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.”