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DVD Review: Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows Special Edition

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September 9th, 1956.  The night of a "really big show" on that new-fangled television contraption.  It was the first of three separate appearances that Elvis Presley would make on the seminal variety program The Ed Sullivan Show.  Now, on technology that would have been considered fantasy back then, you can watch those performances, and the full shows as well, on a brand new Special Edition Three Disc DVD collection entitled Elvis Presley:  The Ed Sullivan Shows

This set shouldn't be thought of for only fans of Elvis though.  It should also be of interest to those that into the whole '50s culture and/or the history of modern entertainment.  Every one of the discs is a time capsule of what was considered cutting edge production at the time and a view into what was called entertainment for the entire family.

To start with, each disc contains the entire show that Elvis was a part of, from beginning to the end credits.  Which means that you see it all, the tap dancers, comedy acts, acrobats, everything up to and including the commercials.  At that time, all commercials were done in the studio on air, although cartooning or film clips were often part of the ads, and the host would either read the words themselves or a product spokesperson would.  Most of the time, there would only be one sponsor per show and since the commercials were live, they would run anywhere from twenty five seconds to almost three minutes in length.  A very laid back approach to advertising when you compare them with the TV ads today, most of which have the production values of major motion pictures.

And the other acts – definitely squaresville if you were the hipster/beatnik type.  But the ratings, especially with Elvis on board, give us a reminder that this was Main Street U.S.A. out there and hungry for entertainment.  Ed Sullivan hosted a smörgåsbord of talent to fill that need.  I watched all three shows in their entirety and not many of the acts stood out in my mind, even a few hours after re-viewing them.  A very young Carol Burnett, who would in later years become known as a musical comedienne hosting her own skit comedy show, did a series of impressions.  OH…Toby the Dog.  I loved Toby the Dog and the little routines that he and his owner did together, very cute and you could see the love between those two partners.  The rest of them?  Sorry to say, that no one on any of the shows could hold a candle to that young man from Memphis, Tn.

All three discs, also covering Elvis' appearances on October 28, 1956 and January 6, 1957 (two days before his twenty second birthday) have a special features section.  Now this part, on each, is an Elvis lover's dream.  There they have spliced together E's songs on that night and show them back to back – no other acts or commercials!

Then there are interviews, short but some quite nice.  Sam Phillips, founder of Elvis' first label, Sun Records, is the first questioned followed by others like Jerry Schilling (member of the Memphis Mafia and author of Me And A Guy Named Elvis), Gordon Stoker (of the Jordanaires, Elvis long-standing backup singers) and television host Wink Martindale.  Each disc has it's own special features different than the others including home movies from Jerry's personal collection. 

A fact that might have gotten lost somewhere down the road is that Mr. Ed Sulllivan himself was not the host for his own show, that first of Elvis' three performances.  He had been involved in a very serious accident a month before and throughout his recovery, different popular celebrities took over for him.  So, instead of Ed, the host for this premiere occasion was British actor Charles Laughton.  Known primarily for his dramatic roles (like Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty) and numerous Broadway productions, he took on this role as Emcee with great relish and dry Brit humor.  I'm not quite sure if he was always that jolly, but he really looked like he was having a wonderful time.  Totally makes this first disc in the set, for that September 9th show, the best of the lot.

Remember, these recordings are over 50 years old and not filmed or taped but aired via kinescope — an old process used in the beginning days of television — but the quality both audio and visual are clean and clear.  The one thing that wasn't done, thankfully, was colorization.  Despite the fact that all of the Ed Sullivan Show materials are in black and white, Elvis Presley transcends that medium and is spirited and as bright.

Here I am, so excited about owning this set and having more Elvis to watch whenever the urge strikes, that I almost forgot to tell you about the songs that he sings on each show and thus are on each disc.  Elvis loved to perform for his fans, especially in those exciting beginning days of his career, and while there are only really only nine tunes played here, the multiple performances are none the worse for wear.

