Sixty years ago today, more than 60 million people watched Elvis Presley perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Elvis' first performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" took place on September 9, 1956. At this point in his life, he'd already performed on national television shows like the Dorsey Brothers' "Stage Show" and "The Milton Berle Show." He'd released his debut album and was filming his first movie. He had a few hit songs on the charts, like "Heartbreak Hotel." He was still living on Audubon Drive in Memphis and wouldn't purchase Graceland for another few months. Elvis was famous, and he was thisclose to becoming the most famous man in America.
But of course, Elvis has not yet been booked on the country's most popular variety show, "The Ed Sullivan Show." And the show's host had promised he wouldn't feature the then-controversial young singer; Elvis had a reputation among conservative leaders and parents for his performances, which they often labeled as inappropriate or even dangerous. Elvis was simply unlike any other performer they'd ever seen, and they were concerned.
It was a surprise, then, when Ed announced in the summer of 1956 that Elvis would perform not just once, but three times on his show. Ed had watched Elvis' career blossom and knew he'd pull in high ratings if he allowed Elvis to perform. Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, negotiated hard, and the King of Rock 'n' Roll was to be paid $50,000 for all three performances - an unprecedented amount at the time.
On September 9, 1956, neither Elvis or Ed Sullivan were in the studios that day for filming. Ed had suffered injuries in a car accident and was at home recuperating, while actor Charles Laughton filled in for him on the show. And Elvis wasn't in New York City, where "The Ed Sullivan Show" was filmed. He was seen from Hollywood, where he was in the middle of filming "Love Me Tender."
Still, the show was a success - 60 million people, or 82.6 percent of the entire television audience, watched Elvis perform "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," "Ready Teddy" and a few verses of "Hound Dog." "Love Me Tender" had not yet been released, so fans ate up the new single - which only increased the hype for the new movie and its soundtrack.
Elvis returned to "The Ed Sullivan Show" - this time with Ed hosting, and in New York City - on October 28, 1956, and again performed "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog," as well as "Love Me."
Some nearly 60 years later, fans, historians and pop culture enthusiasts still talk about Elvis' third and final Ed Sullivan performance.
Elvis' last performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" was two days before his 22nd birthday, on January 6, 1957. Wearing the same velvet shirt he wore at his homecoming concert in Tupelo in September of 1956, Elvis performed a mix of hits, like "Love Me Tender," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog