Big Day in Music History

Elvis’s First Appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

You could call September 9, 1956, a landmark day in Pop history. It was Elvis Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS). For many reading this, the Sullivan Show is at best an artifact of American television history. In its day, though, it was the king of variety television shows, themselves now historical artifacts.

Those readers old enough probably remember the Sullivan Show as a Sunday night family viewing tradition, when grandparents, moms and dads, and the kids gathered round the tube to watch acts ranging from comedy, to circus, to dance, acrobatics, and, yes, even opera. If you were a kid at the time, you might remember the experience as an electronic form of torture.

Elvis had appeared on other popular television shows of the period (such as The Milton Berle Show [an iteration of the Texaco Star Theater], where he caused a sensation and did schtick with Berle) before the Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan had resisted booking Elvis until he saw the rating numbers The King garnered for The Steve Allen Show. Through the roof, as they say. Nineteen fifty-six was the first year for the Allen Show and Elvis’s numbers certainly got Ed Sullivan’s attention, as it aired Sunday nights on ABC, directly opposite his.

The Sullivan Show booked Elvis for three appearances: September 9 and October 28, 1956, and January 6, 1956. As fate would have it, Ed Sullivan did not host the September 9 show. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to; he couldn’t. Sullivan was recovering from a serious auto accident that landed him in the hospital. Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton stood in for him. And, anyway, it wasn’t the September 9 performance that riled the nation; that occurred on the October 28 broadcast, when the camera pulled back for a long shot of Elvis gyrating in what adults considered a suggestive manner. In other words, a full frontal assault on the nation’s morals.

Something else, too, about the September 9 appearance: Elvis did not perform in the New York studio before the Sullivan Show audience. At the time, he was filming Love Me Tender in Hollywood. He sang the brand-new title song from a stage in Los Angeles. His first song that night was Don’t Be Cruel, backed by the Jordanaires. 

As you know, his three appearances were blockbuster events that helped widen the appeal of Rock ‘N’ Roll. And the first occurred 59 years ago today. w/c

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