The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” 60 years later: “Life went from black and white to color”

On February 9, 1964, a group of four 20-something musicians from Liverpool made their debut on U.S. television and forever changed popular music. The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Sunday evening was watched by some 73 million people, sending many viewers on completely new paths in their lives.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary Friday and prepare to officially kick off the sixth season of “Everything Fab Four,” a podcast co-produced by me and Kenneth Womack (a music scholar who also writes about pop music for Salon) and distributed by Salon, we’ve got a special episode showcasing the stories of our many guests who were influenced by this pivotal event in cultural history – by far the No. 1 “Beatles moment” mentioned on our show.

But how did Ed Sullivan end up booking the band in the first place? Margo Precht Speciale, Sullivan’s granddaughter and the daughter of producer Bob Precht, was a guest on “Everything Fab Four” last year and told Womack, “There are two stories – the PR story and the real story. There’s an oft-repeated tale of my grandfather discovering them at an airport, but no – the truth is a lot more involved than that.”

Emmy- and Grammy-winning producer Andrew Solt (who purchased “The Ed Sullivan Show” library in 1990) also joined Speciale on that episode. “All the stars lined up,” he said, “but it was the music that had us. And when they walked out on that stage, there was no way that anybody who was of a certain age wasn’t going to be watching.”


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Other guests over the seasons concurred with that statement. Toto guitarist Steve Lukather said for him, “Life went from black and white to color. There was life pre-Beatles and life post-Beatles, and nothing was ever the same. The music hit my soul and I thought, I gotta learn how to do that.”

E Street band member Steven Van Zandt said, “On February 8th, there were no bands in America. On February 10th, everybody had a band in their garage.” Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson likened the Beatles’ appearance that night to “the lunar landing. It changed the trajectory of the rest of my entire life.” Singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones commented that “by the end of their first song, the world was changed.” And Academy Award-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton said, “That was the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that informed the rest of our lives.”

Similar sentiments were also expressed from guests such as singers Judy Collins, Darlene Love and Kenny Loggins, “Get Smart” actress Barbara Feldon (who once performed as a dancer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” herself), and TV producer and author Debbie Gendler, who was actually in the studio audience on February 9, 1964.

As for what Ed Sullivan was like personally, Margo Precht Speciale said, “He loved people, he loved engaging with people, and he loved talent. When the Beatles came, it was a breath of fresh air. They brought light. So many people remember my grandfather because of them.”

Listen to this entire special “Everything Fab Four” episode, plus previous episodes of the show, and subscribe via Spotify, Apple, Google or wherever you’re listening.

“Everything Fab Four” is distributed by Salon. Host Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography on Beatles producer George Martin and the bestselling books “Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles” and “John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life.” His latest book is the authorized biography of Beatles road manager Mal Evans, “Living the Beatles Legend,” out now.

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