Before the Beatles played six songs in two sets before 73 million Americans on the Feb. 9, 1964, "Ed Sullivan Show," the secret was already out. The group’s biggest hit at that moment — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — was leaked, played relentlessly on local radio and spread virally (before that was a thing) across the United States.
The song surged to No. 1 on the Billboard charts on Jan. 18. Shortly after, John, Paul, George and Ringo braved thousands of screaming and crying fans at New York's Kennedy Airport on Feb. 7.
But it’s their appearance on Sullivan’s show that’s recognized as a musical milestone, an event so entrenched in U.S. cultural history because of the sheer number of Americans who tuned in — 73 million viewers, translating to a 45 percent rating and 60 percent share of televisions.
Numbers tell a story. Individual recollections tell it differently. Yahoo News asked readers to share not just what they remember about that collective experience, but also how the Beatles altered their lives, families and communities. Here are some lightly edited excerpts from what they wrote this week.
In February 1964, Anthony Ventre attended high school in East Stroudsburg, Pa., where a “mixed rat pack of greasers and preppies” vied for rungs on the social ladder. He was a greaser, he says, sporting a leather jacket, a ducktail and the original Brylcreem in his hair. Ventre remembers Elvis Presley’s splash on the musical scene presaging the Beatles’ arrival and sparking that first cultural change. He writes:
Everything seemed locked in, tidy, foreordained. It seems strange now, when I look back, to think that music changed all that. Two of the more significant musical events of that era were Elvis Presley and the arrival in the United States of the Beatles.
Presley had already made a big impression on the nuns at the Catholic school I attended. One of my pals, George Pabst, had made a gyrating, crotch-bumping spectacle of himself in the center of the school cafeteria and got his knuckles rapped by Sister Donald. The rest of us sniggered and were delighted, of course.
Then came the Beatles!
I was sitting outside Jack's Market in East Stroudsburg in a lime-green 1953 Ford waiting for my father to return with groceries when "I Want to Hold Your Hand" came on the radio.
I started bopping around in my seat like a maniac. My father returned, saw me, and questioned my sanity. Later on, when he saw and heard the music and pure excitement of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I could tell that even he was amused.
Suddenly, the ‘50s were laid to rest. Gone were the leather jackets, the ducktails and spit curls, replaced by mop tops, and a new type of hipness. Preppies were suddenly pushed to the back of the social bus as a new type of culture came on board.
Fifteen-year-old Jacqueline Horsfall recalls Feb. 9 distinctly. Her dad called from the sofa: "The Beatles are on TV. Don't you want to watch?" She replied: "The what? Beetles?" She joined her parents to watch Ed Sullivan and while her mother was awestruck with the Beatles’ performance, Horsfall says she was not impressed. She writes:
That night I wrote in my diary:
Sunday, February 9
The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show tonight. They're really different. Their haircuts are out of this world. I don't think they'll last long though.
Boy, was I wrong! The next day at Minerva DeLand High School in Fairport, N.Y.:
Monday, February 10
All the kids and teachers were talking about the Beatles. Ten of their songs are in the Top Twenty.
Almost immediately we started imitating them:
Tuesday, February 11
After church meeting tonight, everyone was acting like the Beatles. The boys wore their hair in a fringe, and we played two Beatle albums.
An enterprising classmate sold Beatles photos at school, snapped off the Ed Sullivan Show:
Tuesday, February 18
We talked about the Beatles in English. I bought two photos from E., one of Paul, one of John.
The Beatles invaded America at the perfect moment. We were still in shock from JFK's assassination a few months before. Then Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK's accused assassin, as America watched. The Beatles, with their sweet love songs and silly banter, gave us a reprieve from the violence:
Tuesday, February 25
Today was George Harrison's birthday. We sang "Happy Birthday" to him at lunch.
Living in south Los Angeles, 12-year-old Fred Thomas III was told the Beatles’ debut on Ed Sullivan’s show was “special,” but he didn’t fully appreciate how culturally transformational their appearance would be. He writes:
Month after month, year after year, you could feel change in the air. Music became the soundtrack of the cultural change we heard, and shows like Ed Sullivan allowed us to see what we were hearing.
It seemed like only yesterday when the Beatles were introduced. The Ed Sullivan Show was very popular in our household because in addition to mainstream groups, we knew the show was fair in also presenting African-American entertainers.
As an African-American family, we had been raised to respect and embrace all people. Events were happening very fast and it was amazing how music seemed to help people tolerate each other. The Beatles were synonymous in showcasing the benefit of embracing new cultures.
At the time, the Motown sound was the dominant music heard in my community. There was pride in how the sound helped to influence our country's attitude. However, in 1964 when the Beatles hit the scene, they, too, fit right in.
