On This Day in Music History: The Beatles Make Their ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ Debut

On this day (February 9) nearly 60 years ago, the Beatles landed on The Ed Sullivan Show and popular music would never be the same.

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Millions gathered around their black-and-white televisions in 1964 for the Beatles’ debut on the variety show. The appearance by the Mop Tops was their first in front of an American audience. It was seen by an astonishing 73 million people. It was the first time in seven years Sullivan hit No. 1 in the nightly ratings (typically, he garnered some 21 million viewers).

The moment also started “Beatlemania,” which swept the nation and soon the globe. The Beatles, who were inspired by blues artists and early rockers like Little Richard, had officially arrived.

The Beatles landed on The Ed Sullivan Show because the program’s talent booker, Jack Babb, had seen them twice in concert in the U.K. in 1963. Babb had been invited by London talent agent Peter Prichard, who knew the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Babb wasn’t quick to book the band, since British groups didn’t do especially well on American TV. But Sullivan himself later saw a crowd gathered for the Beatles at London’s Heathrow Airport and knew he had to get them on his show.

The Beatles were booked for three shows. Securing a whopping $2,400 for the three gigs with Sullivan, two live and one taped.

Ahead of the Beatles on the show, the group had released their debut single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 25, 1964, just two weeks before their Sullivan appearance.

Some 50,000 fans requested tickets to The Ed Sullivan Show but the theater only held 728 people. Among those in attendance were Richard Nixon’s daughters, Julie and Tricia. According to NBC Sports, Olympic gold medalist Terry McDermott, who was also a part-time barber, posed for pictures and pretended to cut Paul McCartney’s hair.

The Beatles played “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and She Loves You during their first appearance. Each member was shown up close on camera, including John Lennon, during which the television screen read, “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED.” Later in the show, the band returned and performed two more songs, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles, fulfilling their three-show obligation, also performed on February 16, garnering some 70 million viewers, and again on February 23, which had been taped on the ninth ahead of their first live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They also performed again on the show on May 24.

In the aftermath, the band sold 2.5 million records from February to April 1964, according to Billboard. They subsequently became the first act to hold all top five spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Numerous musicians have cited the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show as seminal in their lives, from Gene Simmons to Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Joe Perry, Nancy Wilson and more.

Check out the band’s full performance on the show below.

(Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

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