The Beatles historic US debut was hardly a sure thing

If the Beatles didn’t make it big in the US in 1964, the entire history of rock music might have turned out very differently.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

It's amazing to think about it now, but the Beatles' famous introduction to the US audience on the Ed Sullivan show almost didn't happen. 

The band was already huge in the UK, but in the early 1960s UK bands never "crossed over" to make it big in the US. Their music was rarely played on US radio stations, let alone performed on TV. The Atlantic ocean separated the two countries' music, and back then it was an imposing gulf. 

Nonetheless, on February 9, 1964, 73 million Americans tuned in to watch the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan TV show, based in New York City. That, followed by two more appearances on the Sullivan show plus heavy Top 40 radio exposure led to the Beatles string of three no. 1, and seven Top 10 singles in the US in 1964!

Enlarge Image

The Beatles and Ed Sullivan after the first performance

CBS Photo Archives/Capitol Photo Archives

The US debut only happened because on October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at the London Airport (renamed Heathrow Airport in 1966) and by chance witnessed thousands of frenzied Beatles fans waiting for the band's return from Sweden. Sullivan was so intrigued by the hoopla, he booked them for his TV show. In advance of the Sullivan appearances, the Beatles' record company pushed for heavy US radio airplay, and the Sullivan shows catapulted the band to the top of the charts.

If Sullivan hadn't personally witnessed the Beatles fans' excitement at London Airport, would he have put the band on his show? Probably not, and then the course of rock history might have been very different. Other UK bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Animals, the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, and the Who might not have crossed over to have hits in the US between 1964 and 1966.

More than any other band the Beatles arguably created the sound of mid-1960s rock music. Fifties rock was dominated by Americans: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and so on. The 1960s was the decade of change, and the top artists were split more or less equally between the UK and the US. America gave the world Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Meanwhile, the UK unleashed Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Cream, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Joe Cocker, Small Faces, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Traffic, Fleetwood Mac, and the Beatles.  

Enlarge Image

The Beatles first UK (left) and US (right) albums had different titles and song lists. 

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The Beatles were the first rock band to get their fans to buy singles and albums, and that was something new. Before the Beatles, most rock albums had one or two hits, and lots of filler. The Beatles also started the trend of bands writing most of their own songs. They weren't the first by a long shot, but once the Beatles started writing the majority of tunes on their albums, other bands followed their lead.

It's also interesting to note that Capitol, the Beatles US label, released albums that sometimes had different mixes and combinations of songs than those on Parlophone, the Beatles' UK counterpart label. 

That only started to change with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967; the US and UK versions are nearly, but not exactly identical. In 1968, the Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" was a full-length album in the US, and a much shorter EP in the UK.

So back to where we started, would 1960s rock music have turned out very differently if Ed Sullivan wasn't at London Airport on that October day in 1963? We'll never know -- but what do you think? 

What I do know is the Beatles stayed at the top until they broke up in early 1970, and according to CBS News, the Beatles sold 1.6 billion singles in the US, and 600 million albums worldwide! Ed Sullivan played a big part in their success.

A day in the life of the Beatles in 1964

See all photos