Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan: ‘The First Big Bang’

Sixty years ago today, one television appearance changed the world as we know it.

Elvis Presley’s third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” took place on January 6, 1957. The almost 22-year-old had spent the previous year topping the charts, starring in his first movie and causing a stir on several other television appearances. For that final “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, he was only shown from the waist up for all of his performances except for his performance of “Peace in the Valley.”

Sixty years later, we’re still talking about Elvis on “Ed Sullivan.” People often forget that Elvis was on the show three times, and that only his last appearance was “waist up,” but the fact that he was filmed that way for any performance gave him a cool, dangerous, rebellious – truly, a rock ‘n’ roll – reputation.

Whether it’s some version of the “filmed from the waist up” story, or just about the rawness and energy of all three of his performances, Elvis’ appearances on “Sullivan” are still heralded as some of the most pivotal moments in the history of both television and pop culture. Elvis’ “Ed Sullivan” performances influenced hundreds of young musicians, thrilled an entire generation of teenagers and rocked the status quo.

In all three of Elvis' Ed Sullivan appearances, he's backed by his band as well as The Jordanaires.

In all three of Elvis’ Ed Sullivan appearances, he’s backed by his band as well as The Jordanaires.

And while Elvis deserves all of the credit for his powerful performances, another reason Elvis’ appearances were so impactful was a bit of “right place, right time.” As a society, America was ready for a thrill and a shock, and the new television technology brought Elvis right into millions of homes.

Producer, writer and director Andrew Solt, who owns “The Ed Sullivan Show” library and who wrote and directed the documentary “This is Elvis,” spoke with the Graceland Blog about why Elvis’ “Ed Sullivan Show” appearances were so important to his career, to the show and to the world. Solt is one of our special guests for Elvis’ Birthday Celebration at Graceland.

Picture it: America, 1956.

“It was post-World War II when (Elvis) hit the scene. In the mid-50s, it was a kind of sleepy America,” Solt said. “Most people were trying to get into a two-bedroom house with a garage. Life was kind of calm, but there was this brewing rebellion, and Elvis represented that.”

Sullivan’s show, which ran from 1948-1971, featured all kinds of entertainers and guests, from musicians like Elvis to comedians, Broadway performers, opera singers, dancers and actors. It was truly a variety show, even very vaudevillian. “What was great about Sullivan was that he gave his stage. He chose who would be on, but his intention was to entertain. He couldn’t sing, dance or make jokes, so it was a good thing all around. That’s why his show holds up today: He let people do their thing,” he said.

Not only did Sullivan have a stage – the most-watched stage on television – but the technology was there, for the first time in history, to bring the show into millions of homes each week.

“Televisions really started selling in the early 1950s, so by the time we got to the mid-50s, there was almost a television in every home. So by the time Elvis walked out on that stage, things had really shifted… The culture had shifted to television. Television was the mass culture machine, the living room box that opened us up to the world,” Solt said.

Before singing his first song on the show, Elvis told the audience that appearing on Ed Sullivan's show was "probably the greatest honor I have ever had in my life."

Before singing his first song on the show, Elvis told the audience that appearing on Ed Sullivan’s show was “probably the greatest honor I have ever had in my life.”

Television was simple in 1950s – forget hundreds of channels, DVRs and streaming. If it wasn’t on NBC, CBS or ABC, you didn’t watch it. The programming was family-friendly, too.

With less to watch, more eyes were on those three channels – and therefore, more eyes were on Elvis. It obviously didn’t hurt that he was the hottest thing happening in music.

“The Ed Sullivan Show” was watched “by kids under 10 all the way up to grandma and grandpa,” Solt said. “You didn’t have five TVs around the house, and no remote control, even. You had to get up and switch the channels. CBS was king in those days.”

Many teenagers at the time had some sort of part time job, and they could afford 45s, which were cheap. More and more teenagers were consuming and purchasing music, and more and more teenagers snapped up Elvis’ records left and right. That not only changed Elvis’ life, but the music industry, too.

Those kids were told that their music, rock ‘n’ roll, wouldn’t last, that it was a flash in the pan. But the genre’s staying power was the last thing on their minds.

“We still loved it, and it’s still here – 60 years later, and we still love it 60 years later. And Elvis was the guy who made that happen… (It was) uncharted territory. Nobody had ever sold records like this. Sinatra was huge, but this was different. It was like super-charged fuel in comparison to the bobby soxer era of the 1940s, and it changed everything, the way kids look at life and enjoyed their music.”

Elvis had a busy year ahead after his third appearance on Sullivan in January 1957. He'd make a few more movies, record more hits and, in December, get drafted into the U.S. Army.

Elvis had a busy year ahead after his third appearance on Sullivan in January 1957. He’d make a few more movies, record more hits and, in December, get drafted into the U.S. Army.

