Related MediaAudio: Tom Petty interview on The Beatles impact
50 years ago today, The Beatles taught a young America to play
Published: Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 11:50 a.m.
The sound was visibly electric, in ways not seen before. The four figures were striking too: Young men with electric guitars, long hair teasing the top of their eyebrows, dressed alike and unleashing the full impact of something America witnessed live for the first time — a complete rock 'n' roll band.
On Feb. 9, 1964, The Beatles played their first performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," finally giving the country a visible dose of the sound that had driven radio DJs and fans alike to a fever pitch.
And on that Sunday night — 50 years ago today — the shared experience seen by 73 million set the die for a new era of popular music. The Beatles came, they played — and the country responded. Rock 'n' roll and, indeed, American culture, would never be the same.
"It was a really big night in American history," says Tom Petty, who saw the seminal event in the Gainesville house he grew up in. "It had such a huge impact on everything: on music, culture, everything changed after that night.”
The Beatles on TV, film
- “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles,” 8 tonight on CBS. A who's who of entertainers, including Dave Grohl and Stevie Wonder, and the first performance together of “Hey Jude” by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr since 1968.
- “A Hard Day's Night”: Classic Beatles film will be screened as part of Central Florida's International Film Series, 2 p.m. Tuesday, Appleton Museum of Art, 4335 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala; and 7 p.m., Building 8, College of Central Florida campus, 3001 SW College Road, Ocala. Admission fee at museum; free at college. (854-2322, ext. 1233, or www.cf.edu/foundation/events/events)
For Petty — and untold thousands of others inspired to form their own bands and play their own music — 8 p.m. that Sunday night brought a crystallized moment unequaled by any other.
It was the moment rock 'n' roll changed, an event of seismic proportions that taught a nation and its thousands of ready-to-rock teens, post-teens and even pre-teens what to do and how to do it.
“That was when I went, 'All right, I've got to have an electric guitar,'” Petty says in a phone call from California. “I had an acoustic guitar at the time; I loved music, I was into rock 'n' roll. But I had never thought of playing it or performing it. That seemed like an impossible goal, like something that couldn't be done.”
But, as described by Petty, who would later form his own bands, write his own songs and forge a career that's sold more than 80 million albums and landed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” laid out a blueprint on what to do: You get an electric guitar, form a band with your friends and write your own songs.
The Beatles, Petty says, were “a self-contained unit. And they make the music, they write the music.
“And they're clearly friends; they're having a lot of fun,” he says. “This looks like what I should be doing. And this is my ticket out. This is the way I'm going to avoid work the rest of my life,” Petty laughs.
The Beatles' first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” came at a time in the nation's history when it couldn't have had a greater, more lasting impact. The nation had been in a period of mourning after its youthful president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated 11 weeks earlier. And the sudden live appearance by The Beatles — the dynamic Fab Four from England who had topped the U.S. charts in the ensuing weeks but had yet to appear stateside — brought a sense of excitement and renewed optimism for baby boomers and the rest of the nation alike.
Culturally, rock 'n' roll had existed before, of course. Elvis Presley had swiveled his hips on the Sullivan show seven years earlier. But he was a solo star, whose songs were written by others. And a nation waiting for a cultural resurgence — and in turn a pop-cultural renaissance — found it in the four lads from Liverpool, a group that even then was influentially fab in many ways.
“You had never really seen guitars,” Petty says. “The guitars, when you see the show, they're so up front. And when you got the first album, it spelled out 'Paul McCartney, electric bass; John Lennon is rhythm guitar and George Harrison is lead guitar.'
“And I went 'Oh, there's a rhythm guitar and there's a lead guitar.' I mean you had never heard the term 'lead guitar' before,” says Petty, who was 13 at the time.
The Beatles had officially coalesced in 1960 and released two British albums in 1963 before releasing its first Capitol album in America, “Meet the Beatles,” on Jan. 20, 1964. That same month, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the group's first No. 1 hit in the U.S.
