Last week I praised and highly recommended the new triple DVD set Elvis – The Ed Sullivan Shows. There was some interesting history leading up to Elvis’ appearances with Sullivan, just the kind of stuff that makes a good blog article.
Early in 1956, as Elvis’ career took off, Ed Sullivan was not interested in booking Elvis on his show. Sullivan even stated to the press, “He is not my cup of tea.” So, when Col. Parker offered to book Elvis for $5,000, Sullivan turned it down.
Another reason for Sullivan’s rejection was the famous Bo Diddley incident that turned Sullivan against all rock & rollers. In November of ’55, two of the hottest songs in the country were “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford and “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley. Sullivan booked both singers on the same show, but Ford had to cancel at the last minute. For some reason, Sullivan thought the song was more important than the artist, and he pressed Bo Diddley to sing “Sixteen Tons” on the live show.
If you remember “Sixteen Tons” and the music of Bo Diddley, you know how ridiculous that notion was. Bo Diddley certainly must have thought so, but he was just starting out and needed the exposure. He didn’t fight with Sullivan’s producer. They printed up cue cards with the lyrics to “Sixteen Tons” for Diddley, and he did the song in rehearsal. However, when it was show time, Diddley performed his own song. This enraged Sullivan, and he vowed to see that Diddley would never appear again on TV. Of course, this did not happen, but he was banned from ever appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show again (as were The Doors and comedian Jackie Mason in the 60s).
With Sullivan showing no interest in booking Elvis, Col. Parker cut a deal with Milton Berle for two shows at $5,000 each. Berle was finishing up his eight-year reign as the king of comedy on TV. Elvis’ second appearance on June 5, 1956, was Berle’s last show, and, whether he planned it or not, Berle went out with a bang. Elvis’ wild gyrations while singing “Hound Dog” totally freaked out the nation. Teenagers loved it, parents hated it, and newspapers across the nation condemned it with lines like this:
New York Journal American – “primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable for a family newspaper.”
New York Daily News – Elvis “gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”
San Francisco Chronicle – “in appalling taste.”
No doubt, this just reinforced Ed Sullivan’s determination to never have Elvis on his show. However, by then, Elvis was already signed to appear on The Steve Allen Show on July 1, 1956. This was in the Sunday night slot directly opposite The Ed Sullivan Show. Allen thought about canceling Elvis’ appearance, but instead had him wear tails and a top hat and sing to a basset hound.
So how did Steve Allen with Elvis do in head-to-head competition with Ed Sullivan? Allen clobbered the king of Sunday night TV with 55% of the nation’s viewing audience. The ratings war went to Allen by a 20.2 to 14.8 margin. Sullivan threw in the towel and negotiated with Col. Parker to get Elvis on his show. Parker knew he was holding all the cards and muscled $50,000 from Sullivan, an unheard of amount at the time. So, Sullivan passed on Elvis when the tab was $5,000, and had to shell out ten times that amount to get him later. At least it was for three shows. Here’s a thought. Eight months earlier RCA paid Sam Phillips $35,000 for Elvis’ recording contract, and now he was getting $50,000 for three TV shows. Did RCA get a good deal or what?
I have read several reviews and commentaries that express how important it was for Elvis’ career for him to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. I beg to differ. By the date of the first show, Elvis already had three #1 hits. His first album Elvis Presley was a million-seller and the first rock & roll album to go to the top of the charts. He was already filming his first movie and was under contract for several more. His live shows were jam-packed with screaming girls, and hardly a day went by without stories and photos of Elvis appearing in newspapers and magazines.
For the first show, anyway, I think Ed Sullivan needed Elvis more than Elvis needed him. About all Sullivan did for Elvis was make him more acceptable to the parents of his adoring fans. At the end of Elvis’ third appearance, Sullivan came out and called him “a real decent, fine boy.” Sullivan closed with, “We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you; you’re thoroughly all right.” That may have allowed the parents to breathe easier, but it had no notable impact on Elvis’ career, which was already cruising on overdrive.
© 2007 Philip R Arnold All Rights Reserved www.elvisblog.net