Dateline June 5, 1956 – Elvis Presley appeared on the Milton Berle Show. Coming during his first brush with national fame, his pelvic gyrations were so suggestive that it became a national scandal. No, really!
In March of ’56 Elvis had released his eponymous debut LP on RCA. The label bought out his contract from Sun Studios the previous year. This LP would go on to become the first #1 Rock and Roll album, topping the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. Some 50 years later it ranked #56 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. However, Elvis was barely known at this point in his career. All that would change within the next six months.
Just a month after the LP’s release, Elvis appeared for the first time on the Milton Berle Show, singing an extremely hot version of Heartbreak Hotel from the deck of the USS Hancock. (Don’t ask.) When the performance finished, Elvis continued his tour. There was no public outcry. Watch:
To show how much Show Bidnezz has changed since then: Heartbreak Hotel wasn’t even on the LP Elvis had just released. He wasn’t promoting his new LP; Elvis was still promoting his January single, which had already topped the Billboard charts for 7 weeks. The music industry still thought of 45s as the money-makers, with LPs often an afterthought. Heartbreak Hotel would go on become the biggest selling single that year.
Elvis was just on the cusp of national and international fame. He had recently signed a 7-year Hollywood contract to star in movies and was still touring extensively. Milton Berle, who was trying to save his show from cancellation (unsuccessfully, as it turned out), booked Elvis for a return visit to his show in June, this time appearing at NBC’s studio in Hollywood. Before the show began Milton Berle, the show biz veteran of Vaudeville, radio, and tee vee, gave Elvis some advice; five words that changed history.
“Let ’em see you, son,” Milton Berle reportedly told Elvis, successfully convincing him to leave his guitar behind when he performed Hound Dog, a song he hadn’t even recorded yet. Without his guitar to hide behind, Elvis’ dancing was more exaggerated than his previous visit. While some girls screamed, much of the audience is confused, laughing and tittering. Clearly, they’ve never seen anything quite like this before:
‘Merka clutched its metaphorical pearls. According to the WikiWackyWoo:
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”.
Ed Sullivan was brutal in his assessment of Elvis Presley:
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.”
Which is exactly what he did.
Sullivan was forced to book Elvis when Steve Allen’s show with Elvis singing Hound Dog to an actual hound dog, beat Sullivan’s show in the ratings. Elvis has called this the most ridiculous performance of his career:
Quickly reversing his principled stand to obtain boffo ratings, Sullivan offered Elvis the unheard of sum of $50,000 for three appearances. In case anything went terribly wrong on the first Sullivan performance, Ed Sullivan made sure that he could not be blamed. He had guest host Charles Laughton filling in while he recuperated from a car accident. Elvis performed Love Me Tender for the 60 million viewers who tuned in.
While his first Sullivan appearance cemented Elvis Presley’s fame, it was his appearance on the Milton Berle Show that earned him the nickname of Elvis the Pelvis. He hated this phrase the rest of his life, calling it, “one of the most childish expressions I ever heard comin’ from an adult.”