SHOW OF HANDS: How many of you watched "The Beatles: The Night That Changed America — A Grammy Salute" on Monday? Chances are there are a lot of hands up out there since 14 million people tuned in, most of them in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
A look-back on the Fab Four’s phenomenal U.S. debut in 1964 on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the special on CBS was a ratings silver medal winner, coming in second only to the Olympics on NBC and beating out "Downton Abbey" (maybe not in Marin), "Toy Story 3" and a rerun of "The Simpsons."
Those numbers are impressive, but they’re nothing compared to the record setting 73 million viewers who watched the Fab Four on "Sullivan" 50 years ago, instantly changing American popular culture. As with the Kennedy assassination the year before, people of a certain age can still tell you where they were that night, a night that made TV history and launched the British Invasion.
I was among a roomful of college kids watching the show on the communal TV in the lobby of my dorm. It had the same electrifying effect on me as Elvis had on the Sullivan show a decade earlier. When I went home for a weekend, I played my copy of "Meet the Beatles" for my girlfriend, still a senior in high school. When she failed to share my enthusiasm for the lads from Liverpool, I knew that she was going one way, I was going another and our teenage romance was doomed. Sure enough, she broke up with me and drove off with a guy in a hotter car than mine. That’s my story. I asked readers to share their Beatles memories, and here they are:
‘I was hooked’
The first Beatles song Rik Elswit ever heard was "(With Love) From Me To You" as he was headed to high school in the fall of 1963.
"They hit that falsetto and I was hooked," he recalls. "But it took my girlfriend dragging me off to see ‘Hard Day’s Night’ before they literally changed my life. I said right out loud, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and went out and bought a pickup for my Martin (guitar) the next day. Then came the (Fender) Telecaster and 45 years of a life in music."
Elswit’s life in music included touring the world for 15 years with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, earning eight gold records and landing on the cover of Rolling Stone. He now gives guitar lessons and manages the acoustic guitar department at Bananas at Large in San Rafael.
Being a ‘fake Beatle’
When former Fairfax Street Choir guitarist Richi Ray was in the cast of "Beatlemania" on Broadway, he recalls that John Lennon, wearing one of his big fur coats, came bounding across the street at the Winter Garden on one cold Manhattan day to talk to one of the other cast members, calling out "Paul!" to get his attention.
"Conversation ensued," Ray writes, "and, like all musicians doing this sort of thing, our guy explained, a little apologetically, ‘No, this isn’t all I do.’ John responded, saying, ‘Yeah I know it’s probably hard even being a fake Beatle.’"
Brief Beatles interlude
West Marin musician Ethan Kenning, founder of the ’60s psychedelic band H.P. Lovecraft and operator of the Coop recording studio in Olema, had a brief encounter with the Beatles in Chicago when a leather-worker friend of his called their hotel and asked if he could bring them a gift of some guitar straps and a pair of sandals for Ringo.
"They said OK, and we jumped in a cab and headed over," Kenning recalls. "We hung out with them for a couple of hours in their suite. Other than the Beatles, we were the only ones there. It was very relaxed. Paul was wearing an old cardigan sweater and a pair of shoes that looked like my dad’s, not at all like their boot-wearing, mod-dressing photos. They played a gig that night at a big armory in town (I didn’t attend), and were pictured the next day in the Chicago papers wearing the guitar straps. It was one of the moments in my life I’ll never forget."
At the Hollywood Bowl
Marin PR maven Kathleen Gaines saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl when she was 13. Fifty years later, she still knows all the words to their songs.
"I think, in part, I fell in love with my husband, Ray, because he also knows all the words, and can play their songs on his guitar," Gaines writes. "Whenever I hear the Beatles now, I feel happy."
Cow Palace concert
Debra Baker of Fairfax saw the Beatles in 1964 at the Cow Palace. She was 15, and it was her first concert.
"I still remember what I wore: a pink straight (now called pencil) skirt, a cream crochet sleeveless top and black T-strap shoes," Baker writes. "Paul was my favorite and I screamed his name, hoping he might hear me through the cacophony. The Fab Four looked like they were having a good time singing and playing. It’s a night I will never forget, and I still love Paul."
Mop Tops’ appeal
San Anselmo’s Mark Wiegers was 8 when he watched the Beatles on "Sullivan" with his family in Chevy Chase, Md. The seminal moment was an early indication of the Mop Tops’ cross-generational appeal.
"My grandmother hurried us through dinner so we wouldn’t miss it," Wiegers writes. "No one else much cared — my mom’s favorites were Perry Como and Tony Bennett and my dad was big on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. My brothers and I only watched "Ed Sullivan" if Topo Gigio — the funny mouse — was on; otherwise we watched ‘The Wonderful World of Disney.’"
As it turned out, Wiegers’ family didn’t know quite what to make of the Beatles or their screaming female fans.
"We all just kind of grinned and chuckled — all of us, that is, except for my grandmother who laughed and howled and shouted and bounced up and down on the couch through the whole thing," he remembers. "We couldn’t believe it. I guess if she had been 40 years younger, she would have been one of those screaming girls at the airport."
‘Meet the Beatles’
San Rafael’s Bob Cullinan still has "Meet the Beatles," the first album he ever bought. "The record that changed my life," he calls it.
Like Wiegers, Cullinan was 8 when he and his 12-year-old brother, Tom, got to watch the Beatles on "Sullivan" on a 10-inch black-and-white TV in the family kitchen during dinner. "But just this once," Cullinan recalls his parents saying.
"My brother and I sat at the kitchen table transfixed on that little TV, not fully realizing how this night would change our lives," he remembers. "One of the more immediate impacts was that after my parents saw these ‘nice boys’ on TV, they let me grow my hair out, from a perpetual buzz cut to something a bit longer. And the impacts are still being felt. To this day, my niece still idolizes John and Yoko."
Thanks to a cool mom
Late-blooming Deadhead Victoria Sanders of Novato remembers her forward-thinking mother getting tickets for 10-year-old Victoria and her two sisters to see the Beatles in Atlanta in the summer of 1965.
"We had seats way up in the third level, the sound was through the PA system and, between the screams and bad sound it was hardly a ‘concert,’ Sanders recalls.
Lots of music fans have seen the various Beatles in concert individually, but Sanders is one of the lucky few to have seen them during one of their only three American tours in the ’60s.
"That story earned me a place down front at a Bob Dylan concert," she writes, noting that it has earned her some good concert friends as well. And her mother, who celebrated her 83rd birthday this week, is still cool.
Finding ‘Abbey Road’
As you may have noticed on the Grammy tribute, Beatles’ fans aren’t just aging rockers. The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl mentioned on the show that they’re his parents’ favorite band, his favorite band and now his 5-year-old daughter Harper’s favorite band.
Novato’s Downey Orrick, lead guitarist in the up-and-coming hard rock band the Jaded, was just 9 when the Beatles first entered his consciousness in a TV commercial for a Greatest Hits compilation.
"For some reason it drew me in quite heavily," Orrick writes. "I remember scrambling to find any Beatles CDs my parents had and soon came across ‘Abbey Road.’ Almost immediately, it hypnotized me, and I flew head-first into learning everything about their history. I’m 22 years old now, and that same excitement still gets me today. I strongly believe that no musical group in history could ever match the Beatles integrity, creativity and spirit. Their songwriting has stood the test of time and will continue for all time. Without them, it would be very hard to imagine what anything from 1970 to the present would be like."
To answer John Lennon’s question after they played live for the last time on the roof of the Apple building in London — yes, they passed the audition.