Surprisingly, inflation did not play a role in the fee The Beatles were paid for performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. When compared to the amount Elvis Presley was paid, $50,000 for three performances in late 1956/early 1957, The Beatles worked for peanuts, a measly $10,000 for three shows.
The fact is The Beatles were paid five times less than The King of Rock and Roll for the same number of appearances eight years later. Was it simply due to the superior management skills of Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, compared to The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, or were additional circumstances at play?
In less than a year from late 1955 to mid-1956, Colonel Parker had catapulted Presley’s career by negotiating a record contract with RCA Victor, getting him national exposure on television and securing a movie contract in Hollywood. But Ed Sullivan, who had the biggest variety show on TV, had declared that Elvis would never appear on his show due to Presley’s perceived obscenity by the establishment.
However, when The Steve Allen Show beat Ed Sullivan in the ratings due to Presley’s appearance in July 1956, Sullivan changed his mind. Having the upper hand, Colonel Parker was able to negotiate the highest fee ever paid to an act by Sullivan at that point in time, increasing the fee from $5,000 to over $16,000 per show. Elvis appeared three times over a five-month period from September 1956 to January 1957.
For The Beatles, the circumstances were a bit different. The Beatles had never performed on U.S. television before. Knowing that The Beatles had been rejected by Capitol Records for a year which stalled their American exposure, Brian Epstein wanted to make sure The Beatles first U.S. television appearance made as big an impact as possible.
Epstein was willing to accept a lower payment in exchange for The Beatles receiving top billing for three consecutive Sunday nights during the month of February 1964. In Brian Epstein’s view, “the benefits of such exposure far outweighed the importance of immediate money,” according to Rolling Stone.
In actuality, Sullivan only gave The Beatles top billing for two out of the three performances. Nevertheless, history proves that Epstein made the right choice, since more than 50 years later, The Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show is still celebrated as the launch of Beatlemania in the U.S.
Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956 drew an audience of 54 million viewers, a record that remained until The Beatles debut performance on February 9, 1964 attracted 73 million viewers.
The cordial relationship started as early as February 1964 when Elvis and The Colonel sent a telegram to The Beatles before their legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sensing how popular The Beatles were going to become, Parker thought it best to make friends with his client’s biggest competition to date.
Dated February 6, 1964, the telegram read: “Congratulations on your appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and your visit to America. We hope your engagement will be a successful one and your visit pleasant. Give our best to Mr. Sullivan. Sincerely, Elvis and The Colonel.”
But that was just the beginning! Many more telegrams and interactions took place behind the scenes not only between Colonel Parker and Brian Epstein, but also between Elvis and The Beatles throughout the rest of their careers – not to mention their infamous meeting in August 1965.