The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show

8.00pm, Sunday 9 February 1964 (50 years ago)

This was the date of The Beatles’ record-breaking first live appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, at Studio 50 in New York City.

Seventy-three million people were reported to have watched the first show. It is still supposed to be one of the largest viewing audiences ever in the States.

It was very important. We came out of nowhere with funny hair, looking like marionettes or something. That was very influential. I think that was really one of the big things that broke us – the hairdo more than the music, originally. A lot of people’s fathers had wanted to turn us off. They told their kids, ‘Don’t be fooled, they’re wearing wigs.’

A lot of fathers did turn it off, but a lot of mothers and children made them keep it on. All these kids are now grown-up, and telling us they remember it. It’s like, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ I get people like Dan Aykroyd saying, ‘Oh man, I remember that Sunday night; we didn’t know what had hit us – just sitting there watching Ed Sullivan’s show.’ Up until then there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis, and then, suddenly, The Beatles!

Paul McCartney
Anthology

As with the previous day, in the morning the group rehearsed for the studio cameras. Again, George Harrison was feeling ill, and so his place on stage was taken by road manager Neil Aspinall.

George had tonsillitis and didn’t go to rehearsals for The Ed Sullivan Show. I stood in for him so that they could mark where everyone would stand, and I had a guitar strapped round me. It wasn’t plugged in – nobody was playing anything – and it was amazing to read in a major American magazine a few days later that I ‘played a mean guitar’.
Neil Aspinall
Anthology

That afternoon The Beatles recorded Twist And Shout, Please Please Me and I Want To Hold Your Hand, in front of a different audience to the one that saw their live debut that evening. This set was broadcast on 23 February as the group’s third Ed Sullivan appearance, after they had left the US. Before the recording, Sullivan introduced the group thus:

All of us on the show are so darned sorry, and sincerely sorry, that this is the third and thus our last current show with The Beatles, because these youngsters from Liverpool, England, and their conduct over here, not only as fine professional singers but as a group of fine youngsters, will leave an imprint of everyone over here who’s met them.

Ed Sullivan

Other guests on this third-show recording were Gordon and Sheila MacRae and The Cab Calloway Orchestra.

The main thing I was aware of when we did the first Ed Sullivan Show was that we rehearsed all afternoon. TV had such bad sound equipment – it still has today, usually, but then it was really bad – that we would tape our rehearsals and then go up and mess with the dials in the control booth. We got it all set with the engineer there, and then we went off for a break.

The story has it that while we were out, the cleaner came in to clean the room and the console, thought, ‘What are all these chalk marks?’ and wiped them all off. So our plans just went out the window. We had a real hasty time trying to get the sound right.

Ringo Starr
Anthology

The live show

The Beatles’ record-breaking live debut, broadcast from 8-9pm, was witnessed by just 728 people in Studio 50, but seen by an estimated 73,700,000 viewers in 23,240,000 homes in the United States. It comfortably smashed the record for television viewing figures up until that point.

We were aware that Ed Sullivan was the big one because we got a telegram from Elvis and the Colonel. And 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 ten minutes.
George Harrison
Anthology

At the start of the hour-long programme, Sullivan announced that a telegram had been received from Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wishing the group luck. It read:

Congratulations on your appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and your visit to America. We hope your engagement will be a successful one and your visit pleasant. Give our best to Mr Sullivan. Sincerely, Elvis & The Colonel.

The Beatles had been given the telegram half an hour before their stage appearance. After reading it, George Harrison deadpanned: “Elvis who?”

The Beatles performed five songs on their Ed Sullivan Show live debut. They sang All My Loving, Till There Was You and She Loves You, in the first half of the programme, followed by an advertisement for Anadin. Ed Sullivan’s other guests – Georgia Brown & Oliver Kidds, Frank Gorshin, Tessie O’Shea – followed, after which The Beatles performed I Saw Her Standing There and I Want To Hold Your Hand.

While Paul McCartney sang the ballad Till There Was You, the cameras panned to each of the Beatles in turn, with their names captioned on the screen. When they got to John Lennon, an additional caption appeared, saying: “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.”

After the show radio DJ Murray The K took John, Paul and Ringo to the Playboy Club. With a police escort they walked several blocks to 59th Street where they were ushered into the club’s Penthouse lounge for dinner.

They later went on to the Peppermint Lounge, where they danced the twist until 4am.

15 Responses to “The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show”

  1. Christia

    What a memory. I remember begging to my Baptist church going Mom and Dad–please let us stay Home from church and watch the Beatles as they perform. They made me a happy young girl and what I thought was a miracle that made a wonderful memory for an almost ten year old girl (turned ten that next. March 8) that very Special Sunday Night. What a memory. Thank You John, George, Ringo and Paul. And to my Mom and Dad that now is looking down from Heaven–thank you!!!

    Reply
  2. Cameron McIntosh

    I know I was not watching Ed Sullivan that night for The Beatles; I had no idea they were on never mind who they were. However, MAN O MAN when they came on, it changed my life forever. If I were, a girl I would have been screaming right along with the rest. Being an African American made it weirder as it was. I did not even get into James Brown until 1968, I did not want to know anything but the Beatles!

    Reply
    • Chrissy

      You are adorable! I was “grounded” that night and my parents wouldn’t let me watch it, but I snuck behind the door and saw the show anyway!! Ha Ha!

      Reply
  3. Bunny Dellinger

    My dad had made a remote control,which was a button on a wooden hand piece which made the dial go around clockwise on our black and white TV.He had promised me,an eight year old,that I could watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,and just as they were announced,he hit the button and made that dial go all the way around!! I will never forget it,or how kind my parents were to let me watch it,even though daddy had to tease me!!

    Reply
  4. Joseph Brush

    Here in Toronto we got bombarded with the Beatles on radio throughout all of December 1963 and so I bought their first album and gave other copies of that album as xmas gifts to friends and relatives.
    The Ed Sullivan show was not only exciting but confirmed to me that their sound was going to bowl over the USA as well!!!

    Reply
  5. Cameron McIntosh

    Excellent memory. Hey, maybe you can tell me. Did the Beatles ever play in Canada? I do not remember right now.

    Reply
  6. Preston Bealle

    My brother and I went to the afternoon rehearsal this day which was broadcast later as the third show. They had saved seats for us which were held with a strip of masking tape. We waited a good hour or more sitting inside before the band came on. It was tense in the studio, and Ed Sullivan caused a momentary frenzy by jumping out from behind a curtain in a Beatle wig. Have never seen a photo of that, but there must be one somewhere.

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  7. Jim

    all this time I thought they only sang 3 songs. My dad couldn’t take anymore. I was 11. “thats enough of those limies”
    so I missed “I saw her standing there & I want to hold your hand” :(

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  8. Jim

    My eldest brother was in college at the time, and told us all about a band from England that was to appear on Ed Sullivan that night. When the Beatles came on, my mother’s first comment was “Look at their hair!” in disgust. I got up and danced. I was 6 years old at the time, and thanks to 3 older brothers, had grown up listening to Elvis, Dion & the Belmonts, Bo Diddley, etc., but only the Beatles could make me dance.

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    • robert

      My older sister was 12 when they 1st came on Ed Sullivan so of course the whole house was in a frenzy. And had been for months. I distinctly remember sitting as a family watching the Beatles on Sullivan. I remember vividly because even though I was only 6 years old, the very next day I began playing guitar (my sister had one). Never turned back. A life changing moment for sure.

      Reply
  9. Uncle Reggie

    Are you serious? A film clip of the Beatles on the Sullivan show nearly 50 years ago is not in the public domain? Greed!

    Reply
  10. Dan McK

    Somebody has to post a comment, this being 50 years to the day… so I guess I will. It’s exciting to think that 50 years ago this minute, people all across the US were just waking up and starting their Sunday, and almost all of those 73 million viewers prior to the show knew nothing or next to nothing about the band. But by the time they went to sleep that night, that had all changed– and the US began to change as well. It’s hard to fully understand or appreciate the importance of this night.

    Reply

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