The group arrives at San Francisco International Airport
Their first appearance on Feb. 9 remains one of the highest-rated shows in the history of television, well ahead of most Super Bowls, with a 45.3 rating and a 60 share — remarkable for a show televised 50 years ago. In other words, of the television sets on at the time, 60 percent were tuned in to see Paul open the show with “All My Loving.” And although Chapman retired from radio in 2005 after 45 years in the business, his recall is correct. “Till There Was You” from The Music Man was their second song, and, as Paul sang, the camera panned to each Beatle to superimpose his name on the screen. Under John, it read “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.”

For those whose concept of watching live music as part of a variety show is based on Saturday Night Live, consider that the Beatles played five songs that night. Sullivan, who had discovered the Beatles’ massive appeal in England when he happened to be at Heathrow Airport at the same time as the group a few months earlier, had the band open the show with three songs — “She Loves You” was the third. After a complement of offbeat entertainers who were always featured on the show — among them, an impressionist, acrobats and a comedy team — the Beatles returned and finished with “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Beatles fans pack the streets of New York City

A week later, in Miami, the Beatles would play six songs on the show. That was half a concert in those days. The final appearance consisted of three songs they had prerecorded before the first show (the band was already back in England by Feb. 23, the final night). They played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in each of the three shows, and rightfully so. Listen to the song on your iPod right now, and tell me it doesn’t hold up 50 years later.

What’s incredible about the ratings the band generated on the shows — the second appearance also was watched by about 70 million total viewers — is that we were just discovering what the Beatles were all about. Their first two albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles, were No. 1 sellers in the United Kingdom, but they weren’t released in the United States.

In late 1963 and early 1964, two record companies released Beatles singles, and it became apparent that the British group was going to have a far greater impact in the U.S. than record companies had thought. In January 1964, Vee-Jay records released the album Introducing … the Beatles. A few days later, Capitol Records released Meet the Beatles!, a compilation of tracks from the two U.K. albums, drawing more from the second.

People in major markets were familiar with two or three singles from those albums if they listened to certain Top 40 stations. But in most cases, the viewers across America were tuning in less than a month after the release of albums they had not heard, and yet they were watching in record-setting numbers.

In his book Can’t Buy Me Love: the Beatles, Britain and America, author ­Jonathan Gould quotes Paul as saying he worried on the flight across the Atlantic about the American reaction. “They’ve got their own groups,” Paul said. “What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?” That’s a bit like Michael Jordan saying, “The NBA has had plenty of jump shooters. What am I doing here?”