The fact that CBS is throwing a 50th anniversary party Sunday for the Beatles, commemorating their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” underscores one of the Fab Four’s greatest gifts to contemporary popular culture.
They showed the entertainment industry how to think big, how to market this heretofore slightly disreputable and embarrassing animal called “rock ’n’ roll.”
A valuable lesson, well learned.
The music of 1950s rocker Buddy Holly was a huge influence on the Beatles and many other acts of the 1960s and beyond.
They were also the right ones to do it. Someone was eventually going to make rock ’n’ roll marketable to the masses, and it’s good that the Beatles loved it and played it really well.
But as we celebrate the Beatles a half century down the road, it’s worth dusting off one note of caution.
They made some great rock ’n’ roll. They didn’t invent it.
When they were starting out, the Beatles were well aware of the raucous style of Jerry Lee Lewis.
And they never claimed they did. They were open, even insistent, about where they learned their sound, style and attitude.
Their early fans knew it, too. Most pop music fans in 1964 were at least conversant with the likes of wonderful artists such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Platters and Roy Orbison.
That makes Sunday’s “Grammy Salute to the Beatles” (8 p.m.) the perfect time to also remember where the Beatles came from, musically.
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The Ronettes (here in 1964) hit high on the charts with "Be My Baby" in 1963. Their producer, Phil Spector, would later work with the Beatles.
Like their fellow British Invasion bands, John, Paul, George and Ringo grew up wearing out 45s and LPs by Elvis, Chuck, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Rosie and the Originals, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and any other American they could lay their hands on.
When they started their own bands, they filled their sets by playing other people’s songs, and not quite as well.
“When I first heard the Beatles, I didn’t get it,” says Joe McCoy, who programmed New York’s WCBS-FM for the two decades it was the country’s defining oldies radio station. “Were they as good as a lot of other artists? Probably not. Not then.
The Shirelles, whose 1960 hit "Boys" was covered by the Beatles on their first album.
“But I picked up one of their first albums and when I saw the songs they were covering, like ‘Boys’ from the Shirelles and ‘Chains’ from the Cookies, I thought, ‘This can’t be all bad, they like some good American music.’ ”
As McCoy notes, the years between Elvis in 1956-57 and the Beatles in 1964 were a much deeper musical pool than history sometimes suggests.
“By 1963, Motown already had Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas,” he points out. “You had the Beach Boys, you had the Four Seasons. Dion was doing great solo records then.”
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Elvis on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956.
Phil Spector was in business, producing the Crystals and the Ronettes. “Be My Baby” came out in 1963.
Because rock ’n’ roll had not yet become a multibillion-dollar machine, the late 1950s and early 1960s were a golden age of independent labels. For a couple of hundred bucks, you could produce a record and maybe score a hit.
A thousand great records, from Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” to Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” or the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” came from small places.
The Beatles performing on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964.
So did one of the best rock ’n’ roll songs ever, the Drifters’ rendition of Doc Pomus’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
That’s how we got the Marcels turning “Blue Moon” into a mad romp that drove composer Richard Rodgers crazy.
In 1961, the Showmen sang “It Will Stand” as an anthem to rock ’n’ roll, and a few years later the Beatles proved it was true.
The Beatles created a big permanent part of rock ’n’ roll’s infrastructure. They just didn’t build its foundation.