At the center of this storm was Elvis himself. He’d made a name for himself throughout the South thanks to the Louisiana Hayride, and he’d released his first album, made his first movie and appeared on a few TV shows – but none of those shows were as big as Sullivan’s. Anyone who’d missed him on other shows definitely saw these performances, and they solidified Elvis’ star status.

“I don’t think (Elvis) knew what hit him,” Solt said. “He was The Beatles landing in America, but bigger… He arrived as a game-changer. His talent, his charisma, his voice, his look, his sexiness, his attitude – of course, that was disarming to the general public, who expected not to like him.”

Another shock came at the end of Elvis’ third Sullivan appearance, when Sullivan praised Elvis as being a “fine young boy.” Sullivan had originally scoffed at the young star’s quick rise to fame, but this was Sullivan’s official seal of approval – and if Sullivan liked him, Americans knew it was OK to like him, too.

What’s interesting about Elvis’ Sullivan performances is that they’re similar, but also very different. On all three performances he performed “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” He sprinkled in a few other tunes between the three appearances, like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me” and “Peace in the Valley.” Today, it’s rare that one singer will make several appearances on one show in just a few months’ time, and it’s even less likely that they’ll perform many of the same songs. But Elvis did just that, and the fans loved it.

“The audience at home wanted to hear the hits, and he wanted to deliver,” Solt said. “He was asked to do them over and over because they were stuck at the top of the charts, and it was a complete new direction for American popular music, and the audience wanted to hear them again and again. He delivered, and that was part of the deal with Sullivan. I’m sure he had a lot of impact in what the setlist was, but not complete control.”

On Elvis' third Ed Sullivan appearance, he performed seven songs in three segments.

On Elvis’ third Ed Sullivan appearance, he performed seven songs in three segments.

Elvis brings something different with every appearance and with every performance.

Solt believes that’s the reflection of Elvis’ maturity, even in those few months between his first and last performances. He was becoming a movie star and was soaking up as much about the music industry as possible.

“The three shows have a slightly different tone about them. There’s something a little wistful that he was feeling at the end when he left at the third show. It’s an interesting span, because Elvis changes between September 1956 and into 1957,” he said.

And Elvis was, as Solt said, “the first big bang on Ed Sullivan.” While so many other legendary acts, like The Beatles, the Jackson 5 and the Rolling Stones – graced Sullivan’s stage for the next 20-plus years, few had the impact that Elvis had, and many actually copied their performances after Elvis’.

“When The Beatles decided to go on Sullivan, they told (their manager) Brian Epstein to book them just like Elvis had been booked: for three shows. Or maybe it was Brian’s idea. But it was John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney) who insisted that they not go over to America until they had their first number one,” he said.

And while The Beatles ended up bringing a bigger audience, no one can dispute that Elvis’ Ed Sullivan appearances had an impact like no other. Up until that time, 60 million Americans had not had a thrilling, shared experience – up until that moment, thanks to technology, the affordability of that technology and – of course – Elvis.

“Elvis changed the whole way everything was seen from that point forward. It was such a powerful, impacting moment,” Solt said. “He impacted it in a way that heretofore had not been seen or heard. Things were changing in ways nobody had seen before or could predict.”


17 Comments

  1. Very interesting and always appreciated…

  2. stephen

    The real big bang was EP’s six shows on Dorsey. They capture Elvis raw before he smoothed things out. These shows brought EP into white American living rooms—brought black music and styles into the living rooms of a country that still denied blacks their rights. EP was a catalyst for that change and these shows did it more than the others.

  3. Bob Tietz

    I saw all three of those shows as a 10 year old back in Chicago. It all started with the Gleason shows and finished with Sullivan. He wasn’t on TV until his return from the Army with the Sinatra special. Nobody ever like him since! The King!

  4. I saw Elvis on the Sullivan show. I was 12. He was like a nuclear explosion for kids. Nobody has come close to his impact on music and cultural change in America. So sad to see him self destruct at 42.

  5. Joyce Douglas

    He was such a breath of fresh air in a stodgy era.
    Loved him and his music.

  6. Ken. Oliver

    Thumbs up

  7. JohnnyGC

    There will never be another to come close to equal Elvis’s personality anda talents. I am glad I lived during his reign as King of Rock ‘n Roll.

