Did you watch the documentary about Elvis on the History Channel last Wednesday, April 11? It was titled “When America Was Rocked,” and it was part of the series Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. Not the ten most important days, however, or the list would have included Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Instead, the producers selected days that weren’t obvious but still caused significant change.
The focus on ten specific dates worked well with subjects like the Battle of Antietam on Sept 10, 1852, or the discovery of gold in California on January 23, 1842. However, to fit that format, they had to pick a date for Elvis, and they chose September 6, 1956, Elvis’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I’m glad the History Channel presented something about Elvis, but I had problems with the show.
For one thing, it contained far too many talking heads and not enough Elvis. I guess all the bloviating was directed to the curious viewers with little knowledge of Elvis. Fair enough, we Elvis fans can be understanding while the rest of the folks are brought up to speed. The show certainly reinforced the fact that Elvis changed everything – music, clothes, hairstyles, and attitude. But instead of all the talking, they should have shown much more of Elvis performing on the Sullivan show. I was very disappointed that we got to see Elvis sing just one complete song, “Don’t Be Cruel,” plus about half of “Ready Teddy”.
Any student of Elvis knows the changes he caused in American culture can be traced to the entire year of 1956 and beyond, not just to one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. One talking head even called the September 6 show “The moment where the pop explosion of the 50’s crystallized.” I’m sure he is proud of his well-crafted quote, but it’s just not accurate.
Elvis’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was actually his tenth TV show, following six on the Dorsey Brothers Show, two on the Milton Berle Show, and one on the Steve Allen Show. By September 6, 1956, Elvis already had three top-forty hits: “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” His concerts during the spring and summer of 1956 were regularly accompanied by mass hysteria and even rioting by his mostly-female teenage fans. So, Elvis caused changes in American popular culture through this entire period leading up to the Sullivan show.
If there were one date that truly could be singled out as one where Elvis made his biggest impression on America, it would be June 5, 1956, the day Elvis made his second appearance on the Milton Berle Show. This is when Elvis unveiled “Hound Dog” with so much pelvis-shaking intensity that it immediately set off huge repercussions. TV critics across the country slammed his performance for its vulgarity and animalism. Preachers and civic leaders complained bitterly that Elvis and his music would turn America’s teenagers into a bunch of wild juvenile delinquents. Some disc jockeys even staged break-Elvis-records events. The History Channel did give brief mention about the fireworks Elvis set off with his second Milton Berle appearance. In my mind, this is the date they should have featured.
All in all, the History Channel deserves our thanks and congratulations for including Elvis in a series about events that changed America. However, rocket ship “Elvis” had already blasted off and was moving at warp speed when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
© 2006 Philip R Arnold www.elvisblog.net