60 Years Ago Today: Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show

Sixty years ago today, more than 60 million people watched Elvis Presley perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Elvis’ first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” took place on September 9, 1956. At this point in his life, he’d already performed on national television shows like the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” and “The Milton Berle Show.” He’d released his debut album and was filming his first movie. He had a few hit songs on the charts, like “Heartbreak Hotel.” He was still living on Audubon Drive in Memphis and wouldn’t purchase Graceland for another few months. Elvis was famous, and he was thisclose to becoming the most famous man in America.

Elvis loved technology and always took time to check out the cameras on TV and movie sets.

Elvis loved technology and always took time to check out the cameras on TV and movie sets.

But of course, Elvis has not yet been booked on the country’s most popular variety show, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And the show’s host had promised he wouldn’t feature the then-controversial young singer; Elvis had a reputation among conservative leaders and parents for his performances, which they often labeled as inappropriate or even dangerous. Elvis was simply unlike any other performer they’d ever seen, and they were concerned.

It was a surprise, then, when Ed announced in the summer of 1956 that Elvis would perform not just once, but three times on his show. Ed had watched Elvis’ career blossom and knew he’d pull in high ratings if he allowed Elvis to perform. Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, negotiated hard, and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was to be paid $50,000 for all three performances – an unprecedented amount at the time.

Elvis' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" was wildly successful.

Elvis’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was wildly successful.

On September 9, 1956, neither Elvis or Ed Sullivan were in the studios that day for filming. Ed had suffered injuries in a car accident and was at home recuperating, while actor Charles Laughton filled in for him on the show. And Elvis wasn’t in New York City, where “The Ed Sullivan Show” was filmed. He was seen from Hollywood, where he was in the middle of filming “Love Me Tender.”

Still, the show was a success – 60 million people, or 82.6 percent of the entire television audience, watched Elvis perform “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Ready Teddy” and a few verses of “Hound Dog.” “Love Me Tender” had not yet been released, so fans ate up the new single – which only increased the hype for the new movie and its soundtrack.

In all three of Elvis' Ed Sullivan appearances, he's backed by his band as well as The Jordanaires.

In all three of Elvis’ Ed Sullivan appearances, he’s backed by his band as well as The Jordanaires.

Elvis returned to “The Ed Sullivan Show” – this time with Ed hosting, and in New York City – on October 28, 1956, and again performed “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog,” as well as “Love Me.”

Some nearly 60 years later, fans, historians and pop culture enthusiasts still talk about Elvis’ third and final Ed Sullivan performance.

Elvis' final appearance on Ed Sullivan's show was his last television appearance until his appearance on Frank Sinatra's show in 1960.

Elvis’ final appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show was his last television appearance until his appearance on Frank Sinatra’s show in 1960.

Elvis’ last performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was two days before his 22nd birthday, on January 6, 1957.  Wearing the same velvet shirt he wore at his homecoming concert in Tupelo in September of 1956, Elvis performed a mix of hits, like “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “Too Much,” as well as the gospel song “Peace in the Valley.”

Classic Elvis, right? Sort of.

Elvis dedicated his performance of "Peace in the Valley" to earthquake victims in Eastern Europe.

Elvis performed “Peace in the Valley” during his third appearance.

As always, Elvis put on an amazingly energetic show, and he thrilled the live audience, who cheered and screamed with his every move. But the audience at home only saw, for the most part, Elvis from the waist up. They heard the audience’s cheers and screams, but they didn’t see what exactly was causing them, other than the top half of Elvis. Elvis’ now-famous dance moves simply weren’t seen.

Rumor has it that CBS and Ed Sullivan received angry calls from those who were offended by Elvis’ first two performances, so the decision was made to only show Elvis from the waist up for that third appearance. Elvis from the waist down? Too wild, too obscene, too much for American audiences.

On Elvis' third Ed Sullivan appearance, he performed seven songs in three segments.

On Elvis’ third Ed Sullivan appearance, he performed seven songs in three segments.

Still – when it was all said and done, and at the conclusion of that final show, Ed Sullivan told the audience that Elvis was a “real decent, fine boy… We want to say that we’ve never had a pleasanter experience with a big name than we’ve had with you.”

In the end, all three of Elvis’ performances – and the cool, bad boy reputation Elvis garnered after his third appearance – only helped Elvis’ career.

Want to learn more about the King of Rock ‘n’  Roll? Visit Graceland and learn more about the “real decent, fine boy” who defied the censors.


26 Comments

  1. Sandy Waller

    Will never forget those shows, especially the one in 1956 (I was 9 yrs. old) We were at one of my 6 aunts house, the whole family was there, aunts, uncles, cousins (appox. 25/30 people). When Elvis came on, everyone in the room went crazy!
    One of the best nights of my now 68 years! Wil never forget it.

  2. gorm-groundstroem

    sorry my englisch is bad i dont understand all-thank you
    wau this be fantastic fotos-top quali-im elvis fan from my 5 years old-my mom and me going in record shop and play musik–i start to dance and say we go not out- we moust buy the record–it was moody blue-it is one of my #1 one hits–now i have 1000 LP 3000 or more CD xxxxvideos 120 single´s–elvis is a big part in my life-thank you sooo much elvis–all good bye and god bless gorm.from germany

  3. Attila Fovenyessy

    This photos are © Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs? Next time you should honor the photographer to give a credit! All photographs are © copyrighted by the photographer and you have to put the photographer name for each photo!!!!!!! Sincerely yours – Attila Fovenyessy, Face Puller Photography, New York City –

  4. I celebrate the anniversary dates of Elvis’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show!!! We should all remember these dates with joy.
    I must note that the caption on the photo referring to “Peace in the Valley” being dedicated to “earthquake victims in Eastern Europe” is not correct. Mr. Sullivan clearly says how Elvis is concerned about Hungarian relief efforts (money was needed), but needed because of the brave Hungarian uprising against the communists.
    If a person cannot find accurate historical information on the Graceland Blog, I guess there is no hope. How was this interpreted as “earthquake” related?

  5. The 3rd appearance couldn’t’ve been in January 1956, when the first and the second were in September and October of the same year. Please, be more careful. Other than that, thank you…

  6. I and my classmate from high school (class of ’63) have wanted to visit Graceland for some time. I was so excited to be able to enter the contest for the opening of the Guest House. Some of my favorite Elvis songs are “Such a Night”; “After Loving You” and “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”.
    This would be WONDERFUL to win this trip!

  7. Great show; greatest artist ever !

  8. Bob Yeoman

    Elvis has always been my hero since I brought my first Elvis album “Girl Happy” in the 60’s he has brought so much joy to my life.There will only ever be one Elvis, the greatest Singer and kindest person of all time!
    Kind Regards
    Bob

  9. Elvis was and is number one. He leads, others follow. TCB

  10. Patricia Galloway

    I remember of watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show and I was then a girl of about twelve years old. He introduced me to music and Elvis was my all time singer and still is to this day. When you mentioned about filming him from the waist up because it offended America well 60 years later what happened to America??????

  11. carlos r. ares

    Birth of a Legend!

  12. Lee Secrest

    r.e. “Elvis’ last performance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ was two days before his 22nd birthday, on January 6, 1956.” in the copy above…

    I believe the date was 1957, not 1956!

    Just thought you’d like to know!

  13. Dixon John

    We want elvis singing and performing the rock and roll moves.

  14. Dixon John

    We want to see elvis famous performances as the king of rock and roll.

  15. Sandy Van Horn

    Wasn’t the date of the third and final time Elvis was on “The Ed Sullivan” show, January 6, 1957, not 1956?
    I saw those shows! From then on, Elvis was always THE ONE!

  16. There will never be another Elvis!!

  17. Carol Nett

    Fabulous!!! Last year was out first visit to Graceland and Memphis. I so enjoyed Elvis week. We will one day return.
    Thank you for all the wonderful emails.

  18. Claire Goertzen

    Absolutely love Elvis. He will always be “The Kingredients.” Hope to visit Graceland for my 60th BD May 1, 2017, all the way from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

  19. elvis always and forever

  20. Bobby Cheek

    Elvis was and still is the Greatest Entertainer of all time. I was proud to have seen him in person 3 times at the Greensboro Coliseum. I’m 70 years old and his music and videos still make me feel like I’m a kid again! Still TCB.

  21. I am pleased that you corrected the caption concerning “Peace in the Valley” from the misinformation previously shown. I appreciate all the wonderful postings on the Graceland Blog. Thank you for your efforts to be exact.
    Everyone should visit Graceland and Tupelo at least once in their lifetime—-they are an Elvis fan’s happy places!!

  22. Lived reading the blogs and all the comments left by Graceland insiders l was lucky enough to visit Graceland for the first time in Dec/ Jan for Elvis’ 89th birthday celebrations it was the most memorable trip of my life. I loved every moment and hope to visit again I live in the UK so it’s a bit of a marathon journey, worth every mile thanks for all the brilliant blogs
    Eve UK ❤️

  23. William Michael Paul

    I was 13 years old when my family was glued to the TV watching Elvis on the Sullivan show in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

    Been blessed to see Elvis in concert in Seattle, WA. Been to Graceland several times and Tupelo. Sent my only dautghter Julia to Graceland for her make a wish.. She passed away with Elvis in her heart… Peace in the Valley was the last song played at her Celebration of life….. Thank you Elvis and thank you for your blog… William TCB xoxo

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