58 years ago today, Elvis Presley made his first historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. A re-post.
In September of 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the first of three appearances over the next couple of months. 1956 was his big TV-appearance year, which utilized the new medium in a juggernaut kind of way, turning Elvis Presley from a regional phenomenon into a national star as well as the nation’s worst nightmare: a grungy sex-crazed vision from the South, with an accent, intimidating sideburns, and a leg that wouldn’t stop shaking. What was he doing to the nation’s youth?
James Dean had died the year before. The entire culture had been in a state of hysteria over the mythical problem of “juvenile delinquency”, and James Dean became a symbol of that. Elvis Presley idolized James Dean as an actor, and was lumped under the same “juvenile delinquent” umbrella as Dean (and other figures like Brando). However, Presley didn’t really have much in common with Dean. What they did have in common was an ability to project and communicate with people their own age, teenagers, going over the heads of the adults, and saying, essentially, “Here is what it is like for us down here.” They cut out the middle man. Presley didn’t have Dean’s neurotic inner-war (the neurotic inner-war that made Dean so compelling on screen). Unlike Dean, Presley moved with total abandon: he felt something and he expressed it. He held nothing back, not his aggression, not his joy, not his sexuality, not his gentleness. He could access all of it. Dean was more twisted and repressed, more agonized over all he felt that he COULDN’T say. If Dean quivered with repression, Presley quivered with expression.
Presley was seen as far more dangerous than James Dean because he was so comfortable with himself, and also “tickled” (his words) by the impact he had on his audience. He said repeatedly he didn’t see what the big deal was, he wasn’t trying to be nasty or vulgar, he was just letting off some steam, and so were the screaming girls in the audience. In interviews around this time he sometimes comes off as baffled and hurt, and sometimes even angry, but he did not apologize for what he was doing because he didn’t see that there was anything wrong with it. And that was the most unforgivable sin.
There was regional prejudice operating as well. James Dean was a Midwestern boy, from Indiana, for God’s sake, so even though he twitched with wordless rebellion, he was still recognizably good-stock-American. But Elvis was an exotic-looking greasebomb from the swamplands of the South, he was a Pentecostal, a “Holy Roller” (in the insulting terminology of the time), and regional bigotry was overt in some of the early pieces about Elvis.
It crossed the North-South line too. Northeastern writers didn’t hide their contempt for his roots, showing how much they despised the South in how they wrote about him, and Southerners equated Elvis with the hated black community, and who was this white boy to come along and celebrate black music? To add to the pile-on, he was seen as “white trash” to defensive Southerners, and not an element of the community that Southerners were proud of. He was a threat to every status quo there was.
He was perceived as a threat even more so because in person he was so demure, unfailingly polite, patient, and funny. He was an aggressive panther onstage, and offstage he was a pussycat. This so-called contradiction was not understood about him. What was he up to? It couldn’t be anything GOOD.
It should be noted that not one iota of any of this mattered to the screaming fans. It never does. Screaming girls gotta scream. They also cross state lines. Girls in Wisconsin screamed just as loud as the girls in Alabama.
Elvis started off the year of 1956 with a series of performances on the Dorsey Brothers Show. Then he did Milton Berle, twice. On the second Milton Berle appearance, he performed “Hound Dog”, as he had been doing in his live shows, and the shit hit the FAN. (clip here).
The following day, Elvis Presley was excoriated in article after article. Appearing on national television brought the controversy that had dogged him everywhere in the South to a wider stage.
There were press conferences held in various cities with various officials saying that Elvis Presley was not welcome to perform in their city. There’s footage of a guy smashing all of Elvis Presley’s records. Preachers took to the pulpit. Much of what was said about Elvis was vicious, sneering at his Southern background, insinuating that he was trash and his people were trash. Elvis’ mother Gladys always stuck up for her boy, but these comments broke her heart. They may have been poor, but they were not trash. Elvis tolerated all of this as best he could, continuing to do his thing, trying to be patient with the insulting questions thrown at him.
Things, despite all this, were going great for him. He had signed with the Colonel in March. Hal Wallis had signed him to a movie contract. Love Me Tender would be his screen debut, coming out in the fall of 1956. He was selling out shows. He was making tons of money for the first time in his life. He was able to buy as many cars as he wanted. He bought his family a nice house in suburban Memphis (not yet Graceland). He was a good boy.
When asked what was the hardest thing about his new fame, Elvis replied, “Well, I can’t go to church no more.”
He was seen as a seriously destabilizing influence (and that he was: he destabilized everything), and yet at the same time he was also just a good Southern boy with religious convictions and a voracious sex drive, and both of those things were true, and Elvis saw no contradiction in that.
The Milton Berle controversy got everybody in television running scared. Advertisers were up in arms. You go back and watch him on those early TV shows, and you never know what he’s going to do next, even if you’ve seen the clips 100 times.
In early July, Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen show. Steve Allen, aware of the controversies, put Elvis in a tuxedo, and made him sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog onstage. When Steve Allen introduced Elvis to the audience, he said, “Please welcome to the stage … the NEW Elvis Presley.” Elvis had only been in the public consciousness for 5 or 6 months at that point, and it was already required that he reinvent himself. (Elvis was mortified by what he was asked to do on that show, although he was a good sport about it.) Interestingly enough, there were a couple of columnists who wrote pieces following the Steve Allen-Emasculation-of-Elvis-Presley-Project, columnists who criticized what had been done to the boy. Being tamed didn’t work well for Elvis. It didn’t fit. You ache with awkwardness for him, watching him sing to that damn hound dog to a completely silent audience who don’t know how to react. If you had no idea who Elvis Presley was, but had heard all of these bad things about him, and then you watched him on the Steve Allen show, you would have had no idea why he was causing so much trouble.
But one important thing had happened.
The Steve Allen Show the night of Elvis’ appearance had buried Ed Sullivan in the ratings. Ed Sullivan had said that he would never have Elvis on his show. “He is not my cup of tea,” were his words. However, behind the scenes, the wheels were already in motion to get Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Colonel was contacted. Ed Sullivan was no dummy. He was afraid of what Elvis would do on his show, certainly, and he was afraid of the criticism it might generate. But if he DIDN’T have Elvis on his show, he would consign himself to irrelevance.
Eventually, Elvis was booked for 3 appearances on the Ed Sullivan show for a staggering price of $50,000.
If you were on Ed Sullivan, you had made it. The show epitomized mainstream America, and was close to the nation’s vaudeville roots, featuring jugglers, mimes, comics, choir groups, gymnasts, trained dogs, the latest Broadway stars, entire scenes from Broadway musicals. At a time when the majority of American families were investing in televisions, and tuning in every week in astronomical numbers (unheard of today, when the selection is so much more vast, and there are so many more channels), the Ed Sullivan Show was part of the national conversation. He was so important he helped set the national conversation.
To allow Elvis Presley valid space in that national conversation was a coup of the highest order, and the Colonel knew it.
Ed Sullivan knew it, too and that was why he balked initially. He wasn’t sure what was happening with this ducktailed youngster, and he didn’t know what to make of the screaming girls, but he knew a phenom when he saw it.
Marlo Lewis, producer of the Ed Sullivan Show, describes Ed Sullivan’s fears, and also his willingness to get over those fears in order to propel Elvis into the spotlight.
In August of 1956, Ed Sullivan was hospitalized after a terrible car crash, and so the great Charles Laughton would be stepping in as guest-host. Elvis was thrilled about this. He loved Mutiny on the Bounty! He sent Ed Sullivan a get-well card. He was out in Hollywood already, having started filming on his first movie Love Me Tender. Everything was new to him. Having to get up early in the morning was new to him. But he was a sponge, and soaked up the experience. He wondered if he was any good. He was upset that they were making him sing in the movie. But he didn’t complain. He worked hard. He dated a bunch of girls, including Natalie Wood, as well as calling his summer flame June Juanico on a nightly basis, quizzing her on whether or not she was dating anyone else. He wanted her to come out and visit. Would she come to Memphis the next month when he was home? (She could, and she did). He lived in the Knickerbocker Hotel with his cousins and friends. He called his parents every night. He was happy and ambitious.
The Ed Sullivan show was done in New York and played in real-time in the eastern and central time zones, but shown by kinescope on the West Coast – and it is through these kinescopes that we even have any of this footage at all today. Thank you Harold for the correction!. On September 9, Elvis went to the CBS Studios in Hollywood, to appear in his segments (which would be staggered throughout the show, and broadcast to the audience in New York). There was an audience in the studio in Hollywood as well.
