Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The guy who brought The Beatles to America

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:21 AM EST, Sun February 9, 2014
The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/the-sixties'>Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion,"</a> a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour. The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion," a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour.
HIDE CAPTION
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: 50 years ago TV host Ed Sullivan introduced The Beatles to U.S. on his show
  • Sullivan an unlikely impresario; he'd been Broadway columnist competing with Walter Winchell
  • Sullivan was stiff but had great guests, was hugely influential in American culture, says Greene
  • Greene: Less than decade after that 1964 show, Sullivan show and Beatles were over

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014.

(CNN) -- From time to time, in the years just after his television show was taken away from him, you might see him in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel or casino.

It was always a startling sight. Ed Sullivan, walking among the guests. In town for the weekend, more free hours on his hands than he would have liked, catching a few stage shows.

It wasn't that he had quickly become anonymous -- far from it. That kind of fame doesn't fade, at least not for a long while. "The Ed Sullivan Show" was gone, but the man survived. It had to have been so odd for him.

"Ed, we miss you!" a hotel guest might call out from across the lobby.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Sullivan would smile. Great smile, by the way -- he was caricatured as being dour and stone-faced, but he had a smile that could light things up.

So, with that smile and with a nod, he would acknowledge the person who had called to him. But it was a second set of people who caused a slightly different reaction from him. They couldn't have intended to be hurtful.

"Ed Sullivan!" they might call. "We watch you every Sunday night at eight!"

And there would be something in his eyes. A little clenching of the jaw.

He was off the air, against his will, and they didn't even realize it.

Today is the 50th anniversary of his greatest triumph. The first appearance of The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 9, 1964, drew the largest audience for any program -- 73 million people -- in the history of television up to that time. In recent days there has been much discussion of, and reminiscing about, the four young musicians who stepped onto Sullivan's stage that night.

Yet the fifth person on the stage was, in his own way, just as intriguing.

He was a newspaper guy: a sportswriter, starting out, and eventually a Broadway columnist who, in the 1930s, could never seem to step out of the shadow of the most successful Broadway columnist, his rival -- it bordered on enmity -- Walter Winchell.

Winchell, of the New York Mirror, had become, through his national Sunday night radio news-and-commentary program, the most talked-about and highly paid journalist in the United States. He was abrasive, imperious, ruthless in his wielding of power, and a dazzling, concise wordsmith between the dots of the items in his "Your Broadway and Mine" column. Sullivan's "Little Old New York" column in the Daily News was punchy and knowing, but he was never going to become as big as Winchell.

Or so everyone thought.

One evening in the late 1940s, Sullivan did his annual duty as master of ceremonies for something called the Harvest Moon Ball, a dance competition sponsored by the Daily News. Some executives at CBS, seeing him at the microphone, thought they might try him out as the host of a variety show on the new and untested medium of television. Radio was still king; there wasn't much risk in seeing what would work on TV.

Journalists remember Beatles' U.S. tour
Revolutionary impact of The Beatles
Harry Benson on his life of photos
The Beatles celebrate 50th U.S. anniversary

Opinion: Did Beatles push black music aside?

And with that, everything was transformed. No one knew it at the time, but the dominance of newspapers, and of network radio, were about to end.

Sullivan may have appeared stiff and lacking in personality on television, but his Sunday night program featured some of the biggest and best show-business acts in the world, and his lack of magnetism, strangely, worked in his favor.

Two of the most oft-repeated quotes about him summed it up. From comedian Alan King, a frequent Sullivan show guest: "Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else in television." From radio comedian and host Fred Allen: "Ed Sullivan will be around as long as someone else has talent." Sullivan, who would become wealthy and instantly recognizable from coast to coast as his program became a national viewing habit, could afford to laugh along.

His show went on the air in 1948, and his success, as the enormous reach of television grew, left Winchell in the dust. On TV, Sullivan didn't have to shout; the fledgling medium did all the amplifying he needed. It was an era in which families still ate dinner together every Sunday night, and then gathered around the television set to watch a variety of acts that Sullivan had deemed appropriate for all age groups.

Winchell couldn't compete; he might be able to give a plug in his column to the cast of "Guys and Dolls" or to the comedy duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but Sullivan could put the cast and the comedians on TV screens in every city and town in America, allowing the entire country to see them.

Even before February 9, 1964, his influence was being noted in remarkable ways. In the 1960 Broadway musical (later a hit movie) "Bye Bye Birdie," the show-stopping song was "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," in which a fictional small-town Ohio family, whose daughter supposedly was going to appear on his program, wore choir robes and, with religious ardor, sang in church-like tones: "Ed Sullivan, Ed Sullivan, we're gonna be on Ed Sullivan. ..."

Penn Jillette: The Beatles, bootlegs and Vermeer

Not bad, for a guy in near-constant stomach pain whose day job remained pounding out newspaper columns. And then came the first appearance by The Beatles, which propelled both the young singers and their host to almost unfathomable heights of renown.

Many people have likely forgotten that, in 1971, CBS, having detected a softening in Sullivan's ratings, and a decline in the nation's appetite for one-size-fits-all variety programs, canceled "The Ed Sullivan Show." How could this happen, a mere seven years after he delivered to the network the biggest television audience ever? There's not much room for sentiment in business. Seven-and-a-half years after Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the New York Yankees, the team traded him to the Boston Braves. Everything ends.

Sullivan was still under contract to CBS for occasional specials, but it wasn't the same. He would die of esophageal cancer in 1974, at the age of 73.

"We miss you, Ed!" the voices of the strangers would call to him, as if he was a family member, which, in a sense, he was. To encounter him on visits to Las Vegas in those years just after his show was taken away, to witness him not on a glass screen but out among the people who once faithfully watched him, was to consider the swiftness and inevitability of change.

Less than a decade after that magical February night in 1964, Ed Sullivan the person was still around, but there was no longer any such thing as "The Ed Sullivan Show." Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were still around, but there was no longer any such thing as a band called The Beatles. Hymn for a Sunday evening, indeed. This one in particular.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT