Fifty years ago on the stage of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” music history changed forever.
Granted, by February 9, 1964, the Beatles were already superstars in their native country, and had two singles in the Billboard Top 10. But 73 million people watched them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that night, and their appearance was the final ingredient to a perfect storm that would propel them into immortality. The performance is also credited with lifting the country out of a three-month mourning after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Grammy paid tribute to that night on Sunday, and it was a marvelous tribute. I won’t review each performance – just know that some were brilliant (Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh and Dhani Harrison; Stevie Wonder; John Mayer and Keith Urban; Gary Clark Jr., Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh) and only a few were bad (WTF Katy Perry? How can you destroy “Yesterday”?). But that’s not what made it an extraordinary night.
Host LL Cool Jay set the tone from the beginning when he proclaimed the Beatles the greatest band of all time. That’s not even debatable, but for those doubting it, they only had to see today’s pop stars and the respect they paid to Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon and George Harrison’s families.
Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) brought his young daughter to the show. Before performing “Hey Bulldog,” the grunge rocker told the audience, “This is for my mom’s favorite band, my favorite band, and now my daughter’s favorite band,” as his daughter, equipped with giant headphones to protect her ears, stood up in her chair and made a heart with her tiny hands. Twenty-two-year-old Ed Sheeran sounded visibly nervous as he played “In My Life” in front of two legends. And the faces of audience members – especially Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson – lit up throughout the show as they sang every word to every song, which showed how ubiquitous and meaningful their music is after 50 years.
Think about that.
What other band has a catalog of at least 21 songs that an audience can sing along with? (We didn’t even hear “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!”, “Eleanor Rigby,” “Penny Lane” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.) During the two and a half hours, the hits just continued to pour. It was a celebration and toast to the kings of popular music – and that was before Paul and Ringo went onstage and thrilled the audience, many of whom went home with the satisfaction of now saying they had finally seen a Beatle perform live. (Seeing Yoko dancing out in front of the stage, oblivious to everyone, was horrifying. I’m wondering if she’s gone around the bend a bit…)
During one of the many snippets of an interview David Letterman did with the two, Letterman reeled off the songs that the Beatles played that evening – “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – and simply said to Ringo, “My God, that’s a career for a lot of bands.” Plenty of songs were still to come from the four over the next six years. They smashed every chart record, and many still stand today.
Paul and Ringo took the stage toward the end. Paul, 71, still shrieked the lyrics to “Birthday” like he was 25 years old. Ringo showed why he is a great performer (if not a great singer), singing his beloved hits “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from my Friends.” They ended with a spot-on rendition of “Hey Jude,” with all the performers from the evening joining on stage (each now being able to say that they sang with two Beatles).
Some moments brought tears to my eyes. Dhani Harrison is the spitting image of his father; like Sean and Julian Lennon, it’s almost spooky how much he resembles his father. Seeing him onstage in the trademark Beatle suit and skinny tie and hearing him share harmonies with yet another person who can now share the claim of the fifth Beatle, Jeff Lynne, made me want to hear more from George’s son. Annie Lennox gave an impassioned performance of “The Fool on the Hill” with her former husband and Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart. And then, with a look of profound gratitude and adoration, she curtseyed before Paul and Ringo, a simple deference that said so much about these musicians’ respect of the group.
If it weren’t for the Beatles, many of those artists would not be performing today. The music wouldn’t be there to inspire them to learn guitar, listen to other music or even begin to write songs that would further their career. Maroon 5, Dave Grohl, Imagine Dragons – all acknowledged the profound effect that the group had on them. Fifty years later, seeing Grohl’s daughter singing the words to “Yellow Submarine,” I know that their music will live on for yet another generation.
Oh, and one more thing: The Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton and Toto’s Steve Lukather can play the hell out of a guitar.