Sunday nights were special in Laurie Jo Miller Farr’s family in the ‘60s because of Ed Sullivan’s show. Her parents Farr, then 10, and her 15-year-old brother and 8-year-old twin sisters stay up late and eat Swanson’s TV dinners in front of their black-and-white RCA set. She writes:
Despite the shockingly long, floppy hair and sideburns, the Beatles were well-groomed. They wore matching suits with skinny trousers and skinny ties as they harmonized on electric guitars over shared mikes. We were glued to the set. We memorized their names superimposed on the screen along with the words, "Sorry girls he's married," under John's name.
I was thoroughly jealous of the teenage girls in the live audience. After all, one of those lucky girls could catch the eye of an unmarried Beatle. Ed Sullivan had booked the foursome for three Sundays in a row. He praised the “conduct” of these “fine youngsters from Liverpool, England." And why not? He'd achieved the largest TV audience ever assembled.
At home the generation gap melted. This group was something new; they didn't even have choreographed moves. And all the way from England!
My siblings and I pooled our piggy bank reserves for 47 cents to buy a 45 rpm record of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" with "I Saw Her Standing There" on the flipside. We were allowed to use the turntable of my parents' stereo HiFi because they instantly liked the Beatles, too. Beatlemania took America by storm and only the very grumpiest of parents objected.
Kathryn E. Darden, then 9 and living in Falls Church, Va., remembers how her quiet middle-class neighborhood in 1964 mirrored ‘50s and early ‘60s sitcoms: Moms wore dresses and reared children. Dads worked. Families ate together and went to church. Divorce and crime were rare. School shootings were nonexistent. She writes:
The Beatles brought something new to our shores that changed American music. At first it was just a catchy pop sound that influenced an entire industry, including future Christian performers like Wynonna and Phil Keaggy.
As their music took on more New Age and psychedelic overtones, the changing message of the Beatles helped usher in drastic and ultimately devastating changes to American culture. Beatles music became synonymous with drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, rebellion and the breakdown of traditional values.
While I loved Beatles' music as a child and teen, I stopped listening after their music and message changed. Some high school and college friends who continued to be heavily influenced by the Beatles and the counter-cultural movement slipped into drug abuse and other problems. Some left home to live on the streets. And the quiet community I grew up in is a high-crime area today.
In hindsight, I wish the Beatles had kept their counter-culture message on their side of the pond.
Tom Sanders, 10 in 1964, was in sixth grade in Mt. Morris, Mich., when the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” supplanted Bobby Vinton’s cover of “There! I’ve Said It Again” — which his mother liked — as Billboard’s No. 1 song just days before their Ed Sullivan performance. Sanders calls Feb. 9, 1964, a watershed moment between his mother’s musical era and his. He writes:
We had noon dances in the gym of the old brown brick junior high on Walter Street. Older kids played their 45s. A seventh grader brought in a "Meet The Beatles" album. (He became king of the whole school.) It was the first album I'd seen that wasn't a children's record or movie soundtrack. Every song was great. We had something new to ask for, if we could wait until our birthdays. Albums would eventually replace singles as our format of choice for recorded music.
Anything British became cool. Kids acquired Scouse accents, or a taste for fish and chips. I had a short wave radio and could hear the BBC World Service, and I gained status of a sort. Sixth-grade girls still ran the other way.
Radio also gave status to school bus window seats. Girls with radios grabbed them, seeking a few minutes of Beatles nourishment. Kids with only a casual interest in radio now waited through commercials for the Wee-tac (WTAC in Flint) Good Guys and Trix (WTRX) Jones Boys to spin another Fab Four hit. That December, transistor radios joined LPs as new items on Christmas wish lists.
Mom got her music back when "Hello, Dolly" broke the string of Beatles No. 1s. More and more hit songs, however, would be written for teenagers. Without a band to grow with, I may have lost interest in radio, and music. Now, with each Beatles song I hear, I'm glad I didn't.
Gail Cohen, then 21, hosted a Beatles-watching party on Feb. 9 in Miami, Fla., a city already inundated with anti-war protests, demonstrations and hippies. But, she says, the Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan’s show seemed to freeze all political and ideological disagreements — at least for one night. She writes:
I cooked huge amounts of food and spent too much time choosing a hostess outfit consisting of a shirt, mini-skirt and go-go boots. Friends arrived giggling and excited. Like Stepford Wives, the girls' matching sky-high bouffant hairdos complemented cuts worn by guys who unashamedly emulated John, Paul, George and Ringo. Only a few guys wore close-cropped hair — those who had just returned from Vietnam. The night was magical.
Since then, enthusiasm for the group hasn't diminished one iota. Paul's staying power, John's murder at his NYC apartment, George's painful death and Ringo's tenacity remained with the music behind our lives as we had children and grandchildren. With each successive generation, appreciation for the Beatles and their remarkable music and lyrics never diminished.
Even today, I recall myself — giddy with anticipation — as I heard Ed Sullivan's theme music being played, knowing we were but minutes away from Ringo's first cymbal tap. We watched every move they made. We sang along since we knew all of the lyrics.
How could we have known that we witnessed history that night?