Fifty years after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, how well do you know Fab Four history?

BY Colleen Shalby  February 7, 2014 at 4:22 PM EST
 Left to right: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney. Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Ed Sullivan poses with the Beatles on the set of his show during their first ever live U.S. television performance. From left to right: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney. Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

The Beatles made their live U.S. television debut 50 years ago Sunday when they paraded onto Ed Sullivan’s stage and caused a national eruption of Beatlemania.

The mop-topped Fab Four were already popular in England and had gained a No. 1 hit in the U.S. in late January 1964, weeks before their Ed Sullivan Show performance on Feb. 9, 1964. So, how important was the timing of the appearance for turning Paul, John, George and Ringo into household names?

Watch the Beatles perform “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Let’s go back a few months before that iconic performance.

John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, said that although the group already had a No. 1 record in England, they didn’t want to go to the U.S. until they had a No. 1 single there. But, unbeknownst to them, manager Brian Epstein in November 1963 — two months before their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single reached No. 1 on U.S. Billboard charts — had booked the band on Ed Sullivan for the coming February.

“It was fortuitous timing,” Covach said.

Ed Sullivan wears a "Beatles" wig on the stage of his variety show during The Beatles first ever live U.S. television performance. Photo by CBS/Getty Images

Ed Sullivan wears a “Beatles” wig on the stage of his variety show during the Beatles first ever live U.S. television performance. Photo by CBS/Getty Images

According to Covach, while the Ed Sullivan performance did play a huge role in the speed of the Beatles’ success, it was what the band did afterwards that solidified their popularity in America.

“If they hadn’t been able to follow up on that initial success, would we be talking about them the same way?”

Prior to the Beatles, other British bands had tried to make their mark in the U.S. And although bands like The Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits had found popularity, theirs didn’t stick in the same way.

Why not?

“Pop music had gotten kind of tame,” said Covach. “By 1959 the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll was over and things were a lot more soft-edge. Then here comes these Beatles, who never got the memo.”


Fans gleefully watch the Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Fans gleefully watch the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

The band had already released two albums in England, which they spent the next six months after Ed Sullivan re-releasing in the U.S. They didn’t release any new material until the summer of 1964, and by that time, they had five more No. 1 singles.

What if the Beatles hadn’t come to America and hadn’t been on Ed Sullivan?

“Had the Beatles not opened that door,” Covach said, “It’s very possible that what we’ve come to think of as the standard exchange between American and British groups might never had happened in exactly the same way.”

Think: the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Clash … even One Direction. All musicians from England that have had a profound impact on American music. If the Beatles never made that first trip to the U.S., would those musicians have had a chance for popularity?

“(The Beatles) really created opportunity for British musicians in America that wouldn’t have been there had it not been for their success.”

We’ll never know for sure. But it’s worth wondering how the arrival of one band from Liverpool affected the trajectory of musicians who came after them and the course of music history.

“Every now and again, things just come together exactly the right way.”

Quiz created by Frank Bi and Colleen Shalby.