Fifty years ago today, Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. If you were alive at the time, odds are you watched it. If, like me, you weren’t, odds are higher you’ve heard about it. It, not Pearl Harbor, not the assassination of President Kennedy, was the first “universal moment” of the modern age. On that Sunday night, more people experienced a single event simultaneously than ever had before.
The news of Pearl Harbor spread via newspapers and radio. People found out about it over a period of hours. News of the assassination of JFK was the same way because it took place on a weekday during work hours. Word of mouth was how most people found out about those events because they were going about their daily lives, and the events obviously were not planned. But that Sunday night was something different.
More than 73 million people in a nation of 191 million watched that show. If you remove people too old to care or too young to know, the percentage of Americans who watched that night has never been matched. It was the first, and possibly the largest, shared event in human history. And it birthed, whether you think for good or bad, the modern era of pop culture.
Most generations shift gradually and aren’t recognized until the clarity of hindsight is available. But The Beatles on Ed Sullivan marked the arrival of the baby boomers like nothing before or since. The first wave of boomers were in the heart of their teens and, after the last pre-World War II generation experienced the birth of rock and roll, things were never the same.
Rock and roll burst on the scene in the mid-‘50s, but it almost ended in 1959-1960. Elvis was drafted and gone from the scene. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. Eddie Cochran died in a car accident. Little Richard quit to join the ministry. Chuck Berry was in prison for violating the Mann Act. And Jerry Lee Lewis was ostracized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. The founders and faces of rock and roll were gone.
What followed was a corporate crooner, very “safe” era of “rock” with Pat Boone, Frankie Valli and others leading the way. Nothing against them and their peers, but although they were called rock and roll, they weren’t. They were parent-friendly pop.
The baby boomers were ready for something else, something new. The timing could not have been more perfect for the Beatles, and the Beatles could not have been more perfect for the time.