It’s been 50 years since THE BEATLES appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, but memories continue to grow, and their music and influence continue to thrive.
The good Rev. Middlebrooks was not known for his dry wit.
At least, as a third-grader listening to him on a weekly basis at what is now First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas, I was unaware of any humor. So when he began his sermon one chilly winter morning by informing his flock, “This is a sad day for all of us,” I couldn’t imagine what unpleasant news he was poised to deliver. Our world already had been turned upside down three months earlier when President John F. Kennedy was shot 15 miles from our home in the Dallas suburb.
Then Middlebrooks finished his thought. “This is, of course, the last night the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan.” He smiled. My parents and others in the pews laughed. That’s when I realized what was happening.
The day was Feb. 23, 1964. The Beatles, making the last of their three consecutive appearances on the nation’s most popular TV variety show, hadn’t just hooked an 8-year-old sports nut. They had reached out and grabbed all of us. Before John Lennon would ever sing “nothing’s gonna change my world,” the Beatles were in the process of changing ours.
Robert Hilburn had given up on his first newspaper job in the San Fernando Valley and was writing press releases for the Los Angeles school district in 1964. He had given up on rock ’n’ roll too. Born in Natchitoches, La., he had been exposed to the blues at an early age and was fascinated with Elvis in the 1950s after his family moved to Northridge, Calif. But Hilburn thought — as many did — that rock was in the process of dying in the early ’60s.
In his memoir, Corn Flakes with John Lennon, Hilburn writes, “It wasn’t until the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that I paid attention again. I heard echoes of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry in this young English band’s music. While I didn’t think of the Beatles as a breakthrough, they sounded a lot better on the radio than Bobby Vinton or Neil Sedaka.”
It wasn’t until he started seriously listening to Bob Dylan in 1965 that Hilburn became fully engaged, returned to newspapers and became a music critic. And from 1970 to 2005, Hilburn wrote magnificently as the pop critic for the Los Angeles Times, personally getting to know many of music’s biggest icons, including Lennon.
I asked him about watching John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr on Ed Sullivan and the significance of that moment.