fact so loud the cameramen recording the event for broadcast could not hear their instructions from the control booth. I also learned that when The Beatles were initially booked, the Ed Sullivan Show received 50,000 requests to fill the auditorium's 720 seats. That night, 73 million people tuned in to see The Beatles, a record which would stand for several years, and the highest audience share The Ed Sullivan Show would ever receive.
So, what was all the excitement about? Well, volumes have been written on the subject by people more knowledgeable than I, so I'll just have to settle for giving a few reflections on the matter, based upon my own observations.
The Beatles were no overnight success story - they had paid their dues by performing in supper clubs and other musical proving grounds throughout Europe. When Sullivan - who had a talent for spotting talent - booked The Beatles the group was already a hit in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark, having sold 2.5 million recording, with each band member making about $5,000 a week, a very respectable sum in 1964. It's interesting to note, though, that not everyone was impressed by the boys from Liverpool. In November 1963, Edwin Newman, making a special presentation about the group on NBC's "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" said: "One reason for The Beatles popularity is that it's almost impossible to hear them."
In their American debut, although Ed Sullivan thought them good enough to perform on his show, he obviously had no idea what he really had. Advertisements for the show announced that actress Mitzi Gaynor would be the featured performer of the evening. Ed had booked The Beatles for three performances over consecutive weeks, telling colleagues he was certain they were going to hit their peak of popularity in that time period, then fade away.
Well, we all have to be wrong sometime.
Some have said that The Beatles were a defining force of the 1960s, but I disagree with that. What The Beatles did - which occurred when they were a group in the 1960s - was help to define rock and popular music in general - an effect which is still being felt in our musical culture to this day. And because musical culture is a BIG part of any overall culture, The Beatles became a major force in defining not only who we are, but in many other countries throughout the world as well. John Lennon and George Harrison are gone now, and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will eventually pass from this world as well, but I predict that the musical legacy they will leave behind will continue to endure for many centuries to come.