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Ringo Starr has been in the music business for six decades, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The drummer became famous playing with the Beatles, but those years represent just a fraction of his career. He’s contributed to some classic albums by other artists (and not just as a drummer) in addition to his steady stream of solo works and concert tours. Ringo’s career might have been quite different if not for a chance encounter with Ed Sullivan that led to the Beatles becoming international superstars.

Ringo Starr (left) shakes hands with Ed Sullivan in 1965. Ringo said a chance encounter with Sullivan led to them being booked on his show, which led to international superstardom.
Ringo Starr (left) shakes hands with Ed Sullivan | CBS via Getty Images

Ringo Starr and the Beatles built a following by playing live

Any musician can release a song or album on the internet to help build an audience. But the Beatles had to cultivate a following the old-fashioned way — by playing live. 

Ringo, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney honed their chops with a residency in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1960s. When they weren’t entertaining the Germans, the Fab Four played shows across the U.K. As Ringo once told Jimmy Kimmel (via YouTube), the Beatles played live not only to build an audience but also because they loved it.

“When we were playing in Liverpool, we were [just] playing. No one was thinking, ‘Oh in 20 years, I’ll be living in LA,’ or whatever … We just played because we loved to play,” Ringo said. “We were getting gigs, and then we were getting more gigs. And then we got quite well-known … You have to build it up.”

Ringo said the biggest break the Beatles ever received happened when they ran into Ed Sullivan on a return trip from Europe.

Ringo said Ed Sullivan booked the Beatles based on their reception when they came back from a tour

Playing live for the love of it helped the Beatles build a large fan base in Britain. The band’s two 1963 albums — Please Please Me and With the Beatles — solidified their standing as one of the most popular bands on the island. 

The Fab Four completed a short tour of Sweden at the end of October 1963. When they returned to London, a throng of screaming fans welcomed them at Heathrow. As Ringo told Kimmel, Ed Sullivan happened to be there, too. He booked the Beatles on the spot.

“The maddest thing of all is, we come in from Sweden, and there’s all the kids on the airport at Heathrow. We didn’t even know him, but Ed Sullivan arrives from New York, and he doesn’t know us either, so he just sees the reaction we were getting and books us to come to New York, to America. You can’t plan that … That’s what happened, and coming to America was so huge for us.”

Ringo Starr describes the Beatles’ chance encounter with Ed Sullivan

The Fab Four had their first North American performance on Sullivan’s show a few months later, on Feb. 9, 1964. An estimated 73 million people watched the Beatles perform on the show. Even though the band already had a solid reputation, their Sullivan appearances (they performed three times in 1964) sent the Beatles to superstardom.

The Ed Sullivan show made the Fab Four international stars


George Harrison Said No One Knew How to Do Sound at ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

Ultimately, the music is what made the Beatles famous, but the Ed Sullivan appearance didn’t hurt.

Even as their popularity exploded, the band played to a few thousand fans in theaters across England. Soon after their U.S. debut on the Sullivan show, the Beatles started playing venues around the world in front of several thousand fans. When they returned to North America in mid-1964, the band played coliseums and amphitheaters, such as the Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks.

By the time the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, they were selling out baseball stadiums. Between their North American debut on Sullivan in 1964 and the end of their touring days, the Beatles played in Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and many of the major cities in Europe.

Ringo Starr said a chance encounter got them on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the drummer was 100% right about the impact that one performance had on their career.

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