I’ll never forget Ed Sullivan’s odd choice of words as he introduced them. He was stiff as a board and came off like your high school principal. We had no idea what to expect. It was Sunday night and the whole family was gathered around the TV. Ed began his speech.
“Now yesterday and today our theater has been jammed with hundreds or newspapermen and photographers from all over the nation and these veterans agree with me the city has never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles! Now tonight you’re going to be twice entertained by them- right now and in the second half of our show- LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BEATLES!”
That’s what started the whole thing!
I just watched the first appearance on Ed Sullivan again on YouTube and it hit me right between the eyes. My wife wondered why I was getting misty over these old B&W clips but it takes me right back. Single most important moment in Rock history. Just about every rock and roll musician my age can point to one cultural event that inspired him to take up music in the first place: the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. If you were a shy 14-year-old kid who already had a guitar, it was a life-altering event.
Look at it in context of the times. John Kennedy had been assassinated only months before, and the country was still mourning. That dark day in November was still fresh for all of us. The principal of Roland Park Junior High School had come on the public address system and cried, telling us that classes were over for the day, and we must go straight home. “Don’t stop anywhere,” she told us. “Your parents will know what to do.”
We were in shock. Most of us thought the Russians had killed him. We expected missiles to hit Baltimore. I saw myself cowering in the basement with my sister and parents while atomic hell rained from the sky. When that didn’t happen, America picked up the pieces of its shattered ego and moved on. A bitterly cold winter followed.
In the 79 days between Dallas and the Beatles appearance a lot happened. It had been less than a year since the day when my mother had found a broken acoustic guitar in our alley and brought it home. The neck was cracked and it was unplayable, but it looked cool. It was a Harmony arch-top with F-holes. We took it to a local violin shop to get it repaired. The man did his best, but the Harmony would never be the same. The action was a half-inch off the frets, and you needed fingers of steel to make a chord. Still, somehow I learned to pick out the melody of Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio.
I begged my parents to get me a real guitar, one I could actually play. I impressed them with my rendition of Tom Dooley. The Kingston Trio were 3 clean-cut college guys who sang stirring folk songs about Americana. If little Gregory wanted to follow after them what harm could that do? I guess they thought maybe I would learn some history playing songs like Erie Canal. My mother had no idea that she was opening Pandora’s Box. What happened next exposed a side of my mother I never knew existed.
She got my Uncle James to ask around. He came back, reporting that the best place to buy an inexpensive guitar was a pawnshop. The biggest and best was Livingston Loans on Baltimore Street. We followed Uncle James’s directions, having no idea that Livingston Loans was in the heart of Baltimore’s most notorious district: “The Block.” My mother rushed through that gauntlet of strip clubs, porn shops and peep shows, clutching my arm in a vise-grip. As we hurried through the neon jungle my eyes grew as big as hubcaps. Even then, in early afternoon, the barkers hawked sex as if it were candy, luring customers through the open doors. I was too naive to know what they meant, but I had a feeling.
We passed the Gayety Burlesque and the Two O’Clock Club, where famous strippers like Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm performed. Black-and-white 8X10 glossies showed impossibly buxom women in various states of undress. How could a 14-year-old kid not stare? As we passed the open entrances rock and roll bands blasted the hits of the day from inside. Smells of cigarette smoke and sweat wafted onto the street. Saxophones wailed sleaze from every doorway. My mother, as stoic as Buster Keaton, never said a word. She just pulled me along, somehow approaching the speed of light while still walking.
I stumbled, trying to keep up. Swirling images of breasts and buttocks threatened to engulf me. I thought my brain might explode. Finally there it was: Livingston Loans, a corner pawnshop with two big storefront windows stuffed with everything. Instruments hung like kielbasas in a Polish delicatessen. I couldn’t conceal my excitement.
My mother stepped in the door as if sensing a trap. In this alien landscape, would she still be able to function? The fat man behind the counter smiled, his teeth clenching a half-smoked cigar. He smelled a mark— maybe two of them— both ready for fleecing. No effort was necessary. This was a ride I wanted to take. He showed us his guitars, and eventually we settled on a used Kay flattop acoustic 6-string for $40. That Kay was my first real guitar.
I bought one of those old-time skinny guitar straps with an adjustable shoulder pad and a Mel Bay Chord Chart. So it began. Soon I made a startling discovery. If I learned 3 basic chords, I could play almost any song. Once learned these 3 chords of life opened musical vistas: folk, pop, country, blues, R&B, and most importantly rock and roll. Same chords, same philosophy: verse, chorus, bridge. Easy as pie.
