When looking back at the history of a generation, there are dates and events that mark pivotal moments in that generation’s collective life. The Baby Boomers have had more than their share of such times, though many of the actual dates have faded from memory as the years have passed by.
Nearly everyone who was alive at the time remembers what happened on November 22, 1963, and can tell you where they were and how they first heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. But how many people remember the actual dates in the spring of 1968 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down? We all know the summer of 1969 produced the moon landing and the Woodstock festival, but rarely are we more precise than that.
Sunday, February 9, 1964, is a date that you may or may not remember, but if you were old enough to be cognizant of the world around you, you surely remember the event. That was the night The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, launching the second “British invasion,” reinvigorating rock and roll, and kicking off a change in popular culture that is still being felt today.
It’s easy for me to remember the date of that first Beatles television appearance. It was my twelfth birthday. When I was very young, I thought twelve was the coolest age to be. While friends of mine looked forward to hitting double figures at age ten, or getting to drive at age sixteen, I had it in my head that being twelve would be about as good as it gets.
All week long there had been a buzz around school, primarily among the girls, about this group from England that was coming to America. In those days I couldn’t always connect the song title with the performer’s name, so I’m not sure I even knew which songs The Beatles sang. But the girls knew.
That Sunday, our church youth group (Episcopal Young Churchmen) was scheduled to go bowling. For us folks in Suffolk, that meant a trip to the Portsmouth Bowl at the then-thriving Mid-City Shopping Center. Bowling was one of our favorite activities, much better than listening to a boring program about religion or polishing brass in the church sanctuary.
Fortunately, our EYC adult leaders moved the trip to an earlier time than usual so we’d be back to catch the Ed Sullivan Show. I don’t remember much about the actual bowling, but I do remember that the excitement among the girls was palpable. Being in the sixth grade, I was among the youngest kids who were allowed to be in EYC, so most of the group were teenagers several years older in high school. They couldn’t contain the excitement of their anticipation.
We got back from Portsmouth in time to make it home for the show:
“Ladies and gentlemen…The Beatles!”
The girls in the TV audience are screaming as Paul McCartney counts off “All My Lovin’’:
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you…”
And there they are, four guys from Liverpool (somewhere in England), hair longer than I’ve ever seen on males. (I have a crew cut, like most of my friends.) Paul, with his left-handed violin-shaped Hofner bass, singing lead; George in the middle, between the microphones, holding his big Gretsch hollow body, moving right and left to share a microphone for harmonies; John on the right, strumming those triple-time rhythm chords on his three-pickup Rickenbacker; Ringo up on the riser behind his bandmates, shaking his mop top and smiling for the cameras and studio audience as he hammers his high-hat with his right hand, slaps the snare with his left, instantly making Ludwig the brand of drums because of the bass drum logo: Ludwig THE BEATLES.
During the second song, “Till There Was You,” an obligatory ballad for the grownups, the camera settles on each Beatle and their first names are superimposed on the screen. John is the last of the four to get that closeup, and the print on the TV screen says: “JOHN- SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED.”
So far so good, but it’s the third song that really grabs the crowd, and me: “She loves you, yeh yeh yeh; She loves you, yeh yeh yeh; She loves you yeh yeh yeh yehhhh.” When all four shake their heads and their hair ----“ooooohhhhh!”---- the place goes nuts, and The Beatles have captured America.
For the next half hour, the Sullivan show drags past with entertainers that are suddenly and irretrievably irrelevant. The cast of “Oliver,” impressionist Frank Gorshin, English show tune singer Tessie O’Shea. Then, “Once again, The Beatles!”
Paul again counting, “one, two, three, fah” and off into “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” He’s all smiles and cute good looks; George is tapping his foot, smiling that goofy smile, tight pants and hot licks; John creates the quintessential guitar player’s stance (borrowed from Buddy Holly), an open-legged semi-crouch; Ringo’s having a ball behind his drum kit. The matching suits, the screaming girls, the happy music…I am hooked.
I went up to my room after the show, got a couple of pencils, put a chair at the foot of my bed, set up a piece of notebook paper for a high hat, and played the drums exactly like Ringo, my right hand crossing over my left to play the paper cymbal with my pencil drumstick, my left hand coming down on the mattress snare once per measure.
That week, my six-year old brother Tommy and I decided to pool our funds and buy a Beatles record. My favorite song was “She Loves You,” but when we got to Woolworth’s, we discovered the flip side of that record was a tune we didn’t know. But, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was backed with “I Saw Her Standing There.” After careful deliberation, we decided to go with the two-sided hit and get more for our money. I put in my fifty cents, he put in his, and we had our first Beatles record.
I began spending hours staring at the Sears catalog’s electric guitars, especially the three-pickup Silvertone that looked like John Lennon’s Rickenbacker. The sixth grade girls of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School began wearing Beatle boots, carrying Beatles lunch boxes, and debating who was the cutest Beatle. At the school talent show, four of those girls dressed up like The Beatles and lip-synched to a couple of songs.
We all had to pick our favorite of the foursome, and mine shifted daily. I liked Paul because he looked so happy, John because he looked so cool and was the leader, George because I’ve always pulled for the underdog, and Ringo because…well, because he was Ringo.
My brother and I were there at the Chadwick Theatre when A Hard Day’s Night opened that summer. Music, which had always been an important part of my life, gradually took over from sports as my first love. As I approach my fifty second birthday next week, it still is.
And that birthday, February 9, 1964: Did we have cake and ice cream? Did I get any presents?
I don’t remember. But I do remember four lads from Liverpool who changed my life and the world.