On Feb. 9, 1964, the British invaded America in a way that made pop-culture history.
Four lads from Liverpool gave their first U.S. television performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and exactly 50 years later — same hour, same night, same network — the event will be recalled in the CBS special “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America – A Grammy Salute” Sunday, Feb. 9. Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr perform on the show, and also are interviewed by David Letterman, but renderings of the ultra-iconic group’s music largely fall to others.
The roster includes teamings of Keith Urban and John Mayer, and Alicia Keys and John Legend, plus Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder, Brad Paisley, Pharrell Williams, Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh, and a reunion of former Eurythmics partners Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart.
The Beatles themselves will be represented by clips from the Sullivan show, on which they also appeared the following two Sundays in 1964. They would do so once more in 1965, then furnished the program exclusively with what essentially were early music videos of some of their later tunes.
“I’d been talking to Apple Corps (the Beatles’ company) for years about doing something, but they just weren’t ready,” executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who also has overseen the Grammy Awards for more than 30 years, tells Zap2it. “Ringo is still out touring with his All-Star Band, and Paul certainly does more dates now than he ever did when he was a Beatle, probably more than he did with Wings.
“I think the gravity of this 50th anniversary kind of got to them that it was an important enough event that it should be commemorated and celebrated,” Ehrlich adds. “Even though they want to live in the present — and they do — I think they saw this as kind of a nice way to put a bow on it. Paul and Ringo have both been incredibly cooperative, as have Olivia Harrison (George‘s widow) and Yoko Ono (wife of the late John Lennon).”
The tunes the Beatles offered on that 1964 evening were “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Fab Four’s take on “Till There Was You,” from the musical “The Music Man.” That last number had a shot of Lennon with the caption “Sorry girls, he’s married” superimposed over it, which writer-director Tom Hanks mimicked for one of the fictional Wonders in his 1996 movie “That Thing You Do!”
Often citing rock music as one of the strongest influences on his work, country superstar and current “American Idol” judge Urban is happy to participate in a Beatles tribute. “It’s an incredible band to be honoring,” he says, “and I’m glad I get to do it with John Mayer, who’s just one of my all-time favorite guitar players.”
Ehrlich wanted them on the special together after hearing them team on the Beatles classic “Don’t Let Me Down” at Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads Guitar Festival last year.
“That’s cool to know,” reflects Urban, whose latest album, “Fuse,” debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart last September. “I was really glad that John asked me to sit in with him at Crossroads, because I’d never played it before.
“Not long before he called me, I had rediscovered ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ … and I just thought, ‘That’s such a great song.’ It’s very hard when you’re looking for a song with a lyric that’s going to be good for two guys, and that’s potentially going to have a great guitar solo as well, and I was glad that John was cool with that one. And lo and behold, here we are, honoring the Beatles with it!”
Interviewees on the special include some who were at the 1964 Sullivan broadcast, either on the crew or in the audience.
“I can remember, when I was 20-something years old, writing a letter to Apple when it had just been formed, ” Ehrlich says. “They were looking for someone to run it, and I was this little punk publicist in Chicago saying, ‘Dear Mr. Epstein (Beatles manager Brian), I would love to talk to you about running Apple.’
“Over the years, I was very fortunate. One of the early specials I did was with Ringo. I never worked with John, but I worked with Yoko on a show that aired after 9/11 and turned into ‘Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words & Music.’ And we’ve done a number of things with Paul over the years because he’s been so active.”
Recently seeing an interview with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell reinforced Urban’s view of the Beatles.
“He loves them for the same reason I do,” Urban says. “He said, ‘Those records were always about the guitar playing supporting the song.’ Whenever George or Paul played a solo, it was never a big showoff moment and never took away from the song. I’ve always been inspired by that kind of playing; Mark Knopfler very much fits into that category, too.”
On “American Idol,” Urban occasionally has known what it’s like to have a Keith Urban song performed for him. With McCartney and Starr present for the late January taping of the special, he’s gratified he could perform a Beatles tune for them.
“We were in the middle of touring, then we played on the Grammys, then the very next night was the Beatles show … and then we flew straight back to the East Coast to perform at Madison Square Garden. I’m just amazed that the stars aligned so I was able to be there.”
Recalling watching the Beatles’ first Sullivan broadcast as it happened as “one of those things you never forget,” Ehrlich stresses the cultural significance of it coming when it did, in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and as America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was ramping up.
“You can’t divorce these things,” he reasons. “This is all very personal to me. I was pleased with what we did on [last year’s] Emmys by pointing out the depths of depression this country was in after the Kennedy assassination. In a very real way, Feb. 9, 1964, was a symbol of the beginning of feeling we could again yell and scream and applaud and be happy about something.”
Ehrlich now aims to recapture that feeling for those who never have experienced the effect of the Beatles appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as for those who remember it vividly. “This special hopefully will continue not only the legacy,” he says, “but the impact this one group had on the world.”