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Frank Gray

Associated Press
Ed Sullivan stands with from left, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, during a rehearsal on Feb. 8, 1964, for the Beatles’ first American appearance the next night on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

50 years can’t erode significance of Beatles

It was exactly 50 years ago tonight.

A little after 8 p.m., the Beatles, whose first records had gone on sale in America only about six weeks before, took the stage on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and America watched.

Depending on the statistics you cite, as many as half of all the televisions turned on in America were tuned to that show.

About 40 percent of the entire population watched, some excited beyond description, some appalled and quite a few probably a bit baffled and thinking, “This, too, will pass.”

If you were young, you were overwhelmed by excitement. If you weren’t overwhelmed, you weren’t normal.

The next day, there were articles in the newspaper. I recall one that quoted an Ohio school superintendent who said he’d seen the show, “the whole bunch of idiots,” or something to that effect.

He, whoever he was, didn’t like what he saw.

But like it or not, that night, the world changed.

There are dates that change the world.

There was April 19, 1775, and the shot heard ’round the world that started the American Revolution.

There was April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired on.

There was Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor.

And then there was Feb. 9, 1964.

Perhaps I am overstating the significance of the event, daring to compare it to Pearl Harbor and other events. But the appearance of the Beatles on TV put in motion a series of changes that would alter music, fashion, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and society in general in America, and no matter how desperately parents tried to believe it when they told their kids the Beatles were on their way out, it didn’t happen.

What is most amazing, though, is that it happened 50 years ago.

Half a century.

That’s a long time.

To the kids squirming with excitement on the living room floors of America that night, anything that had happened a half a century before was ancient history and totally irrelevant. Who cared about 1914?

That is what makes that moment in history so remarkable. It’s still modern. It’s still vivid in the minds of the people who watched, and the changes it spawned have never faded.

And our parents, who hoped the Beatles and all they stood for – which at the moment was just music – are probably turning over in their graves that people are remembering that evening as a momentous event.

What is also amazing to consider is that the kids who watched, rapt, the ones who were screaming hysterically on the TV screen that night, are senior citizens now.

At the time of the show, being a senior citizen was awful. Someone who was 65 was ancient. It meant you were practically dead. Life expectancy for the average male was less than 70 years back in 1964.

Just three years later, the Beatles released a song asking, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64,” evoking images of smelly, balding men with crusty scalps.

And today, the 15-year-olds who watched that night are 65.

And we’re still rocking, and they’ve legalized pot in Colorado.

Our parents who have died are almost certainly spinning in their graves.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.