The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is unquestionably one of the greatest moments in television history, a performance that proclaimed a new era in music and shifted the culture for a new generation, one which reverberates to this day.
So it was only fitting that one of the two surviving Beatles was in the spotlight at The Paley Honors: A Gala Tribute to Music on Television, held Thursday night at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
Sir Ringo Starr, looking decades younger than the 78-year-old musical legend that he is, was honored alongside another legend, Michael Jackson, during ceremonies in a packed ballroom.
The evening began with a clip reel of other memorable musical performances by artists including the Supremes, Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Ricky Martin, Liberace, Jennifer Lopez and Cyndi Lauper.
“Music crosses borders and reminds us of our commonality,” said Paley Center for Media CEO and President Maureen J. Reidy as she introduced the evening celebrating groundbreaking musical moments throughout TV history. “And television, with its ability to connect us whether we’re watching on a big screen or on our phones, gives music an unequaled platform that helps bridge our differences — all through the visual power of a song.”
Starr was presented with his honor by another famous drummer, Sheila E., who has toured with Starr and his All-Starr Band a number of times and performed with Prince over the years.
“Ringo changed music culture more than any other drummer pounding the snares,” she said. “But the most important thing was his smile. He looked like he was having the time of his life.”
Starr, who was knighted by Prince William this past March, brought that joie de vivre to the podium and began by relating an anecdote from earlier in the day. “Someone at the press line today said, ‘What, you’re still doing this?’” he said. “They say that all the time to me. I’m still doing the tour. That’s what I do, you know. I’m not an electrician.”
After the laughter died down, the drummer for the Beatles talked about the massive impact of the group’s first U.S. television appearance. “Television, and Ed Sullivan specifically, played such a major role in introducing the Beatles to America and to the world. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time we played Ed Sullivan over 70 million people watched. They said there was no crime while we were playing. How far out is that? I’ve always loved TV,” he continued. “I did a couple TV specials like [the 1978 television comedy film] ‘Ognir Rrats’ and loved playing a tiny conductor on the [children’s TV series] ‘Shining Time Station.’ I’m honored to be a part of this special tribute from the Paley Center, and highlighting the crucial role television has played for musicians and in the music industry.”
Starr also cited Motown and Michael Jackson’s huge influence on music and pop culture.
Motown’s founder Berry Gordy, who brought the Jackson 5 to worldwide fame on his label, presented a posthumous tribute to Jackson.
“Michael Jackson reigns as the undisputed King of Pop not just because of his exceptional talent, but because he was able to package that talent in a whole new way. In both form and content, Jackson simply did what no one had done before — pure magic mixed with unforgettable, transcendent performances,” Gordy said.
Lest anyone forget, it was on the Motown 25th anniversary television special that aired on NBC in 1983 that MJ first created a frenzy with his soon-to-become iconic moonwalk.
Musical performances on awards shows were highlighted by KISS’ Gene Simmons, who first talked about the band’s appearance on “Midnight Special” — and cracked a joke about the group’s upcoming “three-year farewell tour” before he introduced a reel of highlights going back decades to Madonna on the MTV Awards and fast-forwarding to Common and John Legend at the 2015 Academy Awards. In between were artists including Prince, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Kesha, Marvin Gaye, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Pink, Idina Menzel, Adele, Mick Jagger, Santana, Tom Petty, Jennifer Hudson, Little Richard, Barbra Streisand, Miranda Lambert, Selena, Dolly Parton, Jennifer Hudson, the cast of “Hamilton,” Alan Jackson, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and Brad Paisley.
Theme songs from classic television shows including “Happy Days,” “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” “Mad Men,” “Frasier,” “South Park,” “Cheers,” “The Sopranos” and ”Game of Thrones” are also a key part of music’s significance on television.
“Unlike a hit song on the radio, a TV theme might take up only half a minute or less of your time,” singer Michelle Williams said about the power of television theme songs. “The themes for ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Will and Grace’ accomplish in a few seconds what much longer compositions do — they have a way of burrowing into your brain for your lifetime. Want to know who can turn the world on with her smile? Everybody knows it’s Mary Tyler Moore. ‘Movin’ On Up’ wasn’t just a lyric in the theme from ‘The Jeffersons,’ it was a social statement.”
And then there is the whole genre of music videos, going back to the birth of MTV in 1981, another seminal moment in pop culture. A clip reel showcased videos from artists including Eurythmics, Billy Idol, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, the Cars, Run-DMC, Janet Jackson, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Britney Spears, Pitbull, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake — and bringing it all full circle, Ringo Starr.
All of the videos and performances are housed in the publicly accessible Paley Center Archive’s music collection.