The Ed Sullivan Show was a fixture on CBS Sunday night TV since launching on June 20, 1948. It was a big deal. Families would gather around the television after the Sunday night meal (pot roast at our house) and watch the show. Sullivan would roll out a various stream of performers to entertain the viewers.
Virtually every type of entertainment appeared on the show; opera singers, popular artists, songwriters, comedians, ballet dancers, dramatic actors performing monologues from plays, andcircus acts were regularly featured. The format was essentially the same as vaudeville, and although vaudeville died a generation earlier, Sullivan presented many ex-vaudevillians on his stage.
If the Elvis appearance on September 9th of ’56 changed the direction of the show, The Beatles 1964 appearance turned it upside down in a Twist and Shout kind of way. Over 73 millions American (more than 40% of the population) were glued to the family set to watch the four from Liverpool make their Ed Sullivan debut.
In late 1963, Sullivan was passing through London’s Heathrow airport at the same time The Beatles were returning from Stockholm. Sullivan was intrigued about how the bands fans were going nuts at their arrival and told his entourage it was the same thing as Elvis all over again. He initially offered Beatles manager Brian Epstein top dollar for a single show but the Beatles manager had a better idea—he wanted exposure for his clients: the Beatles would instead appear three times on the show, at bottom dollar, but receive top billing and two spots (opening and closing) on each show.
There are a handful of events on the Rock and Roll timeline with huge impact — January of ’56, when Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s first single, Heartbreak Hotel, February 3, 1959, when a small plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, and Feburary 9, 1964, when the Beatles took the Ed Sullivan stage.