This coming Sunday marks the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. We look back on Sullivan as an antiquated, somewhat quaint relic of a bygone era. In reality he was a daring market entrepreneur who promoted important music and broke down racial barriers.
Sullivan was especially important for his advocacy of African-American music and entertainment. He helped Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ethel Waters, Nat “King” Cole, Leontine Price, Louis Armstrong, George Kirby, Duke Ellington, Richie Havens, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, among others. At the time the major networks typically shied away from carrying such performers, primarily for racial reasons. Sullivan consistently fought with his conservative sponsors and insisted on booking these individuals.
Sullivan was a musical visionary more generally. In addition to the Beatles, he promoted The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and Barbra Streisand. In comedy he showcased Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Jerry Lewis, among many others. In each case the performers had not yet established their later significance.
Sullivan’s show, of course, was an institution. At its peak it regularly commanded an audience of over 50 million Americans and it ran for 23 years. Here’s a hat tip to Sullivan, who exemplified the best of entrepreneurship and cosmopolitan vision.