Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — A 62-year-old television icon paced nervously before a black-and-white camera and then spoke, modestly, on behalf of not only himself, but those caught up in the whirlwind around him.
It was just a few seconds after 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, when everything in America changed.
“I was 16 years old and our librarian at Alden Central used to cut out newspaper articles and save them for us, so my girlfriends and I knew the Beatles were coming,” said Trish McWhorter of Attica.
“We couldn’t wait to see them on television.”
Ed Sullivan fully understood the importance of his impending introduction of a rock’n roll band called the Beatles — especially on this night with an estimated 73 million fellow countrymen watching — and the weight it would carry to further the career of anyone featured on his weekly, nationally televised variety show.
The anticipation had been building for weeks not only in all the major cities, including New York City where the Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast live, but in communities of all sizes across the country, especially here in Western New York where a string of hit records had made a sudden sensation out of a band from Liverpool, England.
Families and friends gathered around their television sets on a cold winter night and waited nervously.
The volume went up on that huge, box-shaped piece of furniture on four legs that took up a huge chunk of the living room. The big, round upper VHF dial (as with the lower or adjacent UHF dial) had to be turned by hand and the antenna carefully manipulated with skill and always a little luck. We were all taught to change the channels slowly, one at a time, but everyone whipped the dial around most of the time — especially that night — and it went straight to Channel 4.
It was 50 years ago tonight when Sullivan spoke those historic words:
“Now yesterday and today, our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agree with me that the city has never witnessed 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!”
And throwing his arm the group’s way, followed by a united scream perhaps never before heard on national television, the cameras started with a long shot of four skinny, mop-topped young men wearing suits and holding guitars. The camera zoomed in slowly on Paul McCartney singing “All My Loving.”
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you. Tomorrow I’ll miss you. Remember I’ll always be true. And then while I’m away, I’ll write home every day and I’ll send all my loving to you.”
And “love” it was, from first sight, said Lockport’s Carol Malcomb, who remembers it well.
“There was nothing like them,” she said. “When they shook their hair, girls would cry and some even fainted. They sang ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I thought I was going to die! They were all so cute and different,” she said.
Sullivan used the finest TV technology of the time — hard to imagine today — and he wasted little time showing it off, running close-ups of each Beatle one by one, then inserting their names (by essentially blending two screens together), adding a “Sorry girls, he’s married” after Lennon’s name.
The Beatles continued with “Til There Was You,” followed by their international sensation, “She Loves You,” by which time Sullivan was trying to calm his audience by promising them a second appearance later in the hour-long show.
Moments later, after autographing the backstage wall of the Sullivan theater, the smiling, bowing Beatles returned to sing “I Saw Her Standing There,” and finally, their Number One song in the country at the time, “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
Like “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a simple song with simple lyrics and simple licks, but it was a live TV show and the Beatles were brilliant, showcasing throughout their five-song set their most appealing qualities: a unique sound, endless harmonies, freshness and most importantly, fun.
“I was 6 years old and I remember watching it,” Lockport Mayor Michael Tucker said. “The Beatles changed everything, especially American music. It really was an amazing time and certainly they were the beginning of it all.”
Not to be underestimated was the fact that the night was therapy for a grieving nation, barely two months after the sting of President John Kennedy’s assassination. There was a somberness that could still be felt throughout the country.
“The Beatles were so different. They looked different and sounded different and there was one for everybody to pick as their favorite. Some had a crush on John, others had a crush on Paul. They were so interesting,” said Trish McWhorter, who went on to found the Buffalo Chapter of the Beatles Fan Club with her friend, Nancy.
“It was an amazing performance. I sat in the living room and cried along with all the screaming girls,” she said.
Trish’s husband, Kirk, a musician, recording engineer and producer, said his mother turned him on to a lot of great musical acts when he was a young boy, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
“The Beatles influenced everything and everybody listening,” Kirk said. “As I got older, I really started to appreciate what they did. You go back and listen to Sgt. Pepper and to think that it was recorded on four tracks is mind blowing.”
“Before the Beatles there were people like Pat Boone, who had songwriters write the songs for them, and there was a lot more folk stuff on the radio. Then the Beatles came along and the music was more hip and young — and their earlier stuff, they were copying a lot of the music they loved that came from America, like Chuck Berry.”
Brian Blackley remembers well the night the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show — because he wanted to watch something else that night.
“Honest to God, I didn’t want to watch it because I would have missed Bonanza,” said Blackley, then an elementary student at St. Mary’s Catholic School. “Bonanza was on Sunday nights and that’s what I wanted to watch. But we only had one TV like everyone else and it was black and white and my parents wanted to watch Ed Sullivan. What I remember most is the very next day at school. All the kids were talking about it and everyone had to get Beatle boots.”
No other entertainers in history had been as popular, as influential, as important or as groundbreaking. By the time they were finished, the Beatles sold 600 million albums worldwide and racked up 20 No. 1 U.S. singles, a Billboard record that still stands.
And with their arrival, the door was opened wide for a number of rock bands from England to soon come and join the Beatles in what came to be known in America as “The British Invasion.” Coming attractions included the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Kinks, the Animals, the Who and the anti-Beatles, the Rolling Stones.
