Ed Sullivan Changes Rock and Roll Forever ► Another Magical Tee Vee Moment
Animation by author from White House still photo archives

I was 4 years old when it happened, which is why I don’t remember. However, on September 9, 1956, when Ed Sullivan brought Elvis Presley on his show, the world of Rock and Roll changed forever.

It wasn’t Elvis’ first time on the tee vee tube, nor was it even his first time on network tee vee. Presley had already been signed to a year’s worth of Saturday Night shows on the radio show Louisiana Hayride, a competitor of the Grand Old Opry, when that august body passed on the Rockabilly artist. He made his first tee vee appearance on March 3, 1955, on local Shreveport station KSLA’s version of the Louisiana Hayride, after failing his audition to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a network show. At this early point Elvis was still releasing his earliest 45s on Sun Records.

But, there was no stopping Presley. Sun Records sold his contract to RCA Records and in January of 1956 he made his first recordings for that company.

On January 28th, the day after Heartbreak Hotel was released, Elvis made his first network appearance on CBS’s Sound Stage.

Then came two odd appearances on The Milton Berle Show on NBC. The first (April 3) was from the deck of the USS Hancocock. However, it was his 2nd appearance on the Berle Show that made the Headlines Du Jour of the day. The WikiWhackWoo, as always, tells the story:

Berle persuaded the singer to leave his guitar backstage, advising, “Let ’em see you, son.” During the performance, Presley abruptly halted an uptempo rendition of “Hound Dog” with a wave of his arm and launched into a slow, grinding version accentuated with energetic, exaggerated body movements. Presley’s gyrations created a storm of controversy. Television critics were outraged: Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. … His phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub. … His one specialty is an accented movement of the body … primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.” Ben Gross of the New York Daily News opined that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos”. Ed Sullivan, whose own variety show was the nation’s most popular, declared him “unfit for family viewing”. To Presley’s displeasure, he soon found himself being referred to as “Elvis the Pelvis”, which he called “one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.”

Making the Headlines Du Jour is always good for business, so Steve Allen booked Elvis on his show. However, Allen was not a fan of Rock and Roll. Elvis was used, mostly, as comic fodder. He would later call this the most ridiculous performance of his career.

The Steve Allen performance, however absurd, beat the Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings. Ed had earlier vowed not to have Presley on his show, but he relented, signing Elvis to three appearances for a record $50,000. These are the appearances that catapulted Presley to national fame. Ironically, Sullivan was not around for Elvis’ first appearance on September 9th. He was resting after a car crash and actor Charles Laughton took over the hosting duties. However, Ed made his views known:

According to Elvis legend, Presley was shot from only the waist up. Watching clips of the Allen and Berle shows with his producer, Sullivan had opined that Presley “got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants–so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!” Sullivan publicly told TV Guide, “As for his gyrations, the whole thing can be controlled with camera shots.” In fact, Presley was shown head-to-toe in the first and second shows. Though the camerawork was relatively discreet during his debut, with leg-concealing closeups when he danced, the studio audience reacted in customary style: screaming. Presley’s performance of his forthcoming single, the ballad “Love Me Tender”, prompted a record-shattering million advance orders. More than any other single event, it was this first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that made Presley a national celebrity of barely precedented proportions.

It was Sullivan’s tacit approval that Rock and Roll was ready for prime time that opened the floodgates to all the other shows booking the earliest acts in a still nascent Rock and Roll. Nothing was ever the same again. And, that’s how Ed Sullivan changed Rock and Roll forever.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.