Saturday, January 8, 2011

Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show

If he were still alive, Elvis Aaron Presley would be 76 years old today.  He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935.  Despite occasional “sightings” and outrageous conspiracy theories, Elvis has indeed left the building..  Although he checked out on August, 16, 1977, “the King” has left us with many indelible memories.
The years 1956 and 1957 were banner years for Elvis Presley.  He was at the pinnacle of the teen idol phase of his career.  During those years, Elvis appeared on the The Ed Sullivan Show three times.  Ed Sullivan agreed to pay Elvis the sum of $50,000 to perform thrice on his show, which was a considerable amount of money at the time.
Although Elvis had appeared on several other national television programs, including Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show and the popular Steve Allen Show, an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was a sine qua non for an entertainer on the rise.  Elvis’s previous television appearances had caused a great deal of controversy.  Many parents and teachers disapproved of his pelvic gyrations and his hip-swivelling.  They considered it to be too provocative and associated both Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll with juvenile delinquency. 
Elvis also received some negative reaction from the press.  Jack Gould of the New York Times stated that “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability.”  John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune described him as “unspeakably untalented and vulgar.” 
Ed Sullivan was reluctant to have Elvis on his show.  He was shrewd enough, however, to know that he had to book Presley for practical reasons.  Ed and Steve Allen were competitors.  Their television shows shared the same time slot, 8:00 p.m. – 9 p.m. on Sunday nights.  The Sullivan show was on CBS and the Allen show was on NBC.  The Steve Allen Show, with Elvis as guest, had attracted about twice the number of viewers as Ed’s show that night.  Sullivan and CBS couldn’t ignore those numbers.
When Elvis first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, on September 9, 1956, Sullivan himself was unable to host the show.  Ed had been in a serious car accident and was recovering in the hospital.  The substitute host was English-born actor Charles Laughton.  Elvis was not on location in New York for the show as he was in Los Angeles filming Love Me Tender.  Laughton hosted the show from the Big Apple and then cut to the stage in Hollywood for Elvis.
The great actor incorrectly introduced Elvis as “Elvin Presley”.  Elvis, dressed in a plaid jacked and clutching his guitar, cleared his throat and replied, “Thank you, Mr. Laughton, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Wow.”  Then he wiped his brow and proclaimed, “This is probably the greatest honour 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" . . .
During his second set on the show, Elvis sang a short version of “Hound Dog”.  He introduced the song with an on-air comment to the ailing Ed Sullivan.  He said, “Ah, Mr. Sullivan.  We know that somewhere out there you are looking in, and, ah, all the boys and myself, and everybody out here, are looking forward to seeing you back on television."  Elvis then declared, “Friends, as a great philosopher once said, ‘You ain’t  nothin’ but a Hound Dog . . .’”
To watch Elvis singing “Hound Dog” in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show, click on the link below.
Elvis Presley’s initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show attracted some 60 million viewers and a whopping 82.6 percent of the television audience.  Elvis made a second appearance on October 28, 1956 and a third and final appearance on January 6, 1957.  On that program, Ed Sullivan told Elvis on camera that his show had never a better experience with a name act, and added, “I wanted to say to Elvis and the country, that this is a real decent, fine boy.”  Nevertheless, it was on that January 6th appearance that CBS censors would not permit Elvis’s entire body to be shown on television.  He was only seen from the waist up. 
In one segment of Elvis's last appearance on the Sullivan show, Elvis and The Jordinaires sang “Peace in the Valley” and dedicated it to earthquake victims in Eastern Europe.  It was Elvis’s performances of Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”, however, that really whipped the studio audience into a frenzy.  Their screams and loud applause were clearly audible to television audiences and made viewers aware of what Elvis was doing despite the censorship.
Watch this video of Elvis singing Hound Dog as censored by CBS and compare it to the 1956 uncensored video of Hound Dog above.  Click on the link below.
- Joanne

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