February 9th, 1964. Just a few minutes after 8 p.m., Eastern Standard Time… Anyone living in America at that time would not need to be reminded of an event that happened on Sunday night television.
Seems that a British "guitar group" had arrived on our shores, and had a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular variety show reminiscent of America’s vaudeville theater productions that were popular prior to the advent of movies and television. In that type of show, you might have singers, dancers, plate spinners, and animal acts, in addition to a few live musical acts on occasion.
From an entertainment perspective, however, you have to realize that of all the above, a musical act was traditionally boring to watch. Listen to? Yes, that was fine. But watch? In a live theater, musicians traditionally sat in a pit and provided music, sound effects, and little else. Once in a while you’d have a performer playing some unusual instrument onstage, like the musical saw or glass bottles. Or you might have exceptionally talented musicians play some kind of special effect, like a trick violin that they intentionally broke in the middle of their performance. But to put musicians onstage to simply play? Sadly for the musicians, they were, all too often, considered "yawners" by theater owners. Live theater artists and musicians had taken a real hit when the "talkies" (sound movies) came out in the late 1920’s. With the advent of television, there came again the opportunity to perform in public.
Of course, there were musical pioneers in the televised world. Les Paul and Mary Ford, both highly talented musicians, even had their own TV show in the 1950’s. So many big bands had declined after WWII, but Spike Jones came along with an exciting band that combined comedy with musical excellence. Then there was Bill Haley and the Comets, along with that hip-shakin’ Elvis and his guitar. The latter two examples notwithstanding, the seismic shake up that was Rock and Roll had sort of calmed down after its original early 1950’s explosion. Elvis had gone into the service, while Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper had perished in a tragic plane crash. There was also a strong reaction against the Rock and Roll culture by churches, parents, and community leaders. Indeed, America was experiencing a more or less quiet and reflective time with music and life, possibly due to the tragic November, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. More than a few people probably believed that Rock and Roll had run its course.
Over in England, however, the American rock beat had taken hold big time, and young kids purchased guitars in record numbers. "Skiffle" bands were hot (as were guitar groups in general) and some young lads in Liverpool, England, soon started on a world-changing journey. When the boys hooked up with an astute business manager, they secured a recording contract, and before long they had taken over England. Looking to Buddy Holley’s band, "The Crickets," they thought about insect names for their own band. Unlike other bands that used a "front man," they decided that their group would strictly be a team effort, using a band name alone without having a visible leader. In that manner, several lads from "The Quarrymen" became "The Silver Beetles" and, at some point, "The Beatles". With a combination of love songs, teen beat tunes, and great harmonies, this already successful British group packed their bags for America. Arriving in New York on February 7th to the cheers of their screaming fans, their first American televised appearance was on February 9th, 1964, on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In those pre-internet days, kids had already heard that something big and exciting was about to happen. A few of us lucky ones had already either found a Beatle record, or had heard a Beatle song on the radio. My parents had already purchased my "Meet The Beatles" album for me in Bailey’s department store in Lakewood, so it was on that Sunday night at 8 p.m. that we sat down after dinner in front of our TV set to see what all the fuss was about. Wasting no time, Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to a screaming audience, and Paul started singing "All My Loving"–filling the room, and America, with music. America would never be the same, and neither would I. I thought they were the coolest thing I’d ever seen! I was not alone either. Beatlemania, as it was called, affected my generation to an extent that I believe has yet to be fully measured.
Being a young drummer, I was pleased to see that Ringo was even playing the same brand drum as my own! I knew enough about drums to be able to play a beat along with him, and guess what? Neither he, nor I, have stopped playing ever since! The same was true for millions of other kids of my generation. Guitar and drum sales went through the roof after the Beatles arrived here, and the demand for guitars and drums is still high today. Overnight, musicians went from being an unlikely live stage act to being the main act, and that trend continues today.
Over time, I also learned how to play Paul’s electric bass guitar, and George’s and John’s electric guitars too. (As "Guitar Guy Gary" to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I later had the honor of handling some of those original instruments!) I was not alone in wanting to learn to play music. Lakewood was soon awash with young, long-haired garage bands, thrashing away on basic rock tunes. Our church basements, junior high schools, and high school gymnasiums quickly turned into live concert venues for Lakewood’s many budding Beatle clones. Even City Hall got into the act, developing a teen drop-in center of its own. The late ’50’s folk music trend quickly morphed into "Folk-Rock," and before long Lakewood was about as music-friendly a place as could be found–at least until the drugs came along. After that started, local schools and churches became a lot more cautious about what sort of activities they sponsored, and it became harder for young bands to find a place to play.
Rock music changed too, along with the Beatles themselves. Rock became more complex, more introspective, more…(fill in your own term here). There are reasons for all of this that we need not go into now. The Beatles changed. We all did. Finally, around 1970, they went their separate ways. I suppose we kids did too. College, Vietnam, work, marriage, life, death…Each of those things affected young people in different ways. We also learned that we were not so very different from our parents, and yet? There are some from my generation who still dare to believe that maybe, just maybe, we helped to change a few things for the better with our music, a music that… for so many of us…started by watching a Sunday night TV show on that cold February evening here in Lakewood, 50 years ago.