The Beatles were already a sensation in England when they crossed the pond to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964.
The Fab Four played three songs -- “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” -- before taking a 35-minute break for other performers. Then they took the studio stage again to play “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” much to the delight of their screaming, swooning fans. An estimated 73 million people in the U.S. watched the show that night, establishing John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as American idols.
“There’s so much there in that ‘Ed Sullivan’ appearance it’s almost overwhelming to me," Lennon and Beatles biographer and NPR critic Tim Riley told Jim Sullivan in an interview for U.S. News & World Report. “But there is this thought that they articulated later: ‘We are a rock ‘n’ roll band, we know where we’re situated in rock ‘n’ roll history and we do not want to make the mistake that Elvis made.’ It’s almost articulated in that Sullivan appearance. They’re very defiant. They have a very strong, secure, cocky sense of who they are and where they might be going, of their own potential.”
“At the same time, it’s like, ‘We’re not going to bend to please the forces that be,’” Riley continued. “They watched Elvis go off to the Army and go into Hollywood and it was a tremendous, tragic story. They always felt they were determined to do it differently and that’s almost conscious in the Sullivan thing.”
A few days later, the Beatles headed to Washington, D.C., for their first official U.S. concert (at the Washington Coliseum). They were back on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb.16 to play “She Loves You,” “This Boy,” “All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me to You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for a televised audience of about 70 million people, and again a week later for a quick, three-song set taped on Feb. 9. But that first appearance launched them to fame in the U.S. and keeps their fans swooning, 50 years later.