It was fifty years ago today.
Okay, not exactly. But, if you’re reading this, you should get the lyrical reference.
It will be a half century exactly this coming Sunday since the Beatles made their famous first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. An event which many middle agers speak of with reverence, as their initiation into the world of pop music.
A lot say it’s why they took up instruments. Though I daresay those weren’t the violins and pianos their parents had been imploring them to learn to play for years. It was, you know and I know, guitar and drum lessons they craved.
Others contend the event opened their minds to the reality of a culture separate from that of their parents.
I believe it all to be true. Yet my experience that Sunday night was a bit different.
I was a freshman in college and watched the show with a sardonic gaggle of fraternity brothers at the ZBT house on Washington Street in Lexington, Virginia. This was a group of smart asses, steeped in a sense of the sardonic. Impertinent flippancy reigned, let’s just say, and leave it at that.
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s Show:
As an inveterate rock and roller for almost a decade already, I was certainly taken by the phenomena Brian Epstein orchestrated. As well as the freshness of the music. Remember, rock & roll had turned a too Fabian, too Dick Clark lipsync mainstream in the early 60s. The Beatles and their American counterparts, the Beach Boys, did their best to right that listing ship.
I may misremember my affection. But I distinctly recall that my mother, as a joke I assume, sent me a roll of Beatles wallpaper. I looked at it once, threw it in the closet, later to be tossed in the trash.
Which, in retrospect, was the worst investment decision in a life of them. My net worth today would be significantly robust with that roll of Beatlemania, safely secured in mint condition in a deposit box. Sigh.
The main reason that Beatles appearance didn’t register with that much resonance: Elvis.
Now, the Sunday evening of the King’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan — September 9, 1956, if you’re craving exactitude — that’s an indelible memory. (A bit of dazzling trivia: Sullivan didn’t host the show that night. He was still recovering from a car accident the month before. Charles Laughton was the emcee in his stead.)
Just how strong Ed Sullivan’s hold on pop cultural relevance was at the time is revealed by these facts. That night was Presley’s 10th national TV appearance. He’d already been on the Dorsey Brothers “Stage Show” six times, Milton Berle’s Show twice and the Steve Allen Show. None of which, frankly, until years later, was I, or most others, aware of.
Elvis on Milton Berle’s Show:
As an 11 year old, my anticipation was off the charts. I’d been bitten by the bug that was rock & roll several years before.
Squirming in my seat at dinner that evening, with an eye on the clock, I faced a weekend homework inquisition from my dad.
“What are you studying in, oh, Arithmetic?
“Multiplication and division of fractions. I’ve got it down, ” I responded quickly with nervous bravado.
Sensing I was perhaps misrepresenting the extent of my mathematical expertise on those particular matters, he inquired, “Well, show me then how you divide fractions?”
You know what happened next.
Understand, my parents were cool. There was nothing about Elvis, or the new music or my love for it or watching it on TV that offended them for a nanosecond.
That I would fib about my homework, that was, uh, something else.
Had they marched me to the bathroom and inserted a bar of Lifebuoy in my mouth for even an hour or so, you know, like Ralphie’s folks did in “A Christmas Story,” it all would have been fine.
My punishment was more severe. I was marched to the desk in the bedroom I shared with my brother and immediately ordered to work every single problem at the end of the textbook chapter on multiplication and division of fractions.
When and if I was through, I could watch Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Operative word: If.
Eight o’clock came. Eight o’clock went. I was in my room, working feverishly, oh so very very distraught. Pissed at my parents, to be sure.
On the show, Elvis sang “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Ready Teddy” and “Hound Dog.”
He was on during two different segments. My parents relented, allowing me to watch the second.
Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Of course I would argue that Elvis in ’56 on Ed Sullivan was of far more cultural importance than the Beatles in ’64. With the former, we’re talking total displacement of the continental shelf. For further exposition on Elvis Presley’s stature, read this.
John Lennon himself said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
But now is not the time to pick at those nits. Different generations have different touchstones. It’s the nature of cultural evolution.
Elvis was a transcendent talent and important.
The Beatles were transcendent talents and important.
I’m blessed to have been around for both, blessed to have heard them both live in concert.