And on the Sullivan show, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the final and climactic moment of two sets performed by the band, which also included, “All My Loving,” “She Loves You” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”
The Beatles followed their Feb. 9 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with others the next two Sundays, including a Feb. 16 performance from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, and they appeared a fourth and final time on the show on Sept. 12, 1965.
But it was their first performance that fired the starting gun in America for The Beatles, the British Invasion that followed and The Beatles' lasting influences that remain decades later.
“Within weeks of that, you could drive through literally any neighborhood in Gainesville and you would hear the strains of garage bands playing,” Petty says. “I mean everywhere. And I'd say by a year from that time, Gainesville probably had 50 bands.”
Petty's bands in Gainesville included The Sundowners, for which one member's mother made matching outfits with collarless jackets — just like The Beatles wore on the record sleeve of their first No. 1 single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Petty says — and The Epics, which led to the singer/guitarist's best-known Gainesville band, Mudcrutch.
In 1974, Petty and his bandmates moved to California, where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would go on to release such landmark, million-selling albums as “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Into the Great Wide Open.”
It's impossible to say just how many of America's young people began playing guitars and forming bands in the wake of The Beatles' appearance on the Sullivan show. But the anecdotal evidence suggests thousands — if not hundreds of thousands or even more — young musicians across the country formed bands and proceeded to play in high school lunchrooms and gymnasiums, turning what had seemed to be an out-of-reach, almost mystical endeavor into something doable and commonplace.
Not far from where Petty watched The Beatles' Feb. 9 performance, Mike Boulware saw the show in his own family's living room. “I was in northeast Gainesville on 20th Avenue about a block and a half long-ways from where I'm sure Tom Petty was watching the same show,” Boulware says.
“We were all just floored. And I remember everybody the next day had their little transistor radios, and everybody kept listening to it. And the teachers kept making us turn it off,” says Boulware, who today plays with a number of bands in Gainesville including The Beatles' tribute band, The Impostors.
In St. Petersburg, an 11-year-old Ron Thomas saw the show, picked up the bass in emulation of McCartney and went on to play in bands. “At the end of that year, I turned 12, and shortly after that, at least by 13, we were in a group of sorts, a band,” he says. Today, Thomas remains the bass player of The Impostors, which played its first performance in 1984 — to mark the 20th anniversary of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In Cincinnati, Ohio, a 10-year-old Chuck Martin saw The Beatles' performance and “knew that they had some sort of special power,” he says.
“I told my mom within weeks of that, 'Mom, I want to get a guitar',” says Martin, who in 1999 moved to Gainesville and is known for leading such area bands as the The Righteous Kind and dblWiDE. “The Beatles were the catalyst,” Martin says. “I saw those girls screaming; I didn't understand it completely. But I knew that those guys had some sort of special power, and that power came from playing music.”
And in Leavittsburg, Ohio, 9-year-old Mick Marino saw the Sullivan appearance and remembers getting excited about the music and what it meant to the country at the time. “We were all blown away,” says Marino, who later moved to Gainesville and played with The Impostors in the '80s. Today, he can be seen playing with such groups as the Couch Messiahs.
“The Beatles were great,” Marino says. “They were very innovative, and they were just polished. I think it lifted America up a great deal, especially the youth because they needed something to hang onto.”
Petty says The Beatles' positive influence on the nation and its culture can't be overestimated today.
“There was something bigger than all of us going on. It was a shared experience,” he says.
“There was something about it that said 'You matter, too. We can do it, and you can do it.' And it was just such a beautiful gift.”
Tonight, The Beatles' first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” will be celebrated with a special airing at the same time — 8 p.m. — and on the same network, CBS.
“I'm so glad they're celebrating it,” Petty says.
“And I think the greatest celebration would be if everyone that owns an electric guitar at 8 o'clock that night should put their amp by the door or the window and hit an open E chord at the same time; at the stroke of 8 o'clock across the country, you should hear this giant, open E,” he says.
“That's what I intend to do.”
Contact Entertainment Editor Bill Dean at 374-5039 or at email@example.com, and follow on Twitter @SceneBillDean.