And so I taught myself the rudiments of guitar. My cousin played banjo and we started a folk group: The Voyagers. We played where we could. In those years folk clubs (often called “coffee houses”) were everywhere. They offered local talent at rock bottom prices. Patches’ 15 Below, located in Baltimore’s suburbs, was run by a nice middle-aged couple named Patches and Liz. They had a hootenanny every Sunday night. Anyone could show up, sign in, and play for 15 minutes. It became our headquarters. I learned how to play for an audience there. As The Voyagers we worked our way up until they hired us to play on a Saturday night. The pay was $40, exactly what my mother had paid for the guitar. Patches and Liz had given me my first real gig.
Then came dark November.
Then the Beatles hit.
We wanted those guys. Everybody in America was looking for a new star to guide us through the wilderness. Us kids knew our star when we saw it. It started pushing its glow through the clouds that very November on American radio. By January we’d all heard it, and we knew.
On the Friday before the big broadcast we saw the TV reports of the Beatles arriving at the newly-renamed JFK airport just outside New York. We watched the press conference. We cheered the hysterical crowds of screaming girls. We heard the records non-stop on the radio. When the moment arrived, we were more than ready.
On Sunday night my family huddled around the big mahogany-cabinet television and watched in glorious black-and-white. In those days TVs were furniture. They featured rabbit-ear antennae, took minutes to warm up, and squatted center stage in the living room. With no remote control, we had to get up and walk across the room to change the channel. We didn’t have to do this too often because there were only 3 channels. Channel-surfing would have been like catching a tadpole-sized ripple in a pond.
That night our anticipation reached a high fever. In those days rock and roll was never on TV. You were lucky to see one band in a month, usually sandwiched between a bad Vegas magician and some weird Italian puppet act.
And then it happened. Ed did the big intro to the largest audience in TV history. Then what? Did a curtain rise? Did lights come up? Who knew? It was like somebody had thrown a hand grenade into the room. All My Loving started, and nothing could ever be the same. Young guitarists (and every kid alive) knew right then and there that we were in for a hell of a ride. My mother’s walk down “The Block” had led us here. Now the Beatles would take over.
They did Till There Was You next, followed by She Loves You. The crowd went nuts. I’d never seen anything like it. The screams of the girls mixed into a keening wail, rising up with the first note, but not ending with the last. This jet engine would never stop.
Then came the moment when they were gone, and we had to return to the mundane world again. I’ll never forget the poor guy who followed the Beatles that night. His name was Fred Kaps and he did what he could with a card trick followed by a saltshaker illusion. The audience didn’t react. How could they? This man followed the Beatles with a saltshaker! Numb silence was probably a blessing for poor Fred. Things could’ve turned truly ugly. Luckily we’d stopped paying attention.
On that stage everything that followed was hopelessly uncool: the cast of the Broadway show Oliver (featuring a young Davy Jones, later of the Monkees), impressionist Frank Gorshin (later The Riddler on Batman), a corpulent Tessie O’Shea singing smarmy show tunes, and a flat office sketch by a comic duo named McCall and Brill. It was the last gasp of the past. From now on the world was new.
The Beatles returned at the end of the show with I Saw Her Standing There followed by I Want To Hold Your Hand. Maybe we’d needed the break. The audience’s hysteria exploded. Having had time to digest that first taste, they screamed for more. The cameras broadcast the mania around the country. We were all there.
When it ended the sudden void sucked the air out of my parent’s living room. I nearly suffocated.
In a single weekend everything had changed. I’d come home from school the previous Friday looking like Dion. I went back to class on Monday morning with my hair dry and brushed forward. That’s how quickly it happened.
I wasn’t alone. Every kid in school went through the same metamorphosis. The Beatles had waved their magic wand, creating a shimmer of style, hipness, and the long overdue death of the pompadour. The makers of Vitalis, Wildroot and Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya!) lost a whole generation in a single hour. The direction of our lives shifted as radically as the direction of our hair. It was magic.
I started learning Beatles songs— same 3 chords, but somehow all 3 were born anew. My parents, like all parents, muttered: “Uh-oh.” But it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle.
On that Sunday night, as the camera left them, decompression set in.
Like a million kids, I sat stunned for a minute, then shuffled off to my bedroom. I set my guitar in my lap, and picked up my comb. There was work to do.
Here’s that historic performance: