Exactly 59 years ago today, January 6th 1957, Elvis appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan TV Show’ he had previously been on the show on a number of occasions and had used it as a springboard to further his already groundbreaking career, these performances have gone down as benchmarks in TV history. In true Elvis fashion – before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything!
The Ed Sullivan show was a weekly variety show on CBS television which ran from 1948 through to 1971. It was an eclectic mix of all sorts of entertainment, a kind of vaudeville show for the 20th century, with opera singers, comedians and ballet dancers sharing the stage with popular music artists of the day, dramatic actors, puppeteers and even circus acts. Sullivan, a rather conservative and dour faced individual, was heavily criticised by the press as being a rather strange choice to host such a show “He got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality” was how one critic put it (Sullivan’s response was a letter to his protagonist simply saying “You Bitch. Sincerely Ed Sullivan”) but what Ed did have was an instinct for what the public wanted and he made sure there was something for everyone on each episode. He also had a knack for identifying and promoting talent and many saw the show as a major stepping stone to superstardom.
One man though was already on his way to superstardom long before appearing on the show. In 1956 Elvis was the hottest star in America, since the release of ‘That’s All Right Mama’ two years earlier he had trail blazed his way across the popular music and entertainment landscapes with a whole number of hit records creating a cultural revolution.
Elvis had already been on a number of national TV shows in 1956 before Ed Sullivan came knocking. In fact it’s safe to say that had Elvis had not played The Steve Allen show in July of that year (featuring the infamous ‘Hound Dog’ performance sung to a basset hound) then Sullivan would’ve stayed with his initial thoughts that he didn’t want to give Presley any airtime, stating the reason that he didn’t think “Elvis the Pelvis” was suitable for his family audience. However after the Allen show received almost twice as many viewers as Sullivan’s on the night that Elvis played, he was quick to change his mind, especially as the two shows were in the middle of a heated ratings battle. After negotiations with the Colonel, Sullivan paid an unprecedented $50,0000 for 3 appearances on his show (this despite the fact that some time previously Sullivan had the chance to book him for just $5,000). Starting with the September 9th broadcast it was to be a show business marriage made in ratings heaven!
Due to the filming of ‘Love Me Tender’ Elvis didn’t actually appear at the usual recording venue of the CBS studio on Broadway in New York, instead appearing live via a network linkup from CBS in Hollywood (and in fact due to being hospitalised in a car accident, Sullivan also didn’t appear with presenting duties handed over to Actor Charles Laughton for the night). Despite paying such a hefty fee for Elvis and the fact that he would definitely win the TV ratings that night as NBC, realising that all eyes would be glued to CBS, pulled The Steve Allen Show and showed a movie instead, it would appear that Sullivan still couldn’t get over his first thoughts on Elvis. Ed Sullivan headliners always opened the show, but despite Elvis being the headliner he didn’t appear until later on, instead Sullivan subjected the teenyboppers in the audience to Laughton reading poetry before they got to see their snake-hipped hero. Laughton also gave a very straight introduction as if not wanting to build any anticipation to what the viewers were about to see. Standing in front of some gold records Laughton announced “These gold records, four of them are a tribute to the fact that four of his recordings have sold, each sold, more than a million copies. And this, by the way, is the first time in record making history that a singer has hit such a mark in such a short time. And now, away to Hollywood to meet Elvin Presley” Yes – despite being the hottest commodity in entertainment, Laughton still managed to mispronunciate his name!
As Elvis appeared on screen from the other side of the country, he cleared his throat and said “Thank you, Mr Laughton, ladies and gentlemen, This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now Don’t Be Cruel”. After another short introduction it was followed by Love Me Tender before handing back to the New York studio. During these two performances Elvis appeared nervous, fidgety and, unlike previous TV performances, quite subdued. Compared to the tuxedo worn during his Steve Allen performance he was dressed down in a plaid jacket and an open-necked shirt. However he soon found his stride, and after enduring various other acts including acrobats and tap dancers, the audience get a second look at Elvis as he goes into an incendiary performance of ‘Ready Teddy’, backed by the Jordanaires. This is followed by a message to “Mr Sullivan” thanking him for the opportunity and wishing him a speedy recovery before continuing his serious tone by saying “As a great philosopher once said….You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog!” and then launching into his hit record. Elvis really finds his place during this performance, holding nothing back and snarling and gyrating. Due to the controversies from his earlier appearances on The Milton Berle Show during this number the camera shows Elvis more from the waist-up but not, as popular urban myth would suggest, completely as he is shown in full gyrating and thrusting detail during the earlier numbers. After just two verses the performance was over and the numbers soon confirmed that it was money well spent by Sullivan as the show managed to reach a record 82.6 percent of the TV audience, which equated to approximately 60 million viewers. As well as boosting Elvis’ stock with a more adult audience it pushed pre-release orders up to close to a million for the yet unreleased ‘Love Me Tender’ which a number of DJ’s around the country had taped from the performance to play on air. The performance however was not without controversy with a number of reviewers picking up on Elvis’ frenzied performance, including one who stated that Elvis “Indulged in wordless singing that was distasteful” and that “Overstimulating the physical impulses of the teenagers was a gross national disservice” But despite this and his initial hesitations it would appear that Ed and Elvis make a winning combination and it’s not long before his second appearance.
