50 Years Ago: The Beatles—and Gretsch—on The Ed Sullivan Show

The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show three times in February 1964. George Harrison (center) is seen here with the Gretsch Country Gentleman model he played during the historic television performances. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

Has it really been 50 years?

Seemingly incredibly, it has. And you could make a compelling case that the 1960s actually started on the evening of Feb. 9, 1964. That’s when the Beatles made their historic U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, drawing the largest viewing audience in the history of the medium at the time (73 million people—nearly half the nation—tuned in to the telecast).

President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only 10 weeks earlier, and the still-stunned country was in a grim and uncertain mood. Who would’ve expected that a much-needed lift in spirits was imminent, winging its way across the pond on Pan Am flight 101 from London?

Two days before that first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 7, 3,000 screaming teenagers who were supposed to be at school that day mobbed Kennedy International Airport in New York. They were there to greet the Beatles on their first U.S. visit, a whirlwind two weeks that saw the group make two live appearances on Sullivan’s show; one in New York and one in Miami (the Beatles also taped a third appearance to be aired later that month). The group was topping the U.S. charts, general pandemonium surrounded them wherever they went, and the Beatlemania that had already swept across the U.K. now morphed into a potent new U.S. strain.

For their debut appearance on his show, Sullivan cannily had the Beatles perform twice—three songs at the beginning (“All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You”) and two at the end (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), presumably to ensure that his audience watched the entire hour-long show. The cameras seemed to spend as much time on the surging throng of screaming teenagers in the audience of CBS TV Studio 50, where the show took place, as they did on the group.

Nobody had ever seen (or heard) anything like it. By the time the broadcast ended an hour later, something fundamental had changed not just there in New York, but across the nation. The rest is well-documented history, but you very well might be able to say that with that one raucous event, the 1960s started in earnest between 8 and 9 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964.

The Good News for Gretsch

As a long-established guitar maker with a handful of models already essential to formative-era 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, Gretsch had already been doing just fine for a long time when the Beatles touched down in New York on Feb. 7, 1964. But things were about to go through the roof.

That’s because when all those millions of viewers tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 9 (and again on Sunday, Feb. 16, and yet again on Sunday, Feb. 23), there was guitarist George Harrison in the center of the onstage lineup, mere days from his 21st birthday, wielding a handsome 1963 Gretsch PX-6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman®.

Harrison had been an avowed Gretsch fan since acquiring his “first real decent guitar,” a distinctively modified 1957 Gretsch 6128 Duo Jet, at age 18 in 1961. He was also a devout Chet Atkins fans, and wasted no time in moving up to more sophisticated Gretsch models as his band’s fortunes improved, figuratively and literally.

The guitar Harrison played on The Ed Sullivan Show was actually the second of two Gretsch Country Gentleman models he’d acquired new in 1963 from Sound City in London. The first, which had screw-down string mutes, was acquired that spring and was soon damaged (Harrison used this guitar to record “She Loves You,” the all-time best-selling Beatles single in the U.K., in July 1963). The Country Gentleman Harrison soon took to the United States was bought as a replacement in October 1963; this guitar had flip-up string mutes and, as noted in author Tony Bacon’s 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics, “quickly became his prime instrument.”

It was a handsome guitar. The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast in black and white at the time, and, as author Peter Stuart Kohman notes in Vintage Guitar magazine’s March 2014 cover story, the dark walnut stain finish of Harrison’s Country Gentleman “appeared nearly black” on television.

Feb. 10, 1964, the day after the Beatles’ historic U.S. television debut, consequently dawned as a new era for Gretsch. Guitar orders skyrocketed. Over the ensuing weeks and months, countless youths from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., started forming bands, and all those budding guitarists wanted the same kind of guitars the Beatles played. Further, other British Invasion groups were seen wielding Gretsch instruments, too, including the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Animals, the Yardbirds and many others.

Years later, Harrison himself commented on the company’s good fortune in the wake of that historic broadcast.

“I read somewhere that after the Beatles appeared on [the Sullivan shows] Gretsch sold 20,000 guitars a week, or something like that,” he said, as quoted in 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics. “I mean, we would have had shares in … Gretsch and everything, but we didn’t know.”

The effect on Gretsch was truly phenomenal. Even without a formal partnership with the Beatles, the company experienced an exponential growth in sales with the surging British Invasion that actually necessitated major logistical changes at Gretsch headquarters in New York. With guitar orders snowballing at such a phenomenal rate in 1964, the entire Gretsch drums department was moved to another facility several blocks from the Brooklyn factory, and Gretsch wholesale efforts were either halted or transferred to Chicago. As noted in 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics, at the suddenly overwhelmed Brooklyn factory, “all of this was to allow the whole of the seventh floor to be turned over to guitar making.”

Feb. 9, 1964 was a milestone for so many—for the Beatles, for popular music, for U.S. television, and certainly for Gretsch. Given the youthful exuberance of it all, it’s hard to believe it was 50 years ago, but time flies when you’re having fun—especially when the fun involves diving once again into the Beatles catalog, which continues to provide new generations of listeners everywhere with immeasurable enjoyment. Gretsch has since paid fond tribute to Harrison with a beautiful 2011 signature Duo Jet model, and it will continue to prize his musical legacy for as long as there are Gretsch guitars.

Click here to read Fred Gretsch’s take on the Beatles’ historic performance in an interview with Parade.