The Ed Sullivan Show ran on CBS from 1948 – 1971. The show was broadcast live in the Eastern and Central time zone. Fortunately for us, it was shown on tape to in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Sullivan presented a potpourri of the leading show biz acts of the day, including singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, and a small Italian mouse called Topo Gigio. It was the biggest tv show of its time, and a must for any ambitious performer.
One of the most momentous events of the 20th century took place on February 9, 1964. It was the night that the Beatles made their first appearance on American television, and of course it was on the Ed Sullivan Show. 86% of all American tv sets were tuned to Sullivan that night, which represented 73 million Americans. It was the most-watched television program to that point in time, and it remains one of the most-watched programs to this day. That night, thousands of new bands were born.
The Beatles appeared live on the Ed Sullivan Show a total of four times. The first three occurred on consecutive weeks, beginning with that first appearance on February 9. The next week, Sullivan took his show to the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, before returning to New York for the February 23 show. It would be 19 months before the Beatles returned to the show for their final live appearance on September 12, 1965.
In 1990, SOFA Entertainment bought all 1,050 hours of the Sullivan Show. The company is led by Andrew Solt, who has been involved in some of the better musical television events, including the 1979 special “The Heroes of Rock and Roll,” the feature documentary “Imagine: John Lennon,” and the theatrical feature “This Is Elvis.” Though the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearances have been released before (in 2003) on an independent label, this marks the first time they will have extensive marketing and distribution behind them, courtesy of the Univeral Music Group. The new set also adds 13 minutes of new footage, most of which held very little interest for me.
America was a pretty staid, conservative place on February 9, 1964, and the Sullivan Show was perfectly representative of that. While the Beatles were the hottest thing going, the rest of the hour was taken up by Broadway stars like Georgia Brown and Tessie O’Shea, and impressionist Frank Gorshin. The Beatles played two sets, a total of five songs. They rocked out of the box with “All My Loving,” but quickly followed it with “Til There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) to reassure worried parents. “She Loves You” closed out that first set, and the second set included “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
The next week, the Beatles were bunched tightly together on what must have been a small stage at the Deauville Hotel in Miami. Sonny Liston, on the verge of getting his ass kicked by then Cassius Clay, was in the audience along with former champ Joe Louis. Other acts included musical star Mitzi Gaynor, and comedians Allen and Rossi, and Myron Cohen. The Beatles played two sets again, the first of which included “She Loves You” (again), “This Boy,” and “All My Loving” (again). The second set was another performance of “I Saw Her Standing There, “From Me To You,” and a repeat of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
For their final appearance of the initial Sullivan run, the Beatles again played two sets, but only a total of three songs. “Twist and Shout,” “Please Please Me,” and for the third week in a row, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (way to flog the single boys!). Other acts that night included Gordon and Sheila McRae, “the bearded Acker Bilk” (as Ed insisted on introducing him as), and the great Cab Calloway.
The Beatles that we see on these first three shows were the ones that we think of the as lovable mop-tops. They’re very young, very clean, and there’s a twinkle in their eyes. By the time of the next appearance, on September 12, 1965, all of that had changed. The boys had become men. There were a lot of road miles under their belts. The music was more sophisticated, their hair was a little longer, and the twinkle in their eyes was gone. The Sullivan Show itself was just a little bit hipper, no doubt owing to the success of the Beatles. The other acts that night included the Beatles fellow British-invader Cilla Black, and Soupy Sales.
The growth of the band’s creativity was apparent in songs like “I Feel Fine,” and “Ticket To Ride.” That was also the night that Paul McCartney played his legendary solo version of “Yesterday,” and when it was over, something that in retrospect seems ominous took place. Lennon steps to the mic and says, in response to McCartney’s performance of the ballad, “that was just like him,” before ripping into his own desperate plea, “Help.” It’s something I’d never noticed before, and now it seems like a powerful indication of what was going on in the band, and where things were headed. Ringo got to sing “Act Naturally” that night, but despite having a few cool songs in the bag already, George was never given a chance to sing any of his songs on the Sullivan Show.
There are bonus features on each of the two discs. They mostly involve Ed Sullivan talking about the Beatles. In one short segment he interviews the band in London. While the others answer his questions, John insists on scratching his head. There is also a clip of Ed introducing a commercial advertising inflatable Beatles dolls. Since the Beatles themselves hardly appear in the bonus features, their importance is negligible.
The four shows have been dramatically improved visually, and they are presented with the original commercials intact. So if you want to see what Pillsbury, Lipton, and Anacin were pushing in those days, it’s all there for you. Of course this being a DVD package, you can choose to watch only the Beatles performances, and that, at the end of the day, is all that really matters here.