The Sunday Night That Changed My World

beatles sullivan group shot

This memoir by Bill King originally was published in Beatlefan #87, February 1994. A slightly reworked version of it serves as the foreword in Al Sussman’s new book “Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation.” …

There was something different about the sketch my buddy Chip passed to me in class one day in early February 1964.

Chip was always drawing, but usually it was outrageous hot rods and grotesque drivers inspired by “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s Rat Fink models — the rage among the sixth-grade boys at Barrow Elementary in Athens, GA.

This time, however, instead of a hot rod it was a drawing of four musicians with pudding-bowl haircuts — like Moe of the Three Stooges — standing behind individual bandstands a la the Lawrence Welk show.

“Great,” I said noncommittally. “What is it?”

“It’s The Beatles,” he said excitedly.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a great new singing group from England that’s gonna be on ‘Ed Sullivan’ Sunday night. And they’ve got LONG hair! You’ve GOT to see them.” (Chip himself hadn’t seen The Beatles at that point and was using his imagination when it came to the nonexistent bandstands.)

Now a singing group appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” wasn’t something I was likely to get too excited about. My family’s one radio was kept tuned to the local middle-of-the-road station, and my only regular exposure to rock ‘n’ roll had been watching “American Bandstand” to laugh at the dopey teenagers and their stupid dances.

And long hair on guys? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. I had about the longest hair in my class and that simply meant my summer crewcut had grown out enough so that I could comb it. Sounded weird.

But, being half-British, I was intrigued by the fact that they came from England. Besides, Chip seemed excited about this, and he was the guy who’d initiated the class into the Facts of Life the previous spring, so you didn’t dismiss lightly anything Chip was excited about.

There was just one problem. The first part of “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” was airing on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” that Sunday night, and the last half-hour of Disney on NBC clashed with the first half-hour of Sullivan on CBS.

Still, as the week progressed and I read about The Beatles being greeted by a mob of 5,000 screaming fans at New York’s newly-renamed Kennedy International Airport, and noticed that even my mother was talking about them, I found myself getting excited — and I still hadn’t heard a Beatles record.

This was completely out of character for me, but so much about the arrival of The Beatles on these shores 30 years ago was out of character for that time and place.

At school, our only previous British fascination had been with notorious party girl Christine Keeler, though we weren’t sure exactly what she’ done other than pose nude, as Chip informed us. British rock ‘n’ rollers never had made it here before. Yet The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” soared to No. 1 and was followed onto the charts by their earlier records — by April, they occupied the top five spots on the chart, a feat never equalled.

Until The Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll in general was only a peripheral thing for me and my friends. At age 11, we were basically Disney kids, more interested in the Swamp Fox and Marshal Dillon than the Top 40, though we liked some of the folk music on “Hootenanny”. Up to that point, the biggest pop culture event in our lives had been the birth of Pebbles Flintstone the previous spring. (Chip won additional esteem by becoming the first to be able to draw her.)

Looking back at 1964 — and it boggles the mind to realize that’s now like looking back at the Great Depression when we were kids — we obviously were ripe for some sort of cultural upheaval. Camelot was over and the headlines the day The Beatles landed in America told of LBJ pushing the Civil Rights Bill, Castro cutting off the water to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, and Jimmy Hoffa, who hadn’t yet found his way to the endzone of Giants Stadium, standing trial for jury-tampering. Still, for us, it was a pretty white-bread world, not much different from the Eisenhower ’50s. (Mattel also introduced G.I. Joe that same day.)

Our frame of reference was limited: Cable hadn’t arrived, so we had only three TV channels (plus the educational station). CBS and NBC only recently had expanded their newscasts from 15 minutes to a half-hour.

Westerns and doctor shows were big (the girls loved “Doctor Kildare”), folks still were singing along with Mitch and Jack Benny remained a Tuesday night fixture. Dr. Richard Kimble had just begun his run from the law on “The Fugitive” and other new programs included “The Patty Duke Show”, “My Favorite Martian”, “Burke’s Law” and, in what passed for avant-garde TV at the time, the Orwellian “takeover” of our sets each week by “The Outer Limits”. On the cover of TV Guide that week were the wholesome lovelies of “Petticoat Junction”, a spinoff of the No. 1-rated hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies”.

Someone once compared The Beatles’ arrival to the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when the film switches from black-and-white Kansas to colorful Oz. We hadn’t really been exposed to much that was exotic, and The Beatles were certainly that.

So, at 8 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964, 73.9 million of us, including many parents, tuned into the Sullivan show, making it at the time the most-watched program in history. (Nowadays, it ranks 20th.) At our house, we nearly wore out the channel selector going back and forth between Disney and the Fab Four. It was as if I were caught in a cultural tug of war between my Beaver Cleaver/Opie Taylor childhood and the wide-open new world The Beatles were ushering in.

I don’t need to tell you which side won.

That night, after the Sullivan show, I clipped all the Beatles articles out of the Sunday papers and did something else that was a first for me: started a scrapbook.

“Elvis is Dead,” I wrote in colored pencil on the first page, “Long Live The Beatles!”

Thanks, Chip.

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One Response to The Sunday Night That Changed My World

  1. Michael K says:

    Great story which seems to me, born on the day they captured the top five, to belong in my favourite, and to my mind the pre-eminent evocation of 1964 Beatlemania in America, the movie ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, which I was surprised didn’t feature heavily in 50th anniversary schedules, being as it’s also the only movie to have a full soundtrack of actual Beatles records!

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