Now. The Elvis on Ed Sullivan show clips are famous. You can see them all on Youtube. But here’s the thing: seeing Elvis in isolation is all well and good, but to really understand the impact he had, you have to see what surrounded him in the rest of the show. It is so important to get how unlike anything else he was (then OR now). The three Ed Sullivan shows on which Elvis appeared are all available, in their entirety, and it is really the only way to see them. Because then you see how suddenly Elvis emerged. In the midst of jugglers and sweet Broadway sopranos … here comes … this?
He looks gorgeous, of course, young and gorgeous. But his hair is tall and greasy (and still almost blonde, he would dye his hair soon afterwards), his coat is loud and flashy, and he comes off as truly bizarre.
Then, when he speaks to the audience, he takes his time, stuttering on occasion, which is always a nervewracking thing to watch, and saying whatever the hell seems to be on his mind. He is never “inappropriate” in these seemingly impromptu speeches. Everything he says is correct, and sweet, and charming. But he still seems spontaneous in a way the other guests do not.
Imagine settling down to watch The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and maybe you’d heard of Elvis, but of course you had never seen him live, because the culture then wasn’t the same as it is now, where the country is drawn together by cultural references, because we’ve all seen Lady Gaga perform, even if we’re not a Lady Gaga fan. But those days were just starting in 1956, and Ed Sullivan was a huge part of coalescing the nation culturally. The wide swath Elvis cut across the South and South-East and West had had a giant impact on the region. The North was totally left out of that. They heard the guy on the radio, but had never seen him in person. It was a different world then. Elvis Presley happened to come along at just the moment when television started to reach its critical mass. 5 years before, and he would have remained a regional phenomenon probably. 5 years later, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But in 1956, everyone and their grandmother and their grandchildren tuned in to Ed Sullivan. So whether you were ready for him or not, whether you tuned in for the circus acts or the dog acts, it didn’t matter: here comes Elvis Presley.
The culture had no idea how to handle Elvis Presley, and you get the sense that even the power brokers of the entertainment business were just playing frantic catch-up with a naturally exploding phenomenon. Nobody wanted to be left out. And although the Colonel steered Elvis’s career with a firm hand, he was jumping on the bandwagon too. It was already happening when he came along. He just thrust him onto the national stage so that all of America could try to deal with him. As Lester Bangs wrote, “Elvis was a force of nature.”
You can see that in his Ed Sullivan appearances. Even in the clips where he was famously filmed from the waist up. (Sullivan had ordered his camera operators to doggedly film ONLY Elvis’ torso. On the Milton Berle show, the audience saw his full-body gyrations and Sullivan wanted to avoid that.)
As Lester Bangs wrote in his obituary for Elvis:
Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.
So in order to understand the impact, you have to include everything that surrounds it. Because therein you understand the contrast. It was immediately apparent to those who lived during these times, but for those of us who followed it is sometimes not so clear. But watch those Ed Sullivan shows in their entirety, watch all of the acts, and then watch Elvis Presley stroll onstage.
It still has the power to blow your hair back.
On September 9, 1956, the show begins with riotous applause as the portly and jolly Charles Laughton strolls onstage. He announces that he wants to start the proceedings with a “high tone”, and so he takes out a book and reads a ridiculous poem in a lugubrious and somehow jaunty manner.
When he finishes, he says, “Now that’s dampened your spirits, hasn’t it.”
Laughton introduces an acrobat act, The Brothers Amin! The two brothers, with long-ish flopping hair and snappy outfits, bound onstage and do an extraordinary act, involving one brother perched on the feet of another brother in all kinds of contorted positions that are frankly insane and terrifying to watch.
The other wonderful thing about watching the original Ed Sullivan shows (not just the Elvis episodes) is how much time each act is given. There is no sense of rush, no sense of a time limit (although of course everything was exquisitely timed). Acts are given a chance to stretch out, breathe, really show their stuff.
Following the Amin Brothers, Laughton then introduces Broadway star Dorothy Sarnoff, currently appearing down the block in The King and I as Lady Thiang. Laughton sings her praises before she comes on, and also sings the praises of the show itself. There’s an elaborate set, with a balcony and a walkway, and Sarnoff stands there in an elegant cocktail dress with long white gloves. She sings her heart out. It’s a style of singing no longer in vogue, a shrieking quavering soprano. The song is beautiful (it’s one of those numbers from The King and I that bored me as a child, but I have grown to appreciate as an adult). From head to toe, she is the vision of the glamorous 1950s woman.
And a really interesting thing occurs in the middle of her song. A vaguely idiotic monologue has been added during the bridge, but it’s fascinating because it shows the TONE of the cultural conversation at that time. The monologue is not from The King and I. The damn musical takes place in Siam. Lady Thiang is not a 1950s housewife. But a monologue has been added, and I struggle and squint through the mists of time to understand why. Here is what I think happened. The King and I was a huge hit (understatement), and in introducing it to a wide national audience who weren’t living in New York, the choice was made to add a monologue that middle America could click into. The King and I wasn’t about some heathen king with 75 children. It is a story anyone can relate to. But her monologue, which starts personal, about her experience doing the show, and then moves into an almost Mad Men-like diatribe of wifely concerns, reveals how dominant the mainstream culture was then, how homogenous, and how frightening. I don’t think I’m reading too much into this. The message here is: Women stay at home, men go to the office, men come home and don’t pay attention to us, and yet we endure it as our wifely duty. It’s not even subtextual: it’s blatant.
Here is Dorothy Sarnoff’s monologue, which she says as she strolls across the stage.
You know, I think I loved singing that song in the show so much because I felt as though I were speaking for every woman. Every woman who has loved and endured. And perhaps had that love endangered by something great or …. even something very small like when he comes home from the office and he says, ‘Hello, darling! How are you? Did you have a good day?’ And then he settles down in his armchair behind his newspaper and drops ashes on your favorite rug. And before you know it, he’s asleep and he calls out to you in his sleep, ‘Florence, Florence’ and you just smile because … even though your name happens to be Mabel… then he comes to you one day with a fantastic scheme for making a million dollars and because you love him you say, ‘Yes, darling.’ Because you know …
.. and then she launches back into the song.
I don’t believe in reincarnation but if I did I think I might have been a 1950s housewife, because the thought of it fills me with such existential dread that I can barely look at it directly. Julianne Moore’s failed housewife in The Hours made my soul shiver, as though it was an actual memory. Perhaps because I know I would never fit into that world. Perhaps because the limitations seemed so arbitrary, and yet also so necessary to the culture. Women’s limitations were important to ALL of us. I mean, look at that monologue again. The husband is crying out someone else’s name in his sleep and you are more pissed off about him ashing his cigarette on your nice carpet. You are a good wife, you don’t complain, you smile and nod and refill his martini glass. I want to kill myself just thinking about it.
Frankly, I find that monologue to be psychotic.
And the most psychotic part about it is how casually she does it, and how she obviously is speaking to a culture softened up for that kind of message. She speaks with an air of complete assumption that everyone listening is smiling and nodding in recognition. That monologue would be incomprehensible if done today, thank Christ, outside of the patriarchal homeschooling Christian sub-culture. That monologue describes and speaks into a kind of national psychosis about marriage and the role of women which was about to be blown to bits in the following decades.
And, ironically, Elvis Presley – a good ol’ boy who had very traditional ideas himself about who women should be (he joked to Priscilla during their marriage, “Women’s lib is ruining our women, dammit!”) – was a huge part of shattering that psychosis. His mere appearance made women scream for release. And they never stopped screaming for 20 years. They’re still screaming. They looked at him and said, despite the public disapproval, “I WANT THAT.” “That” being him, certainly, but he represented so much more. The girls screaming for Elvis may very well have fantasized about being his wife, and him coming home and ashing on their clean carpet, but I seriously doubt it. Their fantasies were in another realm entirely, involving the back seats of cars, probably, and the public admittance of the vein of their fantasies was one of the most unstable things about Presley’s impact.
As a real-life man he was obviously quite liberal sexually. He loved it, he slept with a lot of people, and he was a gentleman about it, despite the racking-up of numbers. But as a real-life man he also always wanted a loyal loving homemaking wife, or at least a steady girlfriend who was a sweet little lady. He was rarely faithful, but he always had a main squeeze. So he was a traditional guy in many respects, not unlike a lot of men. But as a performer, he was indulging in a public fantasy with the girls in the audience about what they all knew they wanted to do with one another.
Dorothy Sarnoff already looks like she’s from another world, especially when Elvis appears later in the program.
In one fell swoop he makes her irrelevant. The youth of the world was suddenly like: “Oh yeah? Well we want something ELSE from our lives.”
If you think I’m reading too much into it, then you need to go and watch Dorothy Sarnoff back to back with one of Elvis’ performances on the same show.
He was a revolution.
Following Dorothy Sarnoff’s song, which engages openly in the national psychosis, Laughton then introduces an advertiser to the stage to talk about the latest Mercury automobile. (I love the commercials incorporated into the shows. Talk about seeing what was important to a culture. The obsession with cars careens through Ed Sullivan’s shows like an underlying repetitive trumpet blast. You can feel the prosperity of the land in these commercials, a new prosperity, exciting and acquisitive. We are middle-class. We are exploding. We can HAVE things.)
After the word from the sponsor, Charles Laughton comes back on and introduces The Vagabonds, a zany quartet who were hugely popular in the 40s and 50s and still have a nice big fan base. They are total kooks. Great musicians, bopping around the stage, making jokes, doing little bits, and it’s interesting to watch because there is something here that cannot be controlled. The repression of Dorothy Sarnoff’s monologue becomes even more clear. The Vagabonds are goofballs, and excellent performers, and they obviously get a kick out of what they are doing.
They sing three numbers: “The Queens Ruler,” “I Wonder” & “How You Gonna Keep Em’ Down on the Farm,” ending with a big crazy finish. Riotous applause.
When Charles Laughton reappears, he is now before a black curtain, on which are hanging four gold records.
Ladies and gentlemen, you’re probably all wondering what these objects are behind me. Well, I have a very good answer for you and I’m going to tell you. They’re gold records. Now these gold records, four of them, have been awarded to a singing star that you’re going to meet in a moment. You know very well who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Elvis Presley. These gold records are a tribute to the fact that 4 of his recordings have sold, each sold, more than a million copies. And this, by the way, is the first time in record making history that a singer has hit such a mark in such a short time. At the very first opportunity Ed Sullivan will award these gold records to him personally but now it’s time to meet the singer I’ve been talking about, and so, away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley.
There are screams. We then cut to the CBS Studio in Hollywood. The set is dark with giant guitars hanging from the ceiling. The stage is empty. And then, suddenly, Elvis walks on. From out of nowhere. The audience erupts. He looks almost aggressive, his shoulders hunched up, there’s something dominant about his stance. He swipes his tongue across his teeth, which makes him look tough, like a bruiser almost. This was not his personality at all. It is a projection. It is the image he created. Imagine if you had no idea who he was. He looks a little bit frightening in that first entrance.
When the cheers die down, he clears his throat deliberately and roughly. It’s a weird moment. It gets a reaction, laughter, as it was meant to. I think he did that to relax himself, and to get the audience on his side. It works.
He always did whatever he wanted to do in front of an audience (joking that he could burp and the girls would still scream – and sometimes he did burp into the mike, and yes, they did scream). He would make his voice go deep, he would growl into the mike, he would change lyrics, he would laugh out loud in the middle of a song … He was a complete wild card. Whatever he did worked. His first manager, Bob Neal, said, “He just did everything right.” That was the magic of his star quality. It can’t be bought, recreated, or even explained. Some people just have that thing where whatever they do when people are watching them is right.
Elvis Presley is 21 years old here, a young man, and had only been in the business for two years. But he had been on the road constantly since early 1955, and had gained all the experience and confidence he needed. He saw no need to mess things up for himself by changing. He walked onstage and people were riveted, and he enjoyed it. You can see that in his entrance here, and also in the deliberate and almost-bratty clearing of his throat. He LOVED the attention. You can hear the audience flipping out. No matter what he does, they are with him, and even when he makes them be silent (because he was a great conductor, too, a master at making audiences follow him) – you can feel them bubbling on the edge of an explosion.
Once they quiet down, he starts to speak. I sometimes get nervous when he speaks. The clips of him speaking at live shows from the 50s are adorable, and awkward, and there are a couple of times where the stuttering gets so bad that he has to stop speaking altogether. There’s one audio clip from 1955 that starts with him saying to the audience: “This is a new song – we ain’t done it but wo-wo-wo-wo-wo- wo ….” Full stop. Then he says, almost exhausted by what he just went through: “Yeah.” He regroups, and then gets it out: “but one time on the Louisiana Hayride …” It’s a high wire act, any time he speaks.
