When Oprah returned to David Letterman’s show in early December, it marked a big deal at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theatre. The two shared some stories about the venue’s history, ranging from the Beatles to the Supremes. Still, their conversation only touched the tip of an iceberg of musical talent Sullivan used to introduce every Sunday evening across America and Canada. Whether it was the early years of Toast of the Town or The Ed Sullivan Show, if you made it to Sullivan’s stage, you had made it.
Sofa’s three-DVD set includes key bands and moments from the ‘50s through the early ‘70s. “R&B Greats” gets things off on the right foot with a youthful Tina Turner gyrating in her tassel-heavy gold dress as she charges headlong into “Proud Mary” with hubby Ike looking on. James Brown appears, as does teenaged Stevie Wonder (who, with his harmonica, thrills the audience on “Fingertips”), and brief introductions attempt to set the scene for what was happening socially and culturally at the time. The next section, “Legends of Soul,” keeps Disc One moving, with Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and a fabulous performance by the late Jackie Wilson.
The biggest problem with this collection is its reliance on the familiar, specifically in the form of some acts’ repeated appearances (who the heck needs to see the Fifth Dimension more than a couple of times?). Not to mention the fact that the Mamas and the Papas take up an entire episode. Meanwhile, the Beatles appear twice and the Rolling Stones once. Granted, an entire episode is devoted to the Lennon and McCartney songbook, but it seems negligent to reduce such heavyweights to what could be termed cameo appearances.
Another strike against Rock ‘N’ Roll Classics is that some famous, likely anticipated moments from The Ed Sullivan Show are nowhere to be found. Elvis’ notorious, waist-up-only 1956 appearance isn’t here. Instead, he performs a rather insipid version of the hymnal “Peace in the Valley.” Eager to see Mick Jagger rolling his eyes when the Stones perform “Let’s Spend the Night Together”—which they had to change to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for the show? Not here. Neither is the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” another historic performance that had Jim Morrison refusing to change his lyrics. Yet, the set does include pop crooner Bobby Rydell butchering the Beatles’ “World Without Love”.
That isn’t to say the collection is a complete disaster. The Byrds appear with a young David Crosby playing “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a frantic Buddy Holly plays his guitar like he was punk rock’s forefather, and boogie master Bo Diddley changes his song at the last minute to “Bo Diddley” against the wishes of producers. Other notable performances include Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” with a dimly lit pier-and-boat backdrop behind him (perhaps in itself worth the cost of the box set). Disc Two concentrates more on the trippy ‘60s with “Groovy Sounds,” reaching the bottom of the barrel with Spanky & Our Gang. Disc Three is the best of the lot, with Janis Joplin, the Animals and the Temptations appearing on episodes entitled “The Bad Boys of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “Gone Too Soon”, and “Great Groups”.
The set offers only disappointing extra materials, mainly brief interviews with a handful of musicians recalling their performances and what it meant to be on “the really big show.” But there is nothing in terms of experts or television critics to give you a backdrop for what the show meant to North American households for roughly 1000 Sundays (23 years on the air), or how some performances catapulted musicians to another level of stardom. This box set still leaves you feeling unfulfilled.