  8. Tony Roberts

    Elvis was all my Dad would listen to; every Christmas growing up Dad would light candles put on Elvis and then wake us up he Loved Elvis and Christmas. Love Me Tender was number one, so much so it was played at his funeral. Dad was killed by a drunk driver one year after Elvis passed, on Saturday Aug 26th, 1978 at 1:30pm his name was Billy Gene Roberts. I still remember the night Elvis died. Dad was heartbroken he went to Camelot Music that night to buy the few records he did not have, the manager saw how much Dad loved Elvis and asked him to the back room to show him a plaque of Elvis about 3ft x 2ft wood he was wearing a lay. The manager said he received two of them for promotion and sold one to Dad for $35. After Dad was killed, I was 14 at the time; Mom gave me the collection because she knew how much I loved Dad and Elvis. Dad had every record Elvis put out, News articles, Magazines etc. As much as I hate to admit it since then a few of the records and the plaque was stolen, still today I try not to think about the ones that were stolen. I do still have the rest; there is no amount of Money that could get them from me. Dad always wanted to come to Graceland but did not make it he was 37 when he died. I pray some day to make it to Graceland for him, I just can’t afford the trip but it is a goal of mine before I die. My son just bought me a CD of Elvis Christmas Songs and woke me up Christmas Day Playing it. As Dad did I have played Elvis Christmas Music every year. I think about Dad and Elvis a lot my kids know how much both mean to me. When I die my son will get the collection because I know he will keep it close to his heart as I have. My kids will have Love Me Tender played at my Funeral. My prayers go out to Lisa, I know what it is like to lose a father that was very much loved at a young age.
    God Bless,
    Tony Roberts

  9. i love the Graceland live cam.
    the one thing that i would like to see is a full size statue of young elvis rocking a guitar located in the round walkway located near the camera.

    graceland will forever be Elvis and family to me.

  10. william tweedie

    its so nice to still celebrating elvis presleys birthday even though he died 40 years ago , he will never die while I’m alive ihave lived him since 1956

  11. michel.pendeliau

    so, please don’t forget Master Scotty Moore !!

  12. Gerald Okolowsky

    Excellent — a detailed and factual piece.

  13. Patricia

    Thank you for sharing Elvis’s birthday. i really enjoyed it and also reading the blog on the Ed Sullivan show which I sat in my living room as a teenager and watched the show, and loved it.

  14. Patricia T.

    I saw Elvis the first time on the Dorsey Show, singing Heartbreak Hotel. I was an instant fan at 15 and it has never changed. That performance was electric. As he matured, his voice got better and better. My first trip to Graceland was in 1981, before the house was opened. I was on crutches from a skiing accident and knee surgery. I remember Uncle Vester asking me if I could make it up that long driveway on crutches; “I’ll make it!” I said. Just had to pay my respects. Also went in 1982 after the opening. What a beautiful place. Hope to go back again soon.

  15. Patricia

    When Elvis appeared on EdSullivan, I was 10. I was still playing with dolls!
    My Aunt and Uncle were visiting with my 2 cousins. Dorothy Jean was 15 and she was going crazy in front of the TV. I just wondered what all the excitement was about. Then Ed Sullivan said Elvis wanted to play a piece for his mama, a hymn. Peace In The Valley. Ed said he was a fine young man.
    Well for my Grandma it was instant love. Any boy that would be that close to his Mama was a good boy indeed. Grandma was a life long fan until she died in 1981. As for me I didn’t get to go to movies period.
    However I succumbed watching The ’68 Special. I sat glued to the TV and it has been Elvis No. 1 for me ever since. I have visited Graceland and it was wonderful. There is truly a magical feeling going through Graceland that he will come walking down the staircase.The prices did not let you feel that it was all about money. People there were so friendly, and helpful.
    I hope to go back in the fall when it is not soooo hot!
    I love his gospel music. You are in a better place now. You will always be in my heart.
    Elvis’s music wants to make you dance or lay on the floor and cry your eyes out.
    I have SiriusXM in my car and on my I-pad so Elvis is always on.

  16. Elvis will never die! Went down to graceland , 2 yrs ago, for the candlelight vigil. Could not believe the thousands of fans down there from all over the world!

  17. The real “Big Bang” happened on the 2nd Berle Show, on June 5, 1956. That’s where Elvis performed “Hound Dog” in a way that he never again did singing any song on TV. Elvis was literally able to “walk on water” at that time. “Reddy Teddy” on the 1st Sullivan show, September 9, 1956, is the only other song he did that gave the audience an idea of how it was to see him in person. Steve Allen, then committed blasphemy, on July 1, 1956, by having Elvis come out in a tux, singing to a “hound dog” seated on a pedestal…but Allen killed Sullivan in the Neilson ratings. That led to Ed calling the Colonel to get Elvis on his Show. I read somewhere, that a few weeks before that phone call took place, the Colonel called Sullivan’s producer to get Elvis on the Show, for less than $1000. But Sullivan said he didn’t want Elvis. The deal Parker then made was for The King to appear 3 times, for $50,000 (approximately $17,000 per show). Belafonte was the highest paid entertainer ever to appear on Sullivan’s Show up to that time. Harry received $7500.

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