He survives because of his sincerity. You just have to wait it out. And if he can’t get it out (and there are a couple of times he flat out can’t), then they just launch into the song. None of it matters. He was not smooth or slick.
Here he is eloquent and sweet, and I just want to point out that whenever he refers to himself and his act, he says “we”. He doesn’t say “I”. It’s “we” or “our”.
That was who he was.
“Thank you, Mr. Laughton. Ladies and gentlemen. Wow. This is probably the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except, if it makes you feel good, we want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now … Don’t Be Cruel.”
The Jordanaires are there with Elvis, off to the side.
“Don’t Be Cruel” is performed in a jaunty, light and easy manner. Elvis didn’t go into a Zone of Privacy when he performed, or at least not always. It was all about communication with the audience. And if he ever felt the need to get a rise out of the girls, because he MISSED them dammit, if they hadn’t screamed in 3 seconds he felt abandoned by them – all he would have to do would be cock his shoulder up and down, or snarl a word, or – here – do that almost whinnying-noise at one point, and the girls were back to their vocal selves. Elvis was needy. He loved the back-and-forth. He manipulates them to get a response, and then laughs with pleasure when it comes.
And throughout the song, you can hear girls … singularly and sometimes together … erupting like shrieking banshees in the audience. He doesn’t even need to do anything, and some girl out there in the dark will start screaming.
Remembering the Vagabonds and the Amin Brothers and Dorothy Sarnoff is like looking at the earth while standing on the moon. Suddenly, in 5 minutes, everything else seems very very far away.
He finishes the song, bows, gestures to the Jordanaires. We don’t go back to Laughton yet. Elvis Presley is now in charge.
When he thanks the audience, he says, “Thank you, ladies” which gets a huge laugh. There were men in that audience, too. Elvis was playing for the girls. He knew it, they knew it, he was never embarrassed about it, and it was his raison d’etre for his entire career, a fact that many so-called serious rock critics hold in contempt. How could he devote himself so wholeheartedly to hormonally raging females? Wasn’t that beneath him? Didn’t he want a more serious audience? Well. Ain’t nothing more serious than a hormonally raging female: she is one of the most powerful demographics on the face of the earth, and her loyalty will last a lifetime. Elvis maybe didn’t know that, at least he couldn’t see how loyal these girls would eventually be … but he saw nothing wrong with devoting himself to the Girls. If Boys liked it too then that was great, but he always liked the Girls better. They were more vocal, they were openly appreciative, they screamed and hollered, they made him who he was. He never forgot that.
Elvis keeps speaking. He is sweet and sure of himself. He makes a stupid joke, it gets a huge laugh. He could do no wrong.
“And now friends we’d like to introduce you to a brand new song, it’s completely different from anything we’ve ever done. And this is the title of our brand new 20th Century Fox movie, and it’s also my newest RCA Victor escape … release.
There is then a little pause, and Elvis keeps speaking. The effect is arresting. He takes the time to acknowledge his good fortune and all of the people helping him.
“I would like to say right now that the people over at 20th Century Fox have really been wonderful, all the great stars in the cast, the director, the producers, this is our first picture and they’ve really helped us along. With the help of the very wonderful Jordanires, this is a song called “Love Me Tender.”
“Love Me Tender” is certainly “different from anything we’ve ever done”. A very slow ballad, with a Civil War era tune, it is a sweet and powerful song, and would eventually become one of Presley’s biggest hits, something he performed until the end of his days.
There are a couple of moments I want to point out in the performance below. He starts singing, and almost immediately needs to get rid of his guitar, so he takes it off and hands it off. It is a strange moment, almost like it’s a filmed rehearsal, a caught moment of spontaneity, but it’s indicative of Elvis’ comfort when he was being looked at. In person he was shy, and almost demure. Onstage, he did whatever he wanted to do. It may not seem like handing off your guitar is a groundbreaking moment, and it isn’t really – but what is interesting about it is how easy he looks while doing it, and how strange it is to see such ease in someone so new to the business.
And then, after the guitar handoff, which happens while the song is going on, Elvis does what looks like an involuntary twitch, like his nerves jut out of his body for a strange moment. It has nothing to do with the song, it has nothing to do with the lyrics, it has nothing to do with performance either. The twitch doesn’t look like one of his sexy deliberate twitches. It looks involuntary (similar to his compulsive shoulder-hitch thing that is one of his defining gestures. I always saw the shoulder-hitch as a way for him to let off some steam – and Presley had more to let off than normal people – and also a way to get the soul and the body into alignment. He had to twitch himself into position.)
So Elvis does this random funny-looking twitch, his tongue flopping out (WTF, Elvis.) and the audience goes mad. He smiles. The song is serious, but it can take whatever he does during it. He is often adjusting his stance and you can see the cameraman swerving gently back and forth to make sure Elvis is still in the frame. Elvis looks beautiful, soft, open and sensitive.
If you had only heard of Elvis as a bad rocker boy, “Love Me Tender” would have smashed your expectations to smithereens.
The first Elvis segment is now over and we go back to New York to a waiting Charles Laughton, who makes one comment:
“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast?” The audience laughs.
The hostility to Elvis Presley at that time cannot be overstated. His appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show dissolved all of that. It was a stamp of approval from the older more stately generation, and even when they showed they didn’t “get it”, they were happy to include him in their pantheon. It was a powerful message.
And now, on with the show! Which starts to look more and more bizarre because Elvis Presley had appeared. Yes, this is retrospect talking, but those who were alive at that time also speak of the impact he had.
Even earlier, in 1955, when he was appearing with a group of other acts in the Louisiana Hayride show, eventually it became clear that they HAD to end the show with Elvis, even though that was a ‘dis on their more established stars. But Elvis caused such havoc and riled the audience up so much that anyone who came after him, talented though they may be, suffered in comparison.
A comic enters the stage. He is strictly Borscht Belt stuff, and is very amusing. He does magic tricks, makes dirty jokes, and, in general, is entertaining. Again, though: from another world. A world quickly disappearing.
Charles Laughton then reads some more poetry, after a diatribe about how how sadistic fairy tales are, and how terrifying he found them as a child.
Laughton is so great. How I wish I had grown up with Laughton, LAUGHTON, appearing as guest host on one of my favorite TV shows.
Next up is a tap dancing act! Conn And Mann, doing their thing, bantering and tapping and singing, and it’s all very vaudevillian. You can feel that old America, the America of the 20s and 30s, still trembling in the culture. It’s gone now. Gone for good. We can see evidence of it in the movies of that time, when all of the great character actors and many of the leading men and ladies had come from the world of vaudeville. It was still a reality. It shaped the culture. A lost art. Something to celebrate and mourn.
Laughton then introduces a young singing sensation from India, who is appearing just down the street in such-and-such a supper club, and here she is, Amru Sani! On she strolls, in a traditional sari, and she belts out a version of “In the Mood for Love” which basically bashes you over the head with how “in the mood” she is. She’s got a big crazy belting voice, her gestures are unsubtle and huge, and all in all it is quite an odd performance. The song calls for some subtlety, some softness. But Amru Sani is not the one to provide it!
Somewhere along in here we have another car commercial, this time with an elegant spokesmodel.
Finally, it is time to get back to Presley.
Laughton’s second intro is brief, and his use of “that man” is eloquent. We all know who we are talking about, we all know who we are waiting for.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, once more to Hollywood to see and hear that man again, Mr. Elvis Presley.
The cheering in the studio in Hollywood erupts and Elvis patiently waits for it to end. Up until this point in the show, he has sung two rather mellow numbers. This was probably part of Ed Sullivan’s nervousness about having on his family-fare show the young man rumored to hang a Coke bottle inside his pants. If we make him sing ballads, then that’ll keep him from moving, right? Yes. To some degree. But the girls screamed anyway.
But now, with Elvis’third song on the show, Elvis rips it up with “Ready Teddy”.
There are a couple of interesting things about this performance:
The camera work is very deliberate and thought-out. During the musical bridge, which is normally when Elvis goes apeshit, the camera stays on the whole band for a bit, but high above, including Elvis in the frame with all of the others on that stage, and then cuts away to behind Elvis, so we see him through the rest of his band. It’s a diffusing camera move, a fearful camera move: who knows what Elvis might do, best to keep the camera far away from him. This is not the famous “waist up” appearance but the same anxiety applies to how they deliberately avoid showing Elvis in long shot. If that young man has a dangling Coke bottle inside his pants, then we don’t want our audience to have a chance to see it. Cut away, cut away!
Here, we see Elvis unleashed. He is a visceral presence. He also looks flat-out insane, crossing his eyes meaninglessly on the words “sock hop ball”. Why, Elvis? Please tell me why. Because it’s funny, because he was having fun, and nobody should take anything too seriously. Let’s rip it up. Enough with the ballads. Let’s let off some steam.
