When The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I wasn’t alive, but I knew exactly who to ask about the Brits’ American television debut: my mom. She described sitting at home at age 11 with her family, and as each song played — “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — she inched closer to the edge of the couch. Then she slid down the couch to be closer to the TV. Then she was cross-legged on the floor. Then she had her face right up by the screen. She needed to be as close as possible to the Fab Four and their music — and she wasn’t alone.
More than 73 million Americans gathered around their televisions on the night of Feb. 9, 1964, and on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, exactly 50 years later to the day and time, The Beatles: The Night That Changed America — A Grammy Salute will bring us back to that magical night. The two-and-a-half-hour show includes the band’s famous fans performing their biggest hits; interviews with those involved in the Sullivan telecast, including David Letterman’s sit-down with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (check out a preview below); and a Beatles reunion performance.
But it was so much more than just a musical moment. As the show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, told EW, the country was searching for something to rally around after months of tragedy.
“It wasn’t just The Ed Sullivan Show; it was the time,” Ehrlich said. “The Kennedy assassination was three months before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. I honestly believe that that had something to do with it. As a country, we were in such a state of depression and melancholy and sadness, then all of a sudden, along came these four guys. And they said, you know, it’s OK, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ screaming teenage girls. And that’s what we show on this show. It’s more than just several acts singing Beatles songs. We’re gonna go back to that time.”
Being in the audience for the special’s taping on Jan. 27, I can confirm that it truly does transport you to the days of Beatlemania. Following performances from Alicia Keys and John Legend, Brad Paisley and Pharrell Williams (along with Beatles LOVE Cirque du Soleil performers), the reunited Eurythmics, Stevie Wonder, and many more, McCartney and Starr played individual sets before coming together for the moment the whole evening had been building towards.
After seeing just how much their first U.S. television appearance meant to pop culture and to the country as a whole, it was beyond moving to see them finally back together on stage playing Beatles music — albeit missing two very crucial pieces. As Paul and Ringo closed out the show with the “Hey Jude” na-na-na’s we all know so well, I found myself inching closer and closer to the edge of my seat, until I was finally standing along with the rest of the Los Angeles Convention Center crowd, just hoping to be as close as possible to the two remaining members of the Fab Four and their magnificent music.
The Beatles: The Night That Changed America — A Grammy Salute airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. Watch a preview of Letterman’s interview with Paul and Ringo below: