Fifth years ago this month (February), a television show and its guests altered American culture. Chris Davidson brings us the story.
For those Generation Xers and Ys, the name Ed Sullivan may be an answer to a trivia question but to Baby Boomers, like Betsy Johnquest of Youngstown, Ed Sullivan is much more than that.
JOHNQUEST: When we heard they were going to be on “The Ed Sullivan Show” … oh my goodness. This was just unbelievable.
ED SULLIVAN: Now yesterday and today, our theater has been have been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation and these veterans agree with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles. Now tonight, you are going twice be entertained by them, right now and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles …
Like other dates throughout history, Feb. 9, 1964, is forever etched in memories.
NIKKI SVETKOVICH: And I didn’t get to see them, because my father insisted that I go to this family get-together and I was just really upset as this teen who just wanted to hear about The Beatles.
That’s Nikki Svetkovich of Austintown. Here’s Johnquest again.
JOHNQUEST: My friend, Cheri, was there with me, ’cause her parents wouldn’t let her watch The Ed Sullivan Show. And we watched it together that first time. They were on Ed Sullivan three different times. My mom and dad watch it with me and Cheri. I thought they were so terrific. I just couldn’t stand it.
More than 73 million people – 40 percent of the American public at that time – watched The Beatles that night. Last year’s Super Bowl garnered 34.4 percent of American viewers.David Simonelli is a professor at Youngstown State University and the author of the book, “Working Class Heroes: Rock Music in British Society in the 1960s and ’70.”]
SIMONELLI: Beatlemania began really with their showing up on a television show and on the established program for showcasing new artists.
Johnquest, who grew up in Xenia, OH, said radio fueled her interest in The Beatles.
JOHNQUEST: We would bring our transistor radios to school and we’d go to WING in Dayton or go to WSAI in Cincinnati. And, as soon as a Beatles song would come on we would scream to everybody, ‘WSAI. WSAI.’ And everybody would turn their channels and you didn’t speak a word when those Beatle songs were on, everybody was quiet.
Marsha Hamilton, now of Leetonia, listened to a Youngstown radio station.
HAMILTON: At that time, there were like I don’t know how many Beatle songs in the Top 10. WHOT put out a Top 100 list every week. There were so many of them – so they were playing a Beatles song maybe three or four times an hour
For teen girls, telephones and AM radio served as the social media of the day.
HAMILTON: Every time a Beatles song came on, we would call each other. ‘Do you hear it?’ I don’t know – it was just so much fun.
That fun spread well beyond the music industry.
SIMONELLI: Beatlemania was sort of based on that outlandishness. It was a function of the way that they looked, their sound, their willingness to put their heads together and say, ‘oohh.’
The Beatles changed the way we looked from head-to-toe.
SIMONELLI: They had an earthquake effect on the cultural landscape.
Boys copied the mop-top style by letting their hair grow. The Cuban-heeled boots of the mid-1960s were known as Beatle boots, the drainpipe trousers of The Beatles’ Edwardian suits became the fashion of the day and are the precursors of today’s skinny jeans.
JOHNQUEST: The Beatles brought us into our modern day. They got us into the drugs. They got us into spirituality. For good or bad – but that’s where so many things began.
Music historians credit the early Beatles films and song promos for setting the stage for music videos. Countless television shows paid tribute to The Beatles by incorporating Beatle-like characters or songs. Broadway musicals, cartoons, video games and films have been based on the Beatles.
Hamilton says The Beatles came to America at just the right time
HAMILTON: After President Kennedy died we were all just looking for happiness. ’Cause after President Kennedy was killed, it was like our whole country kind of went crazy.
President Kennedy had been assassinated a few months earlier.
SIMONELLI: Here (in America), I think that it was a real balm to this period of mourning.
In addition to helping heal the nation, Simonelli says The Beatles changed society – and not just in the United States
SIMONELLI: In 1964, The Beatles made more money and brought more money into Britain then Jaguar. They vastly changed the nature of the British economy from one that was all about industrial exports to cultural exports in a way that nobody had done previously
And that means, we can thank The Beatles for “Monty Python,” “Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock” and other UK-produced programs. The success of the Fab Four even surprised their hometown crowds.
SIMONELLI: They were considered to be just a bunch of kids that would one day be back on the docks in Liverpool. And they’d have these great memories, but that would be it. Then they went to America and went over the way that they did and – all of a sudden – people were scratching their heads and saying, ‘Wow, these guys are actually doing something.’
For some, The Beatles ignited a life-long passion for music, for fashion, for all things British. For Betsy Johnquest, it was the drums.
JOHNQUEST: I’ll just say that my love of music, playing the drums – ’cause I played the drums through out my whole life.
For Marsha Hamilton, it was always about Paul McCartney.
HAMILTON: You know what? I’d marry him today if he’d have me.
Even though George Harrison and John Lennon have passed away, the music and myths of The Beatles live on. Both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr remain active in the music industry and today – 50 years later – The Beatles also serve as a reminder of time passing.
SVETKOVICH: Makes me feel kind of old when I look at Ed Sullivan’s anniversary coming up and these guys with – what we thought was scandalously long hair – and then I laugh and say, “Oh my gosh, if we only knew.’
HAMILTON: Everything they did was new and exciting
JOHNQUEST: That was like to me a golden age of rock ’n’ roll.
For TheNewsOutlet.org, I’m Chris Davidson.
Editor’s note: Joel Anderson contributed to this report.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron). TheNewsOutlet.org receives support from The College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Youngstown State University (CLASS), The Raymond John Wean Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Youngstown Foundation.