Music writer Kit O’Toole can tell you the exact date and time modern rock music’s equivalent of the Big Bang took place.
It was 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, when variety show host Ed Sullivan stood in front of 73 million viewers and raised his right arm in a sweeping motion to announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!”
The live American debut of the group, 50 years ago this month, not only ushered in a new era, one that challenged convention and societal norms, but inspired a generation to pick up guitars and play their own music, O’Toole says.
“The world was changed forever,” says O’Toole, 41, a Chicago-based Beatles researcher and popular culture and music writer. O’Toole will be one of the international panelists participating in a four-day conference called “It Was 50 Years Ago Today — An International Beatles Celebration,” open to the public Feb. 6 to 9 at Penn State Altoona. It will conclude with a rebroadcast of the historic Sullivan show.
In an era of one-set television households — before cable, DVRs, the Internet and YouTube — Sullivan was huge, says Robert Thompson, founder and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“It reminds us of something that totally doesn’t exist anymore, except for the Super Bowl — a consensus culture,” he says. “We all saw the same thing at the same time, kind of whether we liked it or not. There was this glue that brought us together for at least a few hours a week, if not a day.”
Ed Sullivan set the cultural agenda of the nation, Thompson says. “If you were on Sullivan, everybody saw you. He was a cultural delivery system.”
Journalism professor Dennis Woytek, 64, of Duquesne University, who covered the Beatles’ arrival at the Cleveland Airport in September 1964 for an Erie radio station, is convinced the Beatles would have been successful with or without the show.
“The young women screaming in that live audience were there because they already loved the Beatles, they didn’t need Sullivan,” he says.
Still, the program hastened the Beatles’ triumph, he acknowledges. “Appearing on Sullivan put them right in the middle of the cultural conversation and did it instantaneously,” he says.
Among the millions watching at home were Pittsburgh residents Pete Hewlett and Carl Grefenstette, for whom the show made an immediate connection.
“That’s what I want to do,” Hewlett, 63, of South Fayette, remembers thinking when he saw the Fab Four that night. “It started a lot of musician careers, tons of them.”
Hewlett went on to tour and recorded with Billy Joel, Elton John, Carly Simon, Joe Jackson, Julian Lennon, Amy Grant and Eric Carmen. He sang back-up vocals on “Let It Be” and “I Saw Her Standing There” during Paul McCartney’s guest appearance at Joel’s “Last Play at Shea” stadium concert in 2008 in New York.
“Seeing him on TV as a kid and then singing with him was surreal, just tremendous,” Hewlett says. “It was like seeing an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. It was really cool.”
Grefenstette, 62, finds it decidedly “cool” that McCartney, who he excitedly watched on Sullivan, would one day go on to play a guitar (a left-handed 1960 Les Paul Sunburst) that Grefenstette, musician and founder of Pittsburgh Guitars, once owned. He sold it to Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen who, in turn, sold it to Sir Paul who uses it as his primary electric guitar.
“I am thrilled every time I see him play it,” says Grefenstette, who has been fascinated with electric guitars since he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. “He really likes that guitar, and after all of the happiness that the Beatles have given me in my life, I’m glad that I played a tiny part in returning the favor.”
The world changed “for many of us” on Feb. 9, 1964, says Grefenstette, who still performs in Pittsburgh Guitars’ semi-annual Big Beatles Show at the Rex Theatre, South Side.
“We couldn’t have predicted the joy of seeing four unique-looking individuals, playing their own instruments and clearly having a wonderful time,” he says. “Watch the tape of that show now, and every aspect of it, from the other acts to the audience, looks dated. Yet, the Beatles, even 50 years later, look contemporary. And if they stand out now, imagine how they stood out then.”
Promoter Pat DiCesare of Unity Township, who brought the Beatles to Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena on Sept. 14, 1964, was proactive in December of ’63 and January of ’64 in going after them.
“I don’t think they would have come to Pittsburgh because the demand from other cities (after the Sullivan show) became too great,” he says.
“The reaction of the audience on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ was like nothing I had ever seen before, not even Elvis,” he says.
Mike Tomaro, 55, Duquesne’s director of jazz studies, says he holds the Beatles’ music very dear.
“The variety they created in less than a 10-year span is astounding,” he says. “I feel it will be relevant for many years to come, in much the same way that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is still held in such high regard and still performed on a regular basis.”
As a young person delves more deeply into the Beatles catalogue, they realize this is no ordinary rock ‘n’ roll band, he says. “I don’t know any people who say, ‘Yes, I listened to the Beatles for a while, but then I grew tired of the music.’ ”
Musician and music historian Donald Maue, 55, an instructor at Duquesne who has lectured on the cultural, social and musical context of the Beatles for more than 30 years, presents a multimedia program he calls, “The Most Important Night in Television (Feb. 9, 1964).”
For a brief moment in time, he suggests, four lads known as the Beatles were able to see one second before everyone else in the world.
“As a result they led us into the ’60s, prepared us for the ’70s, taught us to forget the ’80s, inspired us to savor the ’90s and ultimately allowed us to appreciate the trip along the way,” Maue says.
A half century after their American debut, the conversation about the impact of the Beatles is ongoing, and that doesn’t surprise Jude Southerland Kessler.
The Beatles expert, author of the “John Lennon Series” of books and host of a radio show on Lennon, says there are many reasons why we still care.
“The Beatles stepped up to say that music could be so much more,” the Monroe, La., resident says. “They embraced black music, that gutsy, true rock ‘n’ roll that mothers and fathers so feared, and they proved that it was good and strong and to be admired.”
They dared to sing the songs of girl groups, elevating the role of women in music, she adds. And they crossed boundaries, embraced wry wit, wore unique fashions and encouraged individuality, she says.
“Their message was and is: ‘Be you. You don’t have to be anyone else,’ ” Kessler says. “That matters today, and it will matter 100 years from now. Nothing after the Beatles was ever the same again.”
Kessler will elaborate in her presentations at “It Was 50 Years Ago Today — An International Beatles Celebration” Feb. 6 to 9 at Penn State Altoona.
Conference organizer Kenneth Womack, professor of English and integrative arts, has taught about the Beatles at Penn State Altoona since 2002. He is written or edited several books on the band. His latest Beatles-oriented work, “The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four,” is to be published this summer.
He believes the Beatles are as timeless as, if not more so than, Beethoven and Elvis Presley.
“They wrote classic songs that often challenged us to think deeply about the human experience,” he says. “Each new generation discovers them and makes their own unique embrace of their music and story. They are particularly well made for our downloadable culture and listeners to grow with them at their own pace.”
Mark Lewisohn of England, regarded as one of the world’s leading Beatles authorities, says the group remains relevant because they developed naturally and were presented truthfully.
“There was nothing manufactured or artificial about them. They were original in everything they did,” says Lewisohn, author of The New York Times best-seller, “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1.”
“Obviously, the music is central to everything. If it hadn’t been good, or didn’t still sound good now, they could have been relegated in our minds a long time ago, but, actually, it still sounds wonderful,” says Lewisohn, who also will participate in the conference.
For classically trained musician Stephen Schultz, 63, associate teaching professor in music history and director of the Baroque Ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University, the Beatles’ relevancy today has nothing to do with nostalgia.
“It’s simply that at their height with ‘Rubber Soul,’ ‘Revolver,’ “Sgt. Pepper,’ they created music of the highest quality that continues to reward the listener after 50 years,” he says. “The songs are unique in the history of popular music.”
He attended one of the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1965. His Beatles history class has the highest enrollment of any music class at the university.
“I am happy to report that by the end of each semester, most of the students have become fanatical Beatles listeners and evangelists,” he says.
Students love the music, says Andrew Weintraub, professor and chair of music at the University of Pittsburgh, who also teaches a “The Music of the Beatles” class.
“There are so many new products in every generation that remind us to keep loving the Beatles,” he says. And their themes of optimism, the future and “Love, Love, Love,” endure, he says.
“The Beatles’ music is just as much a part of our time as it was of the 1960s,” Weintraub says.