Even if you’ve seen the clip before, it’s worthwhile to watch it again. Even with the deliberate closeups when he obviously is moving up a storm in his body down below, you can feel his power. His eyes get serious and dead on occasion, the look of someone about to rip your clothes off in the back seat of a Cadillac. And you’ll like it. There’s one moment where maybe he feels the crowd is too rote in their screaming for him? He wants to shake them up, perhaps, so suddenly, in the middle of his jiggling, he stands totally still, freezing himself in a pose. He would do this often. The audience would wait, breathless, and then when he’d start to move again, they’d scream even louder than before.
He’s out of breath when he finishes. He bows, in that way he did in the beginning, with his hands on his knees, a sweet adolescent bow. He’s not done yet, he thanks the audience, who is still screaming. He has more to say, though. He gets it out.
“Mr. Sullivan, we know that somewhere out there that you’re looking at and all the boys and myself and everybody out here are looking forward to seeing you back on television and we’ll be seeing you October the 28th in New York when we’re back on your show again.
This message to Ed Sullivan, watching from the hospital, was an important moment for Elvis. Perhaps the impact wouldn’t really be understood until later. Ed Sullivan had been nervous about Elvis. He had seen what happened to Milton Berle after that “Hound Dog” performance. He didn’t want to mess up his own show. Elvis’ message directly to Ed Sullivan was impressive, and made Elvis seem (as he was) polite and kind. He also then acts as his own promotional arm, announcing that they will be appearing again on the show the next month.
Elvis then continues:
“Friends, as a great philosopher once said …”
They then launch into “Hound Dog”. (Elvis used “as a great philosopher once said” as an intro throughout his career for this song. He never got tired of it as a joke.) It is a truncated version of the song (I can’t find a clip of it. He performed “Hound Dog” again on one of his follow-up appearances, and that is available, but I can’t find the one from Sept. 9, 1956). This was the song that caused so much trouble on the Milton Berle show, and it is incredible (although smart) that Ed Sullivan had him sing it again. But they didn’t let him go on and on (and on) as he did on the Milton Berle show. He sings a verse and a chorus, no bridge, and that’s it. No room for that half-time ending that made everyone lose their ever-loving minds. Before you know it, it’s over.
One of the things to get about it, though, is that even though behind the scenes and across the op-ed pages and in the pulpits, people were very nervous about Elvis Presley, he still did what he wanted to do. He was that confident in himself. I believe that sense of self-belief comes partially from being so well-loved and cherished by his mother. He was already a star to her. She loved everything he did. Why shouldn’t the rest of the world feel the same? He wasn’t a bad boy. He believed in Jesus and all that, and he declared his faith in almost every interview. But what he was doing wasn’t religious music, and it wasn’t meant to be. I don’t think he was being insincere. He knew exactly what he was doing to those girls in the audience, and he meant to do it, but he didn’t see anything wrong with it. It was all in good fun. He liked girls. He treated good girls with respect. And the bad girls? They knew the score. He had fun with a lot of them. He worked it out for himself.
It takes great courage and great self-belief to keep on keepin’ on even when suddenly everyone is saying you are a bad influence, a white trash piece of nothing, a horrible singer, an agent of Beelzebub. Elvis wasn’t cavalier about those insults: he actually was very sensitive about being considered “white trash” or a “Holy Roller”, and he tried to live a clean life (no drinking, no partying), and he worked hard on his singing, and was a true believer in God. The criticisms of him cut to the very heart of his insecurities. But still: he did what he wanted to do. He believed in himself.
So even here, in what was a very tense situation, his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and his first real introduction to the nation, even though you can feel some vague attempts to tone him down (the first two song choices, as well as some of the camera moves later), Elvis still appears as himself.
It is not at all like the travesty of the Steve Allen show where Elvis Presley was forced to participate in his own neutering.
Elvis appears here. More than an appearance, he shows up. Fully. You can see him, in all his glory and weirdness and unpredictability, and also his politeness, his sweetness, and his good nature. It’s all there. Filming him from behind, through his band, to stave off any negative criticism of any jiggling he might do, doesn’t lessen Elvis’ impact at all.
There he is.
Welcome to America. Welcome Elvis Presley.