The impact on youths across America, and in Western New York, was immediate.
“All of a sudden, the schools started telling us the way we had to dress, and the boys were told their hair couldn’t touch their collar and they couldn’t wear bangs,” Mrs. McWhorter said. “The boys had to have their hair cut short and everyone started getting all up in arms over the short skirts, because those came out about the same time.”
Products and marketing had found a new, anxious buyer: Teenagers.
Says Beatles scholar Martin Lewis, “The prevalent attitude among the elite ruling class was that young people had no say in their own lives. The Beatles made rebellion constructive, articulating it with joyous, giddy exuberance. At a time when cigar-chomping moguls paid people in cubicles to write factory-farm pop songs for teenagers, the Beatles were completely authentic and kids instinctively understood that.”
Suddenly, kids everywhere were deciding what to wear, how to style their hair, what to buy and what to listen to.
“A disc jockey from WKBW Radio produced a show at Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo which was a film showing the Beatles in concert,” Mrs. McWhorter said.
“We had tickets and the place was packed. And even though it was a film of the Beatles playing a concert, girls in the movie theater screamed, cried and fainted just like we were seeing them live.”
The Beatles went on to master the intricacies of the recording studio and their later material, though filled with a lot less youthful exuberance, was still groundbreaking and remains popular today.
“Music changed so much from the ‘50s to the ‘60s. It’s pretty obvious that the Beatles were the group behind the change,” said Lockport’s John Lang, whose daughter is named Abbey, after the Beatles’ final album Abbey Road.
Still craving to see the Beatles live, long after the breakup and despite the deaths of John Lennon in 1980 and George Harrison in 2001, fans have flocked for five decades to Beatlemania-type off-Broadways shows, including one called Beatlemania Now, which returns to the Historic Palace Theatre on Saturday.
Why are the Beatles still relevant today?
“It’s the music. The songs are timeless. They’re anthems for an entire generation,” Mrs. McWhorter said.
“A good song is ageless,” her husband added. “How many people have covered the Beatles’ songs? A good song is a good song. Are you going to be listening to the stuff that’s popular now in 50 years? I don’t think they’re going to be listening to Justin Bieber in 50 years, but 50 years from now, they’re still going to be listening to the Beatles.”
The Ed Sullivan experience:
• "I realized that kids everywhere go for the same stuff; and seeing as we’d done it in England, there’s no reason why we couldn’t do it in America, too." — John Lennon
• "Imagine the thrill for us going on the Ed Sullivan Show, especially when they told us it was the biggest show ever." — Paul McCartney
• "I’ve heard that while the show was on there were no reported crimes, or very few. When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, even the criminals had a rest for 10 minutes." — George Harrison
• "We went to Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage. We had this huge suite of rooms at The Plaza Hotel, with a TV in each room and we had radios with earpieces. This was too far out." — Ringo Starr
Around the World
• "They look like shaggy Peter Pans." — Time Magazine
• "I like your advance guard. But don’t you think they need haircuts?" — U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, to British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas
• "The Beatles, Paul, John, George and Ringo have done more for the fall of Communism than any other western institution." — Artemy Troitsky
• "Beethoven and Beatles, Mozart and Michael Jackson, Paganini and Prince — I like them all." — Vanessa Mae
• "I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did." ― Kurt Vonnegut
• "I declare that the Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen — Timothy Leary
Did you know?
The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t even their first appearance on the show, really.
On the afternoon of Feb. 9, 1964, prior to their "first" Sullivan appearance, the Beatles taped an appearance for a show to be aired two weeks later. In that afternoon appearance before a live audience, the Beatles performed three songs, Twist and Shout, Please Please Me and I Want To Hold Your Hand.
The Ed Sullivan backstage wall that the Beatles signed on Feb. 9, 1964 — autographed, from top to bottom, by Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Paul McCartney (referring to himself as "Uncle") and John Lennon, accompanied by the words, "The Beatles Were Here" is expected to garner $1 million when it’s sold on April 26 through Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions.
• "Look, the Beatles invented U2 in so many ways. That would be hard to explain in a sound bite, but it was the first music I heard on the radio." — Bono
• "If it weren’t for The Beatles, I would not be a musician. It’s as simple as that. From a very young age I became fascinated with their songs, and over the years have drowned myself in the depth of their catalogue. Their groove and their swagger. Their grace and their beauty. Their dark and their light. The Beatles seemed to be capable of anything. They knew no boundaries, and in that freedom they seemed to define what we now know today as ‘Rock and Roll.’" — Dave Grohl
• "We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs … ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go." — Bob Dylan
• "The big turning point, really, was the Beatles’ influence on American folk music, and then Roger took it to the next step and then along came the Lovin’ Spoonful and everybody else." — Barry McGuire
• "The Beatles were the band that made me realize it was possible to make a living as a musician. When I heard and saw the Beatles, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’" — Billy Joel
• "The Beatles were a band, of course, and I loved their music, but they were also a cultural force that made it OK to be different. They didn’t look like everyone else and weren’t like any other band. Everybody in the band sang, which is why you knew everybody in the band." — Gene Simmons
Contact editor John D’Onofrio at email@example.com.