Back in January of this year, I watched an interesting documentary titled, “The Sixties – British Invasion,” produced by CNN.
For those unaware, the British Invasion could be defined as British rock-blues bands relatively unknown in America prior to 1964 bursting onto the American music scene in 1964, with the aftermath having such a phenomenal effect that both American culture and world culture have not been the same since.
However, every good story tends to have an even better “back story,” even the British Invasion.
During the fifties and sixties, the most prestigious American TV venue for any entertainment act―music, comedy, magic, circus, etc―to appear on was The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired from 1948 until 1971. (NOTE: The show was broadcast from CBS Studio 50 in New York City which was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1967, and now is home to the Late Show with David Letterman.)
Many wonder how Ed Sullivan caught on with viewers as well as he did. Though he came up through the ranks in the media and entertainment world, his physical profile, demeanor, and on-the-screen delivery seemed to be the reverse of what most would envision for a TV personality. A 1955 TIME magazine article stated this about Sullivan:
“He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their socket.”
However, the same article flattered Sullivan by adding, "Yet, instead of frightening children, Ed Sullivan charms the whole family."
More than anything, though, what Ed Sullivan was best known for promising, and delivering, to his audience and viewers “A really big shew!” And, yes, Sullivan was famous for pronouncing it “shew” instead of “show.” And deliver he did!
From my perspective, Ed Sullivan changed American culture with two significant events: On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and, in just a few minutes, Presley’s amalgam of good looks, stiff upper lip, musical delivery, and suggestive hip gyrations forced a once ultra-conservative America to come “out of the closet” once-and-for-all, and, if you will, “let their hair hang down.”
Now, to Ed Sullivan and the British Invasion…
The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, setting off a cultural pandemic the world over. Since “Beatlemania” is still in vogue, I feel the term speaks for itself, regarding The Beatles’ everlasting impact on mankind and history.
After the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, many other British-based rock groups followed and appeared in the U.S., with great success: The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five, etc.
Dave Clark (founder of the Dave Clark Five) was quoted as saying there might not have been a British Invasion if Ed Sullivan hadn’t invited the Beatles to appear on his show.
And now for the “back story."
In 1963, Ed Sullivan was passing through Heathrow Airport in London, England. A big crowd of deliriously enthusiastic fans were gathered outside the terminals, standing in the rain. Sullivan asked who the fans were waiting for and was told they were waiting for The Beatles, about to arrive home after a concert in Sweden. At that point, Sullivan hadn’t heard of The Beatles.
Convinced The Beatles were inspiring the kind of enthusiasm previously achieved only by Elvis Presley, Sullivan contacted the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, saying he would pay any price to have them on his show. The Beatles were paid $10,000.00 for their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
If Ed Sullivan hadn’t been at London’s Heathrow Airport that day in 1963, America might never have experienced the British Invasion, which would’ve been a tragedy.