In his off-the-cuff remarks, Starr, who was introduced by Sheila E., gave a sweet tribute to America and the path that led the band to the groundbreaking performance, considered one of the most seminal appearances -- if not the most -- by a musical act on television.
“We started in Liverpool and got bigger in Liverpool and then we went around the world…conquering the world, in Denmark, Sweden, Spain. And one day we’re on a plane coming back to Heathrow, to London, from Sweden, and this guy we’d never heard of was coming in from New York called Ed Sullivan. He’d never seen us play, he just saw the crowds on the airport roofs screaming and shouting and booked us as a blind booking.
“We arrived in New York, and 99 percent of the music I loved came from America, and we landed in New York and that was enough,” Starr continued. “I could have just stayed at the airport for the next 10 years. I’m in America, and then we went to do this TV show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and it just happens that when we landed with Capitol Records and Brian Epstein, the record ['I Want to Hold Your Hand'] was No. 1, thanks to Murray the K and Cousin [Brucie] and all those DJs from those days who were playing it, because we’d had three records before in America that didn’t really do a lot. What could go wrong? We landed in America. That was enough. We did an incredible TV show. That was enough. We had a No. 1 record. That was enough. And we carried on doing that for another six years.”
Starr, 77, said people express surprise that he is still touring and making music. “‘What? You’re still doing it?’ They say that all the time,” he said. “What do you mean I’m still doing it? That’s what I do. I’m not an electrician, but it is nice and I still love it.”
The evening’s other honoree was Jackson. The late legend was saluted by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who signed Jackson and his brothers when MJ was 10. In a touching and often funny speech, Gordy recalled the power of TV to bring his African-American artists in the '60s in front of a still-segregated America. “I thought my artists would do anything and everything…but it was TV that broke their careers wide open.” That included Jackson and his brothers in the Jackson 5, who first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. Gordy noted Jackson’s thrilling performance on Motown’s 25th anniversary special in 1983 where, after a reunion with his brothers, he performed "Billie Jean" solo and made pop history with his moonwalk. “That was the night his career went into orbit and never came down,” Gordy recalled, before introducing a clip package that highlighted those performances and so much more, including Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime performance and his groundbreaking videos.
The evening also included salutes to other memorable musical moments from television, including music on awards shows, music on variety and talk shows, music on TV series, reality shows and musicals, and historic TV specials featuring music. Among the celebrities introducing the various packages were Kiss’ Gene Simmons, Adam Lambert, Derek Hough, Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams, Nigel Lythgoe, Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez.
The funds raised from the Paley Honors will benefit the Paley Center’s programming dedicated to music on television and the expansion of the Music Collection in the Paley Archive, the nation’s largest publicly accessible archive of television and radio programming.