By Published: Feb. 5, 2024

Sixty years after The Beatles’ first appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ CU Boulder historian Martin Babicz reflects on their impact on U.S. culture and politics

There are certain indelible moments in life, certain shared experiences, that only need a prompt of “Where were you when…?” to bring forth a torrent of memory.

So, find the nearest Baby Boomer and ask them where they were at 8 p.m. EST on Feb. 9, 1964—60 years ago this week. That Sunday night, about 45% of U.S. households turned their TVs on to CBS for “The Ed Sullivan Show.

An audience of 73 million people heard Sullivan open with, “Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool...”

And then there they were—the Fab Four, the Lads from Liverpool, The Beatles performing “All My Loving.” In memory, the ecstatic screams still echo.

Martin Babicz

CU Boulder historian Martin Babicz researches The Beatles' impact on U.S. culture and politics in 1964.

Just 77 days before that evening, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Still staggering from that, the United States also was seeing increasing involvement in Vietnam, growing a civil rights movement and facing what would become an extremely contentious presidential election.

“There was a lot going on in 1964 in the United States,” says Martin Babicz, a University of Colorado Boulder teaching associate professor of history who researches The Beatles’ effect on U.S. culture and politics in 1964. “Their tour in 1964 fits right into the issues of the time.”

Booked on Ed Sullivan

In the month before The Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” their first two albums—initially released in England in 1963—had been renamed and released in the United States. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 1 on the Billboard chart and a huge marketing push by Capitol Records meant that U.S. music fans were very aware of The Beatles. Compare it to a spark sizzling down a long fuse toward a pile of dynamite.

The Beatles were coming to the United States at a time when the ‘60s—not the actual decade, but the ‘60s as a culture-shifting era—had just begun, Babicz says.

“This is something I talk about with my historian friends: When did the ‘60s begin and when did the ‘60s end?” he explains. “I think the best date to assign to the ‘60s beginning was the date Kennedy was assassinated. In many ways, Kennedy and the Kennedy administration were a continuation of the Eisenhower and Truman days, with this veneer of prosperity and conformity.

“When he was assassinated and Johnson became president, it was almost like a dam broke and you see this turmoil that had been developing, this changing and shifting in the culture and in the country.”

Interestingly, Babicz notes, on the day Kennedy was assassinated—evening in England—The Beatles were playing a show at the Globe Cinema in a town called Stockton-on-Tees. Shortly before they went onstage, there was a rumor going around the theater about what had happened in Dallas, but no confirmation because there was no radio or television in the theater.

So, The Beatles went onstage and performed, and after the show the rumor about Kennedy being assassinated was confirmed, Babicz says. John Lennon questioned whether they should play the second show, “but in show-business fashion, the show went on,” he says.

“Like a lot of British musicians, The Beatles were very influenced by American culture,” Babicz explains. “Rock 'n' roll was an American invention, and The Beatles were being very much influenced by this. Rock 'n' roll in 1950s was the musical genre of rebelling, of teenagers rebelling against established society and against this American idea of affluence and stability and middle-of-the-road-ism.

“Many young people were not accepting the status quo and rebelling against it in a number of ways—how they dressed, how they spoke, the music they listened to. Rock 'n' roll was born from the music of African American artists, and before the Civil Rights Movement, playing rock 'n' roll was a rebellion against established society.”

All their loving

However, popular myths about how much parents loathed The Beatles and their “long” hair are exaggerated, Babicz says.

“It makes me laugh when I look at pictures of performers in the early 1960s wearing suits and ties,” Babicz says. “When my wife saw The Beatles at Red Rocks, it was her mom who took her. Her mom wasn’t necessarily a fan, but she wasn’t anti-Beatles, either.

“They weren’t actually seen as being totally divisive. Their music was of such a quality that it was being really accepted in the mainstream when they first came to the U.S. in 1964.”

In fact, though Ed Sullivan’s theater could hold only 700, he and his staff reportedly received 50,000 requests for seats ahead of The Beatles’ first appearance on his show. And the fact that 73 million people tuned in to see them perform bespeaks just how huge the moment was, Babicz says.

“There weren’t a lot of options then, just ABC, NBC and CBS,” Babicz says. “But still, I don’t know that you could get 73 million people to watch the same thing today. There’s a rumor—which is probably false, but it was written in Time magazine— that during the show, not a single hubcap was stolen in New York City.”

The Beatles opened with “All My Loving” then played “Till There Was You” and closed the first set with “She Loves You.” The screams from teenage audience members were deafening. They closed the hour-long show with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Beatles appeared on the show the next two weeks as well, but that Feb. 9 appearance was the breakthrough moment, Babicz says.


Reflecting broader movements

The Beatles subsequently toured the United States in the summer and fall of 1964—they played Red Rocks Amphitheater on Aug. 26 of that year—and through the tour there were important touch points that mirrored broader movements in U.S. culture and politics, Babicz says.

For example, The Beatles were scheduled to play the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, but when they learned that the venue was still segregated by race, even though the Civil Rights Act had recently been signed into law, they refused to play there.

“So, the city backed down and desegregated the venue,” Babicz says. “They wanted The Beatles to come more than they wanted to stay segregated.”

And though The Beatles were ostensibly apolitical early in their career, Babicz learned through his research that following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to use military force in southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war by Congress, John Lennon expressed his strong opposition to a young WFUN reporter named Larry Kane.

The Beatles and Ed Sullivan

Paul McCartney (right) shows Ed Sullivan his guitar on Feb. 9, 1964. (Photo: Associated Press)

“Certainly (The Beatles’) manager, Brian Epstein, wouldn’t have wanted them taking a position, especially not to a reporter, because that could alienate a large number of fans,” Babicz says. “It wasn’t until about 1966 that people began publicly expressing opposition to the Vietnam War, but it’s come out that John Lennon publicly was against it even earlier.”

Though the band’s later career musically, thematically and visually reflected the changes and upheaval in culture and politics, those early, suit-and-tie-wearing days were just as revolutionary, though not as obviously so, Babicz says.

A Beatles T-shirt in 2024

And the irony is, despite many years of researching the band and even more years of being a fan, Babicz was just slightly too young to experience the full impact of Beatlemania. He was 5 in 1964, and the first time he actually heard The Beatles was during Easter of that year, when his precocious, 3-year-old cousin sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the delight of his family.

In the summer of 1964, while The Beatles conquered America on tour, he went to his grandmother’s farm in upstate New York and with his cousins caught beetles in jars, which they named John, Paul, George and Ringo.

It wasn’t until around 1971, when a cousin four years his senior gave him six Beatles singles on vinyl, including “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need Is Love,” that his interest was seriously piqued. In 1973, when the red and blue Beatles greatest hits albums were released, Babicz bought both and was officially a dedicated, fervent fan.

“Those greatest hits albums came with inserts listing all the Beatles records, and I remember vowing to buy all of them,” he remembers. “So, I did. And I’ve owned all the Beatles’ albums in every available format: vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD and digital.”

He even met his wife at a Beatles convention at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. So, approaching the music he loves as a historian and scholar was a natural next step.

“There are so many different ways to approach their impact and influence,” Babicz says. “They shaped culture and in a way defined the era. Even now, 60 years later, I have a few students every semester who show up to class wearing a Beatles T-shirt.”

Top image: The Beatles performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" Feb. 9, 1964. (Photo: Getty Images)

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