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‘Ed Sullivan Show’ composer Robert Arthur dies at 89

Image: AP Photo

The Ed Sullivan Show’s reputation in the music industry is well-deserved. There was no greater honor for musicians of the 1950s and 1960s than to make their debut on the primetime hit. Many American’s first exposure to bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones happened right on Sullivan’s stage. It wasn’t Sullivan, though, who was working with the musicians behind the scenes.

Robert Arthur worked on The Ed Sullivan Show for nearly its entire run, from 1952 to 1971, as a songwriter and composer. He died on January 29 at the age of 89.

Before joining the team at The Ed Sullivan Show, Arthur got degrees in economics and Spanish, later serving in the United States Army for two years during the Korean War. When he was originally hired at Sullivan, he was was an assistant. He then worked his way up to musical director, where he arranged, supervised and composed the show’s music.

In addition to working on the technical aspects of the show’s music, he also coordinated with the artists behind the scenes. His biggest claim to fame is being the brain behind the infamous line change in the Rolling Stones’ performance of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” He told the story to Vanity Fair in 1997.

"Well, at that time, that was absolutely … it would be like saying, ‘F***, f***, f***.’ People's eyes would roll in their heads at the network," said Arthur. "So I was sent to deal with them, because I was also a songwriter… and I came up with a phrase that was almost the same thing and sounded almost the same, and it was, 'Let's spend some time together.' Mick Jagger agreed."

He also convinced Diana Ross to perform some classics, as opposed to her newer, poppier material. In 2014, Arthur caught up with the Colgate University News, his alma mater's school paper, where he talked about his experience working with the Beatles for their first live TV performance in the U.S.

He said that despite Sullivan’s keen ear for the hip music of the day, he didn’t have a firm grasp on how to get that music through the TV. Arthur said that Sullivan insisted on using boom mics, out of the view of the cameras, so everyone at home got to see the Beatles without microphones in their faces — in fact, he said microphones in general looked very “untelevision.” 

We can thank Arthur, though, for fighting for the cause. Because of his pushing, Sullivan gave in and allowed the Beatles to perform with proper microphones, so we could hear the lyrics. Granted, there was still plenty of screaming, but not nearly as much as we would have picked up with boom mics.

Later on, Arthur lived with his wife in Topanga Canyon, composing songs. He told the Colgate University News that his work was in the style of Cole Porter and the Gershwins. He put his music online for people to enjoy, saying, "If it moves, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. Most of my pleasure comes from writing a great thing, listening to it, and enjoying it. It’s almost like I didn’t have anything to do with it — the song just pops out."

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