In the 7 weeks between the first and second appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Elvis’ career went into overdrive with him completing the filming of ‘Love Me Tender’, signing a new 5 year contract with RCA, performing a short tour in Texas and Variety magazine declaring him ‘A Millionaire in one year’. He evens finds himself caught up in an altercation at a gas station in Memphis which lands him an assault charge before his trip to New York for his second Sullivan appearance.
October 28th 1956 – Elvis is in New York in a BIG way, quite literally as earlier in the day a 40 foot cut-out was unveiled on top of the Times Square Paramount cinema marquee announcing the upcoming premiere of ‘Love Me Tender’, and later that night he stands beside Ed Sullivan (back hosting the show after recovering from his injuries) to give renditions of four of his biggest hits backed once again by the Jordanaires. Dressed in grey jacket, white shirt and tie and black trousers, Elvis gives a much more naturally confident performance from the get-go compared to his previous appearance. Despite being disciplined by Sullivan two days earlier during rehearsals for the ‘suggestive movements’, and the subsequent brouhaha in the media afterwards, he performed back in September, Elvis still gives a powerhouse performance full of his usual gyrating stage moves.
After the first and second numbers of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Love Me Tender’ Sullivan appeared next to Elvis to address the audience. Elvis began shaking his legs eliciting screams from the audience. After leaving the stage, Sullivan commented “I can’t figure this darn thing out. He just does this (shakes his leg) and everyone yells”. After a short commercial break Elvis sang ‘Love Me’ during which the camera moved in for a close-up of Elvis’ face, and then, as if on cue, he smiled and snarled his upper lip. The studio audience was driven wild.
After a performances by Broadway stars and Joyce Grenfell Elvis returned to the stage to perform his last number, another electrifying performance of Hound Dog. Full of energy and at nearly four minutes long this is perhaps one of his finest renditions of the track. Again though, despite the myth, Elvis was shown in full during the song.
Despite not hitting the peaks of the first outing on the show, round 2 was still a huge success with huge ratings to boot, and just like the first time, a fair bit of controversy too as Elvis was burned in effigy in Nashville and St. Louis. By now though Sullivan was starting to realise that ‘controversy creates cash’ as whether good or bad, the name of his show was constantly in the national press.
1957 wasn’t even a week old before Elvis was back in New York for his final outing on Ed Sullivan. On January 6th Elvis appeared for the final time on the show, performing a staggering 7 numbers. This time round he dressed in a slightly more elaborate fashion wearing a velvet shirt he had worn whilst performing in Tupelo and a gold lame vest top that was a Christmas gift from Barbra Hearn as one reviewer put it “He was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, with all the stops out” he did however don a more appropriate jacket for the closing gospel number of ‘Peace in the Valley’. Starting with a medley of ‘Hound Dog’. ‘Love Me Tender’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ before taking a break and coming back for ‘Too Much’ and ‘When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again’ and then closing with the aforementioned gospel number, one thing is noticeable and that is on this occasion Elvis was only filmed from the waist up. The exact reason is unknown, some say that after the previous two performances the censors decided not to take any risks, but fear of him performing overtly sexual moves wouldn’t be the case on this occasion as other than the small snippet of ‘Hound Dog’ all the other numbers were ballads. There is rumour however that, following a disagreement between Col. Parker and Sullivan in which the former threatened to remove Elvis from the show if Sullivan didn’t apologise for telling the press that Presley’s gyrations were immoral, Sullivan decided to film Elvis from the waist up as a way of getting his own back.
Whatever the case, the earlier misapprehensions that Sullivan had over Elvis seemed to have vanished by the time he performed in 1957 as at the end of the show Sullivan came on, put his hand on Elvis’ shoulder and said “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy. We have never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we had with you; you’re thoroughly alright. Let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person”. It was a ringing endorsement that, to many, legitmised Elvis with the adult mainstream audience.
Elvis never featured on the show again despite Sullivan contacting Parker several years later to get Elvis back on. In true Colonel fashion he gave Sullivan all kinds of instructions and conditions and a rumoured price of $300,000, after hearing all these demands Sullivan simply said “Give Elvis my best – and my sympathy” and then hung up. Elvis and the Colonel did however send a telegram wishing the Beatles all the best on their debut on the show in 1964.
Elvis’ performances are on The Ed Sullivan Show are now considered legendary. Not only because they’re a snapshot of a young man who was on the cusp of greatness, not knowing what an amazing career he had yet to come but also because of the electricity, charisma and raw talent which radiate from him during the performances. The shows are also part of Presley myth as well due to the stories of him only being filmed from the waist up (something Elvis even name checks himself in the ’68 Comeback Special). Many believe that the exposure that he received on these shows also validated Elvis in the minds of many older viewers.
In 2006, The History Channel selected the September 9th, 1956 Elvis Presley appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as one of the ‘10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America’ and the initial broadcast has also been featured in TV Guides list of ‘Moments that Changed Television’.
The Ed Sullivan show continued to run until 1971, in which time many other big name stars, such as The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan used it as a way of creating controversy to create a name for themselves just as Elvis has done years before. Sullivan sadly passed away in 1974 following a short battle with cancer. His name lives on though as the studio in New York where the show was filmed is now named ‘The Ed Sullivan Theatre’.
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