Disc One, September 9, 1956:  Elvis debuted the title track for his upcoming movie Love Me Tender, even though it wasn't even available to buy in the shops.  In fact, this show was recorded from the CBS Studios-Television City in Hollywood, California where Elvis was still filming his first feature movie.  Following that were "Don't Be Cruel," "Ready, Teddy" and "Hound Dog."

On Disc Two, from October 28th of the same year, he again played "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," and "Hound Dog," but added one more tune, the Lieber/Stoller penned "Love Me."

Finally, Disc Three,  on January 6, 1957, Elvis made a medley of "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," and (for the first time on Ed Sullivan) "Heartbreak Hotel."  Right after that he again performed "Don't Be Cruel."  Later on in the show, "Too Much" and "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again," are sung back-to-back.  One final song closes out that final performance: a soulful version of one of the gospel songs he loved so dearly, "Peace In The Valley."

The packaging for this set is well thought out as it folds out for easy access to all three DVDs.  Inside is also a booklet, liner notes, written by well known rock critic, author, editor and historian Greil Marcus.  While Greil has put pen to paper about Mr. Presley before, for these notes he concentrates on these three special nights, how they affected him and the world in general.

What struck me most about this set was how well it represents the face that Elvis put on for us.  Even back in those early days, he knew how to work a crowd, enjoy the music, and draw people in with his own humility and grace.  And that is not something that time or money can buy, though many have tried.  He had it all, right from the start to the bittersweet end; but the end is almost too sad to bear for those of us who are Elvis fans.  It's a very cool thing to be able to have this collection, and be reminded of this beautiful man and all he gave the world – the world back in the 1950s and the world today.

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  • Jim Burrows

    I have watched the box set and fully agree with the reviewer that these performances are, how do I put this, timeless. The way Presley introduces the songs is, in itself, a reminder of how powerful he knew his message was going to be. The introductions to “Hound Dog”, on the first two shows are works of peerless showmanship, especially coming from a 21-year old with less than nine months of TV exposure.

    On the first of the two, he sends a message to Sullivan, surely watching from his hospital bed, abuut his recovery, wishing him well, then switch gears by telling the audience “friends, like the great philosopher once said..”

    There is a pause, a perfect silence which last less than a second, and then, a fantastic, autoritative move is displayed, followed by his voice, alone, ripping into “Hound Dog”.

    This 12 seconds are, alone, worth the price of the set.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/tinkie101 tink

    Jim, may I first say that you are obviously a man with excellent taste!

    One of the hardest parts in writing this review was in keeping it to a readable length, so there were parts of it that didn’t get mention. Not because they weren’t worthy of it, but because if I didn’t stop myself, I probably could have written an entire book just on this part of Elvis’ life.

    I’m glad that you agree with my assessment of these DVDs, even better though is the joy that you could find captured in that short twelve seconds of time.

    I’d love to hear from others out there that have viewed the set and what struck them as the most memorable part(s) as well.

  • http://irelandtoo.blogspot.com Maurice Colgan

    tink, I Have watched the 3 DVDs, and enjoyed reading your review, and Jim’s take on “Hound Dog”.
    Witnessing Elvis’s faltering start to “Love Me Tender” on the second disc only to see him gain confidence again in a matter of seconds was priceless. The added verse sung so sincerely was a welcome bonus!
    Because of the 21 year old Elvis Presley, 1956 was an astounding year in the history of popular music. The Ed Sullivan shows starring Elvis provide a historic record of how a bright young star became a super nova!
    The little gaelic singers may just help get the DVD set a mention on our radio stations here in Ireland:-)
    There is indeed enough material on the DVDs for a book……….Leny Eversong singing Frankies Laine’s huge hit “Jezebel” was a noteworthy performance!

  • http://blog.myspace.com/tinkie101 tink

    Maurice…aahhhh, another gentleman with refined taste. Yes…I remember that little episode too and I agree that it’s priceless. Brings a tingle to my spine, it does.

    Thanks for reading and pointing out another one of those great moments!!

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro nicolo

    I’m a little late on this one. A fine piece of Americana. I really liked this piece. Interesting point about the hipster/beatniks. But weren’t rockers the ‘punks’of the 50s?