Thursday, September 09, 2010

Pop History Moment: Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show"

It was the high point of Elvis Presley's break-through year; as many as 60 million people were watching on this day in 1956 when he made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Despite his open contempt for Presley, Ed Sullivan couldn't argue with the fact that rock and roll's new poster boy was and would be a ratings grabber. Yet while it wasn't Presley's first television appearance, and Sullivan wasn't even hosting*, magic (and history) were made.

It seems odd to consider (with the benefit of hindsight) that Presley's trademark gyrations were, for a time, considered a greater threat to the security of the US than even the hoary old bogey-man Communism; Presley maintains they were merely to mask the shaking caused by a terrible case of stage fright. Even as parents and preachers furiously denounced him in equal measure, the newly powerful teenage demographic would not be deterred, and lavished their allowances on his records in record numbers. For his part Presley handled the controversy with a soft-spoken gravitas and considerable aplomb - even despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan**, among others.

The footage of Presley's momentous cultural moment is taken from the 1981 film This is Elvis; the song he performs here is Ready Teddy, with which he opened his second set on that momentous evening.

*Despite the fact that he's shown in the clip, Sullivan was recovering from a near-fatal car accident that night; Oscar-winning actor
Charles Laughton guest hosted. Where Sullivan had vowed to never let Presley onstage in front of a family audience, he was engaged in a bitter ratings rivalry at the time with Steve Allen, and Presley's appearance on The Steve Allen Show in July 1956 had trounced Sullivan in the ratings. Unlike the uptight American Ed Sullivan, the urbane Brit Charles Laughton was an effusive fan of Elvis Presley from the beginning.
**The Klan had targeted Presley because he dared to sing so-called 'n-word music'; needless to say, they didn't say 'n-word'!


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Matthew R Walker said...

So strange to think how "dangerous" Elvis was seen to be at the time. My mother once told me she saw one of his films in the theatre as a young girl - said that girls were literally screaming and crying throughout the film, and bawled relentlessly when he died at the end of the movie. I guess the repressed 50's needed a shake-up, and Elvis was one of the first mainstream super-star to do this.

Also, my kids listen to "hound dog" on a mix I made for them and they think its the funniest thing ever - call each other "hound dog" as a playful insult.

michael sean morris said...

There were the most dire predictions, too, by these clergyman. To hear them talk the whole Baby Boom was going straight to Hell.

It would be funny if it weren't so sincere.