Tom Petty: The Beatles On Ed Sullivan "Changed Everything"

GRAMMY winner on how the Beatles' earthshaking debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" sent him on a mission for a guitar and how he'll celebrate at 8 p.m. on Feb. 9
  • Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images Entertainment
    Tom Petty
February 07, 2014 -- 3:06 pm PST
By Tom Petty / GRAMMY.com

(On Feb. 9 The Recording Academy, AEG Ehrlich Ventures and CBS will present "The Beatles: The Night That Changed America — A GRAMMY Salute." The two-and-a-half-hour special will celebrate the legacy of the Beatles and their groundbreaking first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" exactly 50 years to the day, date and time of the original event.)

(As told to Paul Zollo)

I was 13, and already somewhat of a music fan. This was the great moment in my life, really, that changed everything. I had been a fan up to that point. But this was the thing that made me want to play music. You saw that it could be done. There could be a self-contained unit that wrote, recorded and sang songs. And it looked like they were having an awful lot of fun doing it.

I watched it with my little brother. My mom and dad were there, but they weren't interested in it. They laughed at it and left the room. But my brother and me, both of us, we just flipped out. We thought it was the greatest thing ever.

It's very hard for people to understand how monolithic it was, looking at it today. But it was absolutely earthshaking. These weren't days when you had rock and roll on television very frequently at all. And [the Beatles] were so ready for it. They're so professional, and they have their act so down. Their presentation is beyond compare. It's amazing, when you watch it now, how aware they are of where the cameras are, and what to do. And their songs were just fantastic, and so original. They were the right people at the right time at the right spot with the right songs.

Culturally, it changed everything in America, and probably the world. The influence on every part of our lives was huge, from social issues to fashion issues to music issues. From that point on, the Beatles were the North Star for me and my generation. And we're very blessed to have had them.

Before them, there were a lot of singers, like Elvis. But it was really great to see a band. I had seen bands around town before, but I never saw one that really did everything, that was a vocal group and an instrumental and songwriting group. The idea of writing songs had never occurred to me before them. I knew that they wrote their songs. I had the little single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand"/"I Saw Her Standing There," before I saw them, with that great photo of them on the front in the grey collarless jackets. "Lennon/McCartney" was prominent under each title, so I knew that they wrote the songs. And I said, "Hey, this can be done. You just need four guys who can play their instruments. And if we do this, we can have a great time."

Really, within weeks of that show, you began to hear the sounds of garage bands on the weekends leaking through the neighborhood — of kids out in the garage playing. And it became my mission to find an electric guitar, and to meet friends who could play with me. And that happened rather organically. So many people were doing it.

I didn't really know what harmony was, but I loved the sound their voices made. I would learn these things from trial and error situations with my friends playing. We eventually figured out how to make that sound, and what a harmony was.

Back then, everyone didn't have a guitar.  Not like now, where anyplace you go, there's a guitar. It was a different world then. Fender sold themselves to CBS that year because the demand [for] guitars just overwhelmed them. 

If you talk to any musician my age, I think we'd all tell you — especially the American ones — that night had a profound effect on the rest of [our] lives. It did have a great profound effect on my life, and I thank them for that. I still think the Beatles [made] the best music ever, and I'm sure I'll go to my grave thinking the same thing.

There will never be another moment like it, I don't think, in music. I don't think you could have another moment like that, because of the innocence of the audience. That innocence doesn't exist anymore. It was just a really great time to be alive, to be a teenager, and to experience that.

It should be celebrated, and I'm glad there's so much attention being given to it. I think that everyone in America with an electric guitar should all hit an open E chord at 8 o'clock on February 9. I'm gonna do it.

(A three-time GRAMMY winner, Tom Petty is the founder of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1988 Petty teamed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison to form Traveling Wilburys. The all-star quintet won a GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for Traveling Wilburys Volume One. Tom Petty And The Heartbreaker's most recent studio album, Mojo, was released in 2010.)

(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On SongwritingConversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)

Email Newsletter