Ed Sullivan had barely finished saying their names before fans drowned him out with their screams. The curtain parted to show four young lads from Liverpool dressed in matching black suits, pointy boots and hair that fell to their eyes. The lead singer’s tender voice led the band into “All My Loving.” His bandmates joined in a few seconds later with their respective instruments. The song was energetic, the guitars crisp and the crowd ecstatic. Their first live performance on American television had just started and the country was already hooked. It was the beginning of the British Invasion.
Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!
It was 50 years ago Sunday. A record 73 million people across the nation tuned in on Feb. 9, 1964, to watch the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Although they were known to teenagers in the Northeast – 4,000 fans waited for the group’s arrival at the JFK airport on Feb. 7 – the hype was a bit slow to reach Austin.
“In Austin, we had such a shortage of radio stations,” says David Crumley, a native Austinite and musician who has been working at Strait Music for 33 years.
Just days before his 11th birthday, Crumley sat with his family in their South Austin home to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a Sunday night staple. At the time, Austin had only one TV channel.
Nobody knew what to expect from this new band; their looks and sound were a mystery. People tuned in to see what all the fuss was about in England.
After the Feb. 9 performance, it became clear. You could not turn on a radio station in Austin without hearing a Beatles song.
“I can still picture Paul (McCartney) singing the first line,” Crumley says. “It was just like magic.”
“Something had changed that night,” says Cid Sanchez, guitar player and teacher at Austin School of Music. He was 10 years old when he and his family crowded around the television set in Corpus Christi that Sunday night. “It was like a beautiful, shocking new reality.”
Local radio host Jody Denberg was only 5 years old when the Fab Four invaded America’s television sets, yet he remembers watching from his New York City home vividly. The following day, he made his mother take him to the record store to buy the single for “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
“It changed my life,” Denberg says. “It set me on my career path.”
It also inspired young men across the country to pursue careers in rock ’n’ roll. Crumley ditched the school band and bought a drum set; he still plays today with The Nu Mystics. Sanchez picked up the guitar.
“It was instant, really,” Sanchez says. “We all got into music after that.”
While boys suddenly wanted to be them, girls wanted to be with them. The term “Beatlemania” was coined to refer to the intense frenzy that took over teenage girls at the sight of their four favorite men.
Elizabeth Newell, now a retired librarian living in Austin, became one of those 14-year-old girls after the “Ed Sullivan” performance.
“When they came on, I immediately just felt this flush of happiness,” says Newell, re-living the enthusiasm.
Her group of best friends at school began to have daily meetings to talk about the Beatles. She would skip Sunday school to buy the latest pop culture magazine and stay up-to-date on their private lives. She was once slapped by another fan for saying that George Harrison had crooked teeth.
Rita Hanson, school counselor at Casey Elementary, was also 14 years old when she first saw the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.” She and her friend were able to get tickets to their concert in Dallas later that September.
“The second that they came out, it was just like insanity hit,” Hanson says. “Even my friend — I had never seen her that way. It was like something had possessed her.”
At the concert, people were constantly trying to rush up to the stage — to no avail. Girls were fainting, screaming and crying. Fans were throwing jelly beans — the Beatles’ favorite candy — at the band.
“It was an amazing experience,” Hanson says. “One of those things you will always remember.”
Celebrate 50 years of the Beatles
Catch “The Night that Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS.