50 years of Beatles: It's going to be a really big show

Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack's essay series, "50 Years of Beatles," continues with a look at the first time Ed Sullivan heard of the Fab Four and the lead-up to their historic appearance on his popular variety show.

As with so many history-making juggernauts, the story of the Beatles is littered with folklore — often created by the insatiable appetite of the media, the group’s legions of fans and sometimes even the band mates themselves. Looking back on the explosive onset of American Beatlemania following the group’s legendary appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, Paul McCartney engaged in a bit of myth-making of his own.

As McCartney later recalled, “We were in Paris when a telegram came through from Capitol Records saying that ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ had gone number one in America. We just jumped on each other’s backs and screamed the whole place down. The cheekiest thing the Beatles ever did was say to our manager that we didn’t want to go to America until we were number one.”

For the Beatles, serendipity played its first hand in the service of American Beatlemania on Thursday, Oct. 31, 1963, when they came into Ed Sullivan’s orbit for the very first time at London Airport.

But as with so many of the stories behind the Beatles’ unparalleled commercial and critical success, the truth is both less dramatic and more interesting at the same time. While a U.S. No. 1 hit was certainly one of the group’s most fervent goals as they crisscrossed the British Isles during those heady months of 1963, it was hardly a prerequisite for taking their spellbinding act for a spin on American shores.

Indeed, the real backstory behind the Beatles’ inaugural appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” owes it genesis to serendipity and, later, to manager Brian Epstein’s tenacious drive to forge the band’s success at any cost. After all, Epstein had been unabashedly making bombastic pitches since early 1962 to any record executive and media mogul who would listen to him as he proclaimed that the Beatles would be “bigger than Elvis,” that they were poised to conquer the world. All of it.

For the Beatles, serendipity played its first hand in the service of American Beatlemania on Thursday, Oct. 31, 1963, when they came into Ed Sullivan’s orbit for the very first time at London Airport. Sullivan had flown in from the United States to scout out talent for his popular CBS variety show when he and his wife, Sylvia, encountered the thousands of ecstatic fans who had gathered at the airport to welcome their idols home. Some 1,500 fans even gathered on the rooftop gardens of the Queen’s Building desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four. Observing the tumult, Sullivan reportedly asked, “Who the hell are the Beatles?”

Not missing a beat, Epstein traveled to New York City within a week at the behest of Sullivan’s son-in-law Bob Hecht in order to meet the famous, star-making American television host. On Nov. 11, Epstein joined Sullivan at the Delmonico Hotel, and the dueling impresarios quickly struck a deal: for $10,000, the Beatles would perform on two consecutive installments of Sullivan’s program: first on Feb. 9 at the Ed Sullivan Theater and the following Sunday in a live remote performance from Miami Beach. For Sullivan, the deal was a no-brainer. As he later remarked, “I made up my mind that this was the same sort of mass hit hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days.”

At $3,500 per performance, plus expenses, the Beatles’ fee was hardly a king’s ransom for a band that had dominated the British record charts for the balance of 1963. But from Epstein’s perspective, it was an investment in establishing the group’s name as household words in the world’s must lucrative television marketplace. After all, it was McCartney himself who would describe America, tongue-in-cheek, as “the biggest showbiz town ever.”

By mid-November 1963, the stars were truly aligning themselves for the Beatles’ triumphant U.S. visit some 90 days later. But as history well knows, serendipity was only just getting started. Indeed, the fortuitous powers of Lady Luck had several more hands to play on the Beatles’ behalf before they alighted the JFK tarmac the following February.

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels: "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April to serve as the sixth Penn State Laureate.

Contacts: 
Last Updated November 06, 2013