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Why Elvis Presley got paid much more than The Beatles for The Ed Sullivan Show

Did Ed Sullivan rip off The Beatles?
Photo: Getty Images (file)

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 Elvis Presley's breakthrough year of 1956, Parker kept his promise to Elvis and made him a millionaire within a year by negotiating his new contract with RCA Victor, getting him national exposure on television and securing a movie contract in Hollywood. Ed Sullivan had previously stated 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 ($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 writer Mikal Gilmore. It seems like Epstein made the right choice, since 50 years later, we're still celebrating that historic launch of Beatlemania in the U.S.

Elvis' first appearance on Ed Sullivan 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.

And even though it was revealed in later years that Elvis felt animosity towards The Beatles, Colonel Parker and Brian Epstein maintained a friendly relationship behind the scenes. 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."

Parker also generously offered advice to Epstein on how to handle the Beatles touring logistics in the U.S. and together with Epstein, Parker helped arrange the historic meeting between The King and The Fab Four in Los Angeles in 1965.

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