For Jack DeLier, Feb. 9, 1964, was just an unseasonably pleasant day in Oklahoma City, and at KWTV Channel 9, the men in the control room who worked for DeLier were going through the standard preparations to broadcast the 7 p.m. live feed of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Sullivan's guests that night included impressionist Frank Gorshin, comedians Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, a Welsh singer named Tessie O'Shea, and the cast of “Oliver!” featuring future Monkee Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger.
Of course, that lineup is mainly known as the random selection of performers that surrounded the most anticipated event of the evening, the live U.S. television debut of The Beatles.
But DeLier said it did not seem momentous at the time. In fact, there was a fair chance that KWTV might not have broadcast “The Ed Sullivan Show” at all that night.
“Back early on, some stations were not what they called ‘must-buy' stations,” said DeLier, 95. “The Lincoln-Mercury automobile generally sponsored ‘Ed Sullivan' in those days, and if they didn't want to buy Oklahoma City, they didn't have to. And that meant we didn't get any network revenue from it.”
The station had purchased the rights to the MGM, 20th Century Fox and Universal catalogs, so it had a fallback plan — an old movie from the golden age.
But DeLier said they made up for the loss of network revenue by selling local spots around “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was the most popular variety series on television at the time.
And so, 50 years ago this weekend, Oklahoma City residents joined the 73 million viewers who tuned in to CBS to hear what followed these words from Sullivan:
“Now yesterday and today, our theater's been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation. And these veterans agree with me that the city never has experienced the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you're going to twice be entertained by them — right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!”
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr performed five songs that night: “All My Loving,” “'Til There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The names of the members were superimposed over them in close-up shots, with Lennon getting an extra treatment with the phrase, “Sorry girls, he's married.”
‘I didn't like it'
The Beatles' importance in the development of pop music is a foregone conclusion now, but despite the huge ratings on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” not everyone was convinced in 1964. KOMA on-air personality Ronnie Kaye said he took awhile to warm to The Beatles, and he was not certain that “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the first Beatles song he heard and the last one played that evening on Sullivan, was even a hit.
“I didn't like it,” Kaye said with a big laugh during an interview at his KOMA studio. “A disc jockey by the name of Howard Clark came to me in a production studio (at WKY-AM) very much like this. I was a brand-new guy at the station, and he knew everything — he read all the trades, he was up on everything. Anyway, he brought this record into the studio — he had a little smile on his face. He said, ‘I want to see what you think about it.'”
Kaye, 76, said he and Clark sat and played “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but the song left him cold. Kaye had lived in Memphis, Tenn., during Elvis Presley's meteoric rise to fame in the mid-1950s, and he was a huge fan of original, American rock 'n' roll.
“I said, ‘I don't hear it. I don't think I like it,'” Kaye said. “And he's got a grin, a sheepish grin, and he says, ‘OK, thank you!' and walks away, you know? And I felt guilty about not liking that song for many years until 1969, when Dick Clark came to Oklahoma City.”
Clark, the host of “American Bandstand,” was visiting town to appear on Kaye's dance show, “The Scene.” While Kaye was showing Clark around Oklahoma City, they started talking about The Beatles, who by that time had spent the past half-decade changing the standards and broadening the idea of what rock 'n' roll could become.
“I was relating this story to him,” Kaye said. “And he said, ‘Can I tell you something? Don't feel badly — I said the same thing.' It just didn't sound like what we were used to hearing.”
But opinions changed dramatically and swiftly. In the Feb. 9, 1964, edition of The Oklahoman, music columnist John Acord III did not mention that evening's performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” choosing instead to rip the band apart.
“The latest fad that has taken over practically the entire teenage population is completely beyond my understanding,” Acord wrote. “Beatles do not do anything or play anything that about a hundred American rock and roll groups haven't already done and are still doing. In fact, for the most part the Beatles aren't as good as the Ventures or the Astronauts. But then, neither the Ventures or the Astronauts have hairstyles that look like someone turned a cereal bowl upside down and cut all the hair that stuck out on the sides.”
Six months later, after jazz artists Bill Evans and Ella Fitzgerald had recorded their own versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Acord was more appreciative. “I sincerely believe that a lot of the Beatle material as written by Lennon and McCartney will become standards in the pop repertoire,” he wrote in the Oct. 11, 1964, issue of The Oklahoman.
Kaye came along quickly, as well, and became an enormous fan of the band. He soon began fielding phone calls during his radio show demanding that Kaye bring the Beatles to Oklahoma City.
“People will say, ‘Oh, the parents resisted this at first,' but they didn't all resist it,” he said. “I had fathers calling me — I mean, guys who had money in Nichols Hills — who would say, ‘My daughters want The Beatles here, and they want them now! I don't care how much money it costs!' And I'd say, ‘Are you kidding me? You don't know how big those guys are — you can't just call The Beatles and get them here.'”
Part of the action
The Beatles never came to Oklahoma City, but Kaye's station found a way to bring Oklahoma City to The Beatles. On Sept. 18, 1964, Kaye traveled with a busload of WKY contest winners to see The Beatles perform at the Dallas Municipal Auditorium.
“You won tickets to go on this bus if you listened to WKY and you happened to be the lucky ninth caller when we played a certain song,” he said. “It was incredible. It was phenomenal. But it was like Paul McCartney said when they played at Shea Stadium: I don't think the kids heard a word.”
Fans started moving away from the crew cuts and pompadours of the 1950s and adopting the longer hair and clothing style of the group. Kaye said he grew his hair out and started buying clothes inspired by The Beatles at David's Shop For Men.
“Man, we all went over there and got those clothes and started wearing those clothes,” Kaye said. “Every guy in town wanted to look like The Beatles.”
Many bands followed in their wake, but for Kaye, The Beatles transcended them all. Those performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” broadcast to Oklahoma City on KWTV, proved to be only a hint of what was coming, he said.
“With ‘Sgt. Pepper' (in 1967), I started realizing that there were more dimensions to The Beatles than just the very early songs. I think this is what kept their career really red-hot for the entire six years,” Kaye said. “They kept changing and evolving, and the people followed that and kept changing and evolving with them. They changed this society.”