Updated from 10 a.m. EST Jan. 24, 2014 with latest performer information for Grammys tribute
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Come Feb. 9, the world will unite in a tribute to one of the seminal events of the Baby Boom generation, one that marks the beginning of a long and important decade of such tributes.
On that night, a special Grammy Awards ceremony will air, honoring of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on Feb. 9, 1964, with a concert that includes a reunion performance by the two surviving members of the band.
The Ed Sullivan Show performance instantly catapulted the already successful Beatles to the status of U.S. royalty and secured the band their spot as the world's leading pop act, which they held seemingly effortlessly for the next six years. Driven by a teenage Beatlemania contagion, the appearance also marked the moment when popular culture offered up its best champion for the battle between the generations that was to help define the rest of the decade.
"The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles," taped live Monday, Jan. 27, the day after the Grammy Awards proper, will be broadcast on CBS (CBS) in HDTV and surround sound at 8 p.m. on Feb. 9, 50 years to the day and to the hour of the original Ed Sullivan broadcast. Among the highlights of the broadcast will be a reunion performance by surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Yoko Ono, wife of Beatle John Lennon, who was murdered by a deranged fan in 1980, will also be there, along with Olivia Harrison, wife of the George Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001.
The Grammys on Feb. 7 confirmed via a press release that the two surviving Beatles will perform together.
As if a reunion of living Beatles wasn't enough, the announced list of performers for the broadcast also includes a reunion of the Eurythmics duo Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, plus appearances by Maroon 5, Alicia Keys with John Legend, and John Mayer with Keith Urban. Stevie Wonder, Jeff Lynne, Imagine Dragons and actor Sean Penn, are also confirmed to have made appearances in the prerecorded celebration. Late Night host David Letterman, whose show occupies the same theater as the old Ed Sullivan Show, also makes an appearance.
A lineup of performers paying their respects to the Beatles could, by rights, include nearly every performing musician today. It would be hard to find any untouched by the Beatles' legacy. In a word, the Beatles were the biggest thing to ever hit the charts.
The band was already wildly popular in it's native Britain, where the act played a Command Performance for the Queen in November 1963. But coming to the U.S. meant opening up a vast new audience. It also meant competing in a market that had spawned many of the band members' biggest influences: Little Richard, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly, along with girl groups like the Shirelles and the Marvellettes. George Harrison, the only Beatle to have been to America before the 1964 visit by the band, reportedly said, "they already have everything there, what do they need us for?"
By December of 1963, the single I Want to Hold Your Hand had gotten into the hands of U.S. disc jockeys. Noting the ramping popularity, Capitol Records ahead of schedule released the band's first U.S. album, Meet the Beatles in late December 1963. It sold 250,000 copies in three days. Within a month, the album had sold over a million copies. The Beatles' arrival Feb. 7, 1964 at Kennedy Airport was attended by reporters and a mob of thousands of fans.
Over 73 million people watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show that night, some 23 million households. Everything, including crime (or at least so the legend goes), stopped. Sullivan announced on camera that the Beatles had received a telegram prior to the show congratulating them on their success and wishing them luck in America -- from Elvis Presley, the reigning king of pop at the time. The 700 fans in the live audience, mostly young women, could barely contain themselves during the opening remarks and erupted into squeals and screaming during the performances.
The band played five songs during the broadcast: All My Loving, Till There Was You and She Loves You during the first half and I Saw Her Standing There and the band's biggest hit, I Want to Hold Your Hand in the second half.
What was it about The Beatles that caused such a rage in 1963 and '64? Nobody, not even those closest to them and certainly not the Beatles themselves has ever been able to completely figure that out.
Part of the popularity was, of course, the appeal of the four boys themselves. They were overwhelmingly charming, good looking, enormously talented and had a sound -- blending tight vocal harmonies, energetic rock'n'roll and a complex approach to songwriting that included influences as far afield as Broadway and Delta blues -- that was both distinctive and familiar. Both the band's aggressive sound and the clowning and cleverness in interviews contained streaks of irreverence, a confident rebelliousness mixed with humor that made elders shake their heads and made the younger generation swoon.
"Cheeky lads," was the admiring grumble that turned up over and over in the British press to describe them. That description carries an important subtext. The four young men came from poor and working class neighborhoods in Liverpool and yet spoke to the press and to society's leaders as if they were equals.
"How do you find America?" a U.S. reporter asked as soon as they landed. "Turn left at Greenland," Starr quipped.
At the televised Command Performance concert, about to launch into a cover of the Isley Brothers' Twist and Shout, Lennon encouraged the audience in the "cheaper seats" to clap along, "And the rest of you, if you just rattle your jewelry." Even in the presence of the Queen, he still couldn't resist. It says a lot about their enduring charm and appeal that those moments are still recounted by the press all over the world.
In the U.S., part of the appeal was also timing. President Kennedy's assassination only 2 1/2 months before had left the nation stunned. The Beatles' arrival was a clear, fun diversion after so many weeks of grief, an opportunity to reengage with the future in the changing tastes of young people, an opportunity to be entertained and to participate in the entertainment, to argue and to celebrate.
But whatever the immediate attraction, it could not have prepared us for the seven-year career that was about to unfold, during one of the most tumultuous decades in American history.
In part 2 of this article, "Roll Up for the Mystery Tour," we'll take a look at how the dense, brief history of the Beatles as a performing and recording unit is dotted with events of such importance that they could easily deserve similar 50th anniversary tributes.
In part 3, "Give Me Money, That's What I Want," we'll examine some of the products and the profits to expect in the coming Beatles decade.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J. and New York.