Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan: ‘The First Big Bang’Posted by Elvis Presley's Graceland on Jan 6, 2017 | 17 comments
Sixty years ago today, one television appearance changed the world as we know it.
Elvis Presley’s third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” took place on January 6, 1957. The almost 22-year-old had spent the previous year topping the charts, starring in his first movie and causing a stir on several other television appearances. For that final “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, he was only shown from the waist up for all of his performances except for his performance of “Peace in the Valley.”
Sixty years later, we’re still talking about Elvis on “Ed Sullivan.” People often forget that Elvis was on the show three times, and that only his last appearance was “waist up,” but the fact that he was filmed that way for any performance gave him a cool, dangerous, rebellious – truly, a rock ‘n’ roll – reputation.
Whether it’s some version of the “filmed from the waist up” story, or just about the rawness and energy of all three of his performances, Elvis’ appearances on “Sullivan” are still heralded as some of the most pivotal moments in the history of both television and pop culture. Elvis’ “Ed Sullivan” performances influenced hundreds of young musicians, thrilled an entire generation of teenagers and rocked the status quo.
And while Elvis deserves all of the credit for his powerful performances, another reason Elvis’ appearances were so impactful was a bit of “right place, right time.” As a society, America was ready for a thrill and a shock, and the new television technology brought Elvis right into millions of homes.
Producer, writer and director Andrew Solt, who owns “The Ed Sullivan Show” library and who wrote and directed the documentary “This is Elvis,” spoke with the Graceland Blog about why Elvis’ “Ed Sullivan Show” appearances were so important to his career, to the show and to the world. Solt is one of our special guests for Elvis’ Birthday Celebration at Graceland.
Picture it: America, 1956.
“It was post-World War II when (Elvis) hit the scene. In the mid-50s, it was a kind of sleepy America,” Solt said. “Most people were trying to get into a two-bedroom house with a garage. Life was kind of calm, but there was this brewing rebellion, and Elvis represented that.”
Sullivan’s show, which ran from 1948-1971, featured all kinds of entertainers and guests, from musicians like Elvis to comedians, Broadway performers, opera singers, dancers and actors. It was truly a variety show, even very vaudevillian. “What was great about Sullivan was that he gave his stage. He chose who would be on, but his intention was to entertain. He couldn’t sing, dance or make jokes, so it was a good thing all around. That’s why his show holds up today: He let people do their thing,” he said.
Not only did Sullivan have a stage – the most-watched stage on television – but the technology was there, for the first time in history, to bring the show into millions of homes each week.
“Televisions really started selling in the early 1950s, so by the time we got to the mid-50s, there was almost a television in every home. So by the time Elvis walked out on that stage, things had really shifted… The culture had shifted to television. Television was the mass culture machine, the living room box that opened us up to the world,” Solt said.
Television was simple in 1950s – forget hundreds of channels, DVRs and streaming. If it wasn’t on NBC, CBS or ABC, you didn’t watch it. The programming was family-friendly, too.
With less to watch, more eyes were on those three channels – and therefore, more eyes were on Elvis. It obviously didn’t hurt that he was the hottest thing happening in music.
“The Ed Sullivan Show” was watched “by kids under 10 all the way up to grandma and grandpa,” Solt said. “You didn’t have five TVs around the house, and no remote control, even. You had to get up and switch the channels. CBS was king in those days.”
Many teenagers at the time had some sort of part time job, and they could afford 45s, which were cheap. More and more teenagers were consuming and purchasing music, and more and more teenagers snapped up Elvis’ records left and right. That not only changed Elvis’ life, but the music industry, too.
Those kids were told that their music, rock ‘n’ roll, wouldn’t last, that it was a flash in the pan. But the genre’s staying power was the last thing on their minds.
“We still loved it, and it’s still here – 60 years later, and we still love it 60 years later. And Elvis was the guy who made that happen… (It was) uncharted territory. Nobody had ever sold records like this. Sinatra was huge, but this was different. It was like super-charged fuel in comparison to the bobby soxer era of the 1940s, and it changed everything, the way kids look at life and enjoyed their music.”
At the center of this storm was Elvis himself. He’d made a name for himself throughout the South thanks to the Louisiana Hayride, and he’d released his first album, made his first movie and appeared on a few TV shows – but none of those shows were as big as Sullivan’s. Anyone who’d missed him on other shows definitely saw these performances, and they solidified Elvis’ star status.
“I don’t think (Elvis) knew what hit him,” Solt said. “He was The Beatles landing in America, but bigger… He arrived as a game-changer. His talent, his charisma, his voice, his look, his sexiness, his attitude – of course, that was disarming to the general public, who expected not to like him.”
Another shock came at the end of Elvis’ third Sullivan appearance, when Sullivan praised Elvis as being a “fine young boy.” Sullivan had originally scoffed at the young star’s quick rise to fame, but this was Sullivan’s official seal of approval – and if Sullivan liked him, Americans knew it was OK to like him, too.
What’s interesting about Elvis’ Sullivan performances is that they’re similar, but also very different. On all three performances he performed “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” He sprinkled in a few other tunes between the three appearances, like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me” and “Peace in the Valley.” Today, it’s rare that one singer will make several appearances on one show in just a few months’ time, and it’s even less likely that they’ll perform many of the same songs. But Elvis did just that, and the fans loved it.
“The audience at home wanted to hear the hits, and he wanted to deliver,” Solt said. “He was asked to do them over and over because they were stuck at the top of the charts, and it was a complete new direction for American popular music, and the audience wanted to hear them again and again. He delivered, and that was part of the deal with Sullivan. I’m sure he had a lot of impact in what the setlist was, but not complete control.”
Elvis brings something different with every appearance and with every performance.
Solt believes that’s the reflection of Elvis’ maturity, even in those few months between his first and last performances. He was becoming a movie star and was soaking up as much about the music industry as possible.
“The three shows have a slightly different tone about them. There’s something a little wistful that he was feeling at the end when he left at the third show. It’s an interesting span, because Elvis changes between September 1956 and into 1957,” he said.
And Elvis was, as Solt said, “the first big bang on Ed Sullivan.” While so many other legendary acts, like The Beatles, the Jackson 5 and the Rolling Stones – graced Sullivan’s stage for the next 20-plus years, few had the impact that Elvis had, and many actually copied their performances after Elvis’.
“When The Beatles decided to go on Sullivan, they told (their manager) Brian Epstein to book them just like Elvis had been booked: for three shows. Or maybe it was Brian’s idea. But it was John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney) who insisted that they not go over to America until they had their first number one,” he said.
And while The Beatles ended up bringing a bigger audience, no one can dispute that Elvis’ Ed Sullivan appearances had an impact like no other. Up until that time, 60 million Americans had not had a thrilling, shared experience – up until that moment, thanks to technology, the affordability of that technology and – of course – Elvis.
“Elvis changed the whole way everything was seen from that point forward. It was such a powerful, impacting moment,” Solt said. “He impacted it in a way that heretofore had not been seen or heard. Things were changing in ways nobody had seen before or could predict.”