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'Everything changed' on one Sunday night
Local music enthusiasts recall Beatles' first live appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show'

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

February 6, 2014


“Then came the Beatles, and suddenly, everything changed.”          - Author Fred Bronson in “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits”

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a onetime Milwaukeean who famously commented on the demise of old soldiers, died - or faded away- at 84. Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet premier who may or may not have pounded his shoe on a desk at the United Nations three years earlier, lost his job. Lyndon B. Johnson, the towering Texan who only recently had come to the U.S. presidency by accident, won a landslide election  to continue in his lofty role. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights champion acclaimed for sharing his dream, was awarded a Nobel Prize.

A pope made an unprecedented journey to the Holy Land. An earthquake snuffed out scores of lives in Alaska. A world’s fair opened in New York. A beloved big league baseball team decided to call it quits in Beertown and move south to the City of Trees.

Substantial 1964 news stories, all. But another story from ‘64 has received more ink lately than all of the above put together - the story of the Beatles’ Feb. 9 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” their first live television performance in the United States.

I recall sitting in an aunt’s living room that afternoon, just hours before the TV program that attracted more than 70 million viewers. My mother couldn’t understand all the pre-program fuss. “To me,” she insisted, spreading her hands and shaking her head for emphasis, “they’re no different than any other jazz outfit.”

We laugh about her declaration to this day because, of course, my mother was dead wrong on both counts. The Fab Four were hardly jazzmen. And they were definitely distinguishable from other musical groups.

“I would point to three aspects that seem to separate (the Beatles) from their peers,” Carroll University music professor and Wind and Percussion Institute director Larry Harper informed TimeOut. Harper specified “creativity, openness to outside influences and hyper-awareness of the times in which they lived.” He continued, “Their creativity was striking. Often there was no precedence for their new pieces. New sounds, instruments, techniques and songwriting topics would spontaneously appear before anyone else thought of it.

“They were very willing to explore traditions outside the pop world, such as the sophisticated polyphony from classical music, the use of classical instruments in their orchestrations or the borrowing of far-Eastern sounds and scales. And, finally, they were just in tune with the times and what young people were thinking and feeling, ranging from love and peace to meditation and altered states of consciousness. They were one of a kind, truly original.”

“People from 8 to 80 really appreciate the Beatles,” Sussex resident Rick Bertoni, leader of the Beatles tribute band The Britins, said in a telephone interview. “Their music is timeless,” added the only original Britin still performing with the 37-year-old group. “There’s something for everybody: ballads, hard rock, almost psychedelic rock. It just never gets old. And quality never goes out of style.”

Bertoni mentioned a couple of Fab Four statistics (30 No. 1 songs and more than a billion records sold) and the Beatles’ “incredible” songwriting. (Indeed, in close to 30 years of teaching English, I saw Lennon and McCartney lyrics in textbooks alongside Shakespearean sonnets and the poetry of Keats and Shelley, Sandburg and Frost.) “Everybody kind of followed them,” Bertoni said.

To some extent, America’s early adulation for the Fab Four might “be tied to timing,” said University of Wisconsin-Waukesha music professor Craig Hurst. “Their appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” noted the professor, “was on the heels of a still fresh memory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Four young, good-looking, energetic, perky Brits singing with the energy and enthusiasm of their live performance might have been the tonic for a nation still mourning the loss of a president.”

The lads from Liverpool, Hurst said, were able to “take rock ‘n’ roll places it had never been, experimenting with music that went beyond the mere two-to-three-minute pop song. They pioneered the concept album and moved the music beyond being merely dance music.”

Hurst further noted that the Beatles not only “crafted great songs,” but “absorbed and echoed back the elements present in established rock ‘n’ roll musicians who preceded them,” including Little Richard and the Everly Brothers.

On the 40th night of 1964, 11-year-old Rick Bertoni, like so many of his fellow Americans, watched the Beatles on television for the first time. Young Bertoni was not only familiar with, but enamored of, one of the five songs the Beatles sang for Sullivan’s Feb. 9 audience, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was, after all, the top song nationwide at the time. Fred Bronson, quoted at the outset of this article, wrote, “The importance of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ cannot be overestimated. Next to ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,’ it is the most significant single of the rock era, permanently changing the course of music.”

“It just had so much power to it,” Bertoni added, nearly a half-century after that personally pivotal Sunday evening.

The Beatles appeared on Sulllivan’s variety show the next two Sundays, as well, live on Feb. 16 and in a pre-recorded segment Feb. 23. The agenda for their first American trip also included concerts in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The Fab Four returned to England after 15 days, only to undertake a second American tour that summer, which included the group’s only performance ever in Milwaukee, on Sept. 4.

Around the time the Beatles’ first U.S. tour ended, future bandleader Bertoni took up the guitar.

There are many like him.

(Tom Jozwik is a freelance writer who lives in the Milwaukee area.)