Home / DVD Review: Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows

DVD Review: Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows

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The rumblings began early in 1956… subtle shifts in the plates of popular culture, almost imperceptible at the surface, but stentorian in nature, waiting impatiently to change the texture of the landscape. Meanwhile, the American citizenry went about its collective business, somnambulized by a false sense of duck and tuck security. The GIs had returned from Korea, tricking out Chevys and Fords, discovering the freedom of Harleys and Indians, and conspicuously consuming every appliance General Electric had to offer.

The rumblings just beneath the complacent surface turned into a burp on 27 January 1956, when Elvis Presley released his major label debut single, "Heartbreak Hotel." He was already something of a a cause celebre in the South, having released a handful of cuts on what would now be called "indie" label Sun. But this was major — Elvis was nationwide. The next day, he appeared on the low-rated Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show. It was a less than auspicious debut. It's said they couldn't give tickets away in Times Square. Word spread quickly, though, and within weeks, Elvis was a Hot Property. Milton Berle booked him for two appearances 3 April, and Steve Allen quickly followed suit, having Elvis live 1 July, going mano y mano against the colossal Ed Sullivan Show.

The rumblings and burps had grown to tremors. They would not be quelled.

Ed Sullivan was the undisputed ruler of network TV in 1956. His resume as an entertainment reporter dated back to the '30s. He was an iconoclastic Irishman who'd tried his hand at boxing, and brought his pugilistic style to his reportage. A man of strong convictions, an early supporter of civil rights, he was nonetheless perplexed by the idea of the hip-shaking, vaguely adrodgynous Elvis. He had said he'd not have him on his show. That was before Steve Allen pummelled him in the ratings by featuring Elvis.

Sullivan's people put an unheard of 50 grand on the table, and Elvis did not one, but three performances on the vaunted Ed Sullivan Show. The rumblings, the burps, the tremors could not be contained any longer. Something had to blow.

On a Sunday night 7 PM EST, 9 September 1956, the world changed forever. Elvis exploded onto the national consciousness with a nod and a wink, and we would never be the same.

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows chronicles the event the way it really happened, kinescope cameras rolling, presenting it uncut, and providing us a glimpse of the American zeitgeist a half-century ago. Elvis was a novelty at that point, considered a flash in the pan who'd be a passing memory within a year.

Charles Laughton emceed that night in September, and he treated the entire affair with the British aplomb one would expect from Captain Bligh on a good day. He recited bad poetry, better limericks, and generally waltzed gracefully around the entire proceedings of that evening. He was subbing for Sullivan, who was recovering from an auto accident, and he worked the moment for all it was worth, even teasing the television audience about the significance of a Gold Record, sandwiched between acrobats and Mercury commercials.

Elvis wasn't in the New York studio that night. He was in the big El Lay, shooting his debut movie Love Me Tender. The Sullivan audience in New York, like the rest of America – at least 72 million glued to their sets at home – had to settle for a remote performance. It didn't matter — this was Elvis, and that was all that mattered.

His movie debut was still two months away, and the single "Love Me Tender" hadn't been released yet. Elvis debuted it that night, after priming the audience with his major hit of the time, "Don't Be Cruel." It was understated at best. But when he closed the program with his band now visible in the performance, hips shaking as he belted out Little Richard's "Ready Teddy" and sliding right into "Hound Dog", it was obvious that America had been slapped into a new phase of popular culture, and that anything that followed would have to be marked as a "post-Elvis world."

The mythology machine had been revved up, and Elvis was the fuel that powered it. But Colonel Parker and Ed Sullivan were piloting that machine, and all the surrounding PR and media frenzy were rocketing Elvis to a celebrity Olympus that eclipsed even Sinatra. On 28 October 1956, Elvis returned to The Ed Sullivan Show, live and in New York, face to face with the undisputed ratings king of prime time TV himself, the recuperated Ed Sullivan. After an opening act by the Little Gaelic Singers, and the obligatory Big M '57 Mercury commercial, Elvis came out swinging, relaxed, like a champ, with his band in full view, backing him as he launched into a much more vital version of "Don't Be Cruel," deftly changing the tempo to a vibrant rendition of "Love Me Tender."

If there had been any doubt before, Elvis lay claim to the hitherto unclaimed crown of rock and roll to the unbelievers of mainstream America. He had usurped the consciousness, enough so that he was burned in effigy in some towns that clung to the past. It didn't matter. The post-Elvis world had arrived.

By his third appearance, 6 January 1957, Elvis was introduced sans introductory Mercury commercials or novelty dog acts. He had the collar popped, and the formless sports coat was replaced by a glitter vest, foreshadowing what he would become in his Vegas years. He opened with a medley of his greatest hits, once again foreshadowing what would be Elvis in his later years. He zipped through snippets of "Hound Dog", Heartbreak Hotel" and "Don't Be Cruel" in a matter of moments, with the camera all focusing on his face.

This was the infamous appearance wherein American censors decreed that anything below the waist might hurl civilization into an age of darkness. The strangeness of it all nonetheless worked. It was an oddly surreal night in which Carol Burnett made her national debut, and Sullivan offered boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson defensive tips. There were clown acts, ventriloquists, and dancers, not to mention Mercury commercials that played up the '57 Merc Montclair as a utopian vehicle without peer.

It was a momentous program in more ways than one. The Sullivan shows were, at heart, the last of the vaudeville revues. But they also ushered in the new medium of television and were the foundation for the direction variety shows would take. Elvis Presley was arguably the first superstar of video and rock and roll. He closed that evening's show with the gospel standard "Peace in the Valley." Suddenly, rock and roll didn't seem all that dangerous, after all. America had its first idol.

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows preserves all three performances exactly as they were presented fifty years ago, commercials and all. It's the first time that viewers have been able to see Elvis in such an accurate context, but more importantly, it affords us a glimpse of a culture that was radically different from the world in which we now live.

These three discs are essential viewing for anybody with a passing interest in the evolution of pop culture. Besides their purely historical significance, they're vastly entertaining. Special features include Elvis Presley's first film appearance ( a silent 8mm fillm snippet of him performing outside Houston), promos for the shows, reminisces of the times told through interviews with his friends and associates, and an Elvis-only performance option. I don't recommend utilizing that option. To get the full impact of the performances, it's best to see the entire program. I do, however, advise the option of 5.1 Surround Sound. Mono is okay, but digital stereo makes it all the more vivid.

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About Ray Ellis

  • Thank you Ray, A very nice summing up of the events leading up to Golden Era of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

    The sheer versatility of Elvis Presley’s voice was captivating. Ballads, Rock, Country, and Gospel, were all in a days work to the young twenty one year old Elvis.

    The boxed set of the Ed Sullivan Shows are a lovely package to handle let alone view and listen to!

    The little Gaelic Singers are appreciated here in Ireland of course.

    Yes the unfolding of Elvis’s wonderful talent on the Ed Sullivan Shows reminds us of why he captured the hearts of music lovers worldwide.

  • This article has been chosen as an editor’s pick this week. Nice work, and thanks!