Paul McCartney, as a mere lad of 21, shot to unprecedented – and unsurpassed – stardom with his fellow Beatles via their 1964 debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" before a then-record 73 million viewers.
As he turns 70 Monday, McCartney is preparing to play to his biggest TV audience ever – one likely to be measured in billions – when he closes the opening ceremonies of the London Games next month.
Welcome to the Olympic Age of Paul McCartney, who, as he starts his eighth decade, is a singing, songwriting, bass-thumping testament to the youthful power of music – and the enduring appeal of the Liverpool band that wowed 'em on “Sullivan” all those years ago.
McCartney has emerged in recent years as the go-to elder-statesman headliner for spectacles, from the Super Bowl to the 25th anniversary of Live Aid to this month's celebration of the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, whose reign probably will be best remembered for a British Invasion of the rock-and-roll variety.
Sure, McCartney is guaranteed to get huge crowds singing along to "Let it Be" and "Hey Jude." But he's far more than a big-occasion nostalgia act. In the last decade, he’s toured more frequently than any time since the Beatles' early days, and has produced some of his strongest (2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard") and most adventurous (2008's "Electric Arguments" as The Fireman) solo albums.
When he takes the stage July 27 in front of 80,000 at London’s Olympic Stadium and many more watching on TV and online around the world (the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies drew 2 billion viewers), McCartney will be representing a rock-fueled rebellion against the boundaries of age. He'll be representing his country, which helped create a youth-driven cultural revolution by putting a British spin on American rhythm and blues. Perhaps most importantly, he'll be representing his fellow Beatles, who debuted "All You Need is Love" 45 years ago this month before a then-astounding worldwide audience of 350 million.
The sentiment, like the group’s music, is timeless. The Beatles “1” collection is the world’s biggest-selling album of this century, with most copies likely purchased by those who weren’t born when the band broke up in 1970. As we’ve noted, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2009 found the Beatles were among the top four favorite musical acts of Americans 16 to 64.
It’s a good bet some of McCartney’s fellow septuagenarians – and kids under 16 – are among the fans, too. Perhaps more of all ages will join those ranks after he plays for the world at the Olympics.
Declaring the Olympic gig a crowning achievement for McCartney, nearly a half-century after the Beatles first charted in the UK with “Love Me Do,” might sell him short. After all, naysayers back in the day crowed that the group could only go downhill after their “Sullivan” splash. If history is any guide, Paul McCartney’s Olympic Age will prove an ageless affair in which the road is long, winding – and filled with more surprises and triumphs.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.