The 1998 video release of all five complete episodes of The Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon & Yoko Ono made perfect sense. For a week in 1972, the ex-Beatle and his wife actually co-hosted the show, booking talent, conducting interviews; and, of course, playing music. Lennon and Ono were involved in just about every segment, and it was fascinating to see them run with the talk-variety show premise. That wasn’t the case with Elvis Presley’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956-57. Though he featured in several segments on each show, when you add it up, Elvis Presley - The Ed Sullivan Shows is, generously, 30 minutes of Elvis and 2 1/2 hours of…well, more on that later, but it’s definitely not Elvis.
Therefore, the very release of The Ed Sullivan Shows, with a disc devoted to each of the three shows on which Presley appeared, seems suspect. Though reasonably priced, it begs accusations of overkill: Why not just combine all of Presley’s Sullivan performances on a single disc, or make them part of a larger collection of performances? Veteran producer Andrew Solt, who handled this collection, has apparently considered this line of thinking: Each disc contains a “Elvis Performances Only” option. But the opportunity here is to view history in the making, which Elvis’s performances were, in its original, unedited context. As such, The Ed Sullivan Shows is not so much for Elvis fans as it is for Elvis historians. Viewing (or, more accurately, subjecting oneself to) the entire broadcasts highlights just what made Presley such a singular sensation, and the timing for such a reminder seems ripe.
On each of the three shows, the juxtaposition between Presley and the acts that come before and after him would be hilarious if it weren’t so shocking. Sullivan was a variety show full of acts that Letterman wouldn’t touch on a slow Friday night these days. Jugglers, ventriloquists, shrill Broadway revues, (non-stupid) pet tricks, and half-baked comedy acts bloat the air time, and they go on forever. No monologues, interviews, or pre-taped segments to break up what now seems like a farce.
Into this milieu comes Presley. At the peak of his early career, and in rude health, he still captures your attention with more authority than most anyone before or since, especially on the first two shows, from September 9 and October 28, 1956. With his loose-fitting sport coat and dark slacks, D.A. haircut greased up high, and almost-unhinged energy, the 21-year-old Presley is breathtaking—a tidal wave of youth, energy, and vitality that almost literally blows the other acts off the screen. His soft yet undeniably masculine, almost porcelain good looks; tractor-beam charisma, and perfect mix of confidence and humility remind you once again that, whatever else may be said about him, this man somehow invented a look, an aura, a gene that could be described only as “Rock Star”.
The legendary rock critic Lester Bangs captured the revolutionary nature of Elvis’ stage presence in typically frank terms when he wrote, “…Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled…[He] kicked ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window’ out the window and replaced it with ‘Let’s fuck.’” And though the Sullivan performances were relatively tame (it’s his third appearance, from January 6, 1957, for which Presley was notoriously filmed only from the waist up), the electric, effortless sexuality of his every gesture, facial tic, or guffaw still comes through. Crucially, it’s a sexuality so perfect, so implied, that it transcends gender; how else to explain its status as a template for everyone from John Lennon (the wide-legged stance and high-slung guitar, the almost sardonic cool) to Andy Warhol (the aesthetic perfection) to Morrissey (the overall look, the singing style, the tortured stage moves) to Bill Clinton (the charisma, the dirty Southern boy beneath the “aw shucks” Mama’s Boy façade)? By that third appearance, Presley seems acutely aware of his power as a performer. He’s still humble, but a lame vest has taken the place of his sport coat, and the patented moves outnumber the improvised giggles and smiles. With hindsight, it’s hard not to at least fleetingly think of how Presley’s spontaneous energy ultimately turned into a self-parodying act in Las Vegas and huge arenas. But, at this point, the sequins and karate moves were years away.
Elvis’ physical magnetism is so strong that it could easily exist independently of his music. His Sullivan performances, however, offer a reminder that the music, while not exactly revolutionary, was nearly as shocking to mainstream America as his looks and actions. Then-current hits “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender” get airings on all three shows, with the former especially showing signs of performance fatigue by the third time round. With backing by the Jordanaires and his legendary 3-piece band, songs like “Too Much” and especially “Ready Teddy” retain some of the primal energy of early Rock’n'Roll.
Then, there’s the matter of Sullivan himself. Though he was in the hospital recovering from an accident on September 9 (Englishman Charles Laughton fills in, at one point referring to Presley with thinly-veiled disgust as “that man”), it’s fascinating to see his struggle with this newfangled entertainer and his music play out over the two ensuing telecasts. After claiming that he would never do so, Sullivan booked Presley under ratings pressure. On the October 28 show, the host is clearly confounded by, and indignant of, the Presley sensation, admitting, “I can’t figure this darn thing out—you know, [Presley] just [wiggles], and everybody yells.” By the following January, though, perhaps reconciled to the idea by record ratings, Sullivan is more accepting, if not understanding, of the phenomenon: “Oh, I wish I were young again—no foolin’—”, he says after one Presley performance, “It’s wonderful to be that way.” What exactly “that way” is is open to question. After Presley’s final performance, a straight-faced, stirring “Peace in the Valley” that he dedicates to Hungarian rebels, Sullivan sounds sincere when he assures his audience (and himself?), “This is a real, decent, fine boy.” Though Presley never appeared on the show again, he did carry on a friendly rapport with Sullivan, as illustrated by the collection of short post-1957 Sullivan clips, this set’s only really worthwhile bonus feature.
Sullivan was not the first time Elvis Presley performed on live television. He had already appeared on regional Southern shows, The Milton Berle Show, and The Steve Allen Show. Regardless, the Sullivan performances are rightly regarded as Presley’s point of entry into mainstream American consciousness. As history, this well-restored set is well worth every minute; as entertainment, well, there’s always that “Elvis Only” option.