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Fifty years ago, The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 marked the British band’s breakthrough from rising pop group into a dominant cultural force of the era and one of the most influential music acts of the 20th century.
The oft-replayed images of screaming fans and the dark-suited, mop-topped musicians attracted 73.7 million viewers at the time, and would later be viewed by generations to follow. Thus when the Paley Center for Media chose to celebrate the magical mergers of music and TV at its event, The Paley Honors: A Gala Tribute to Music on Television, the recently knighted Beatle Sir Ringo Starr toplined its lists of VIP guests.
“It was big for us, too, but we didn’t know that 70 million people were going to watch it,” Starr told The Hollywood Reporter as he entered the event with his wife, actress and onetime Bond girl Barbara Bach. At the time, the band was eager to get its first taste of fame in the U.S., the source of its most potent musical influences, on the show that helped launch the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan into mainstream superstardom.
“We knew we were in America, and that was what was big,” Starr said, saying that The Beatles, who wouldn’t score a breakthrough hit in the U.S. until shortly before the broadcast, knew the opportunity The Ed Sullivan Show offered was a good one, “We were used to the screams by now because of Europe and England, of course. We were sort of eager to do a TV show — that was it. But by the time we got there we had hit number one, so that was even more thrilling. We only found out later that 70 million people watched it, so that’s pretty big.”
After Starr — whose long personal history on television also includes acting stints on the children’s series Thomas the Tank Engine and Shining Time Station — and his wife settled into their table at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills (alongside Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, who is married to Bach’s sister), they took in a series of tributes to the TV/music hybrid. The Paley staged an extended tribute to the video innovation of pop megastar Michael Jackson, from his early appearances as a member of the Jackson Five through his breakout moonwalking appearance on the network special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever in 1983 to his career as a pioneering music video vanguard and performance at the Super Bowl XXVII halftime show in 1993.
Jackson’s legacy was represented by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who was instrumental in launching Jackson’s career with his brothers. “Michael Jackson reigns as the undisputed King of Pop not just because of his exceptional talent, but because he was able to package that talent in a whole new way,” Gordy told the crowd from the stage. “In both form and content, Jackson simply did what no one had done before — pure magic mixed with unforgettable, transcendent performances.”
Pose star Billy Porter told THR that for his money, Jackson’s video for “Thriller” was perhaps the most game-changing of his favorite musical moments, “because he was one of the first to use the form and literally create the genre. It was sort of flailing before he kinda latched in to ‘This what music video is. This is what it’s done well.’ I don’t know that we had had it done that well prior to ‘Thriller’ — and I didn’t have cable, so I had to wait ‘til Friday Night Videos or something.”
Other themed tributes throughout the evening included onstage package tributes to an array of musical topics, including awards show performances, variety series, competition series, sporting events, TV theme songs and more, presented by a diverse collection of celebrities: KISS rocker Gene Simmons; Destiny’s Child member and solo artist Michelle Williams; World of Dance host Derek Hough; American Idol alum Adam Lambert; American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? producer Nigel Lythgoe (who gamely and amusingly delivered an onstage speech intended for no-show Lea Michele); and drummer and ’80s icon Sheila E. among them.
On the red carpet, stars shared memories of their favorite musical TV moments. Sheila E., who introduced Starr onstage and has performed in his All-Star Band, said that the Ed Sullivan Show moment is forever seared into her synapses.
“That was amazing, and also the footage of them arriving in the United States,” said the singer-percussionist. “I was screaming just like everyone else. I don’t even know what it was: I hadn’t even heard their music yet, but they looked so cute! I was like, ‘Look at their outfits!’ I mean, I was 9 or something, so, that was a historical moment for me. Then when I saw them perform on Ed Sullivan, I lost it, yeah.”
Sheila E. also recalled the life-changing impact of her own early TV appearances. “I would say when I played on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special with George Duke, I said, ‘I am a star now’ — that was a long time ago,” she laughed, remembering what came next. “That’s how Prince found me. He hadn’t even done his record yet, and he had been following my career because he had seen me on television. That’s how it started.”
Williams was quick to recall a TV moment she has never forgotten: Whitney Houston’s soaring, seemingly effortless performance of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. “Just in her sweat suit and her headband!” laughed Williams, who also cited Destiny’s Child’s performances as their own Super Bowl XLVII reunion turn in 2013 as a crucial moment in her group’s TV history.
Williams also offered up a favorite TV theme song, defying taboo topics: “Yes I’m going to say it, and yeah, I know he’s locked up right now, but that one Cosby Show theme song with the jazz, and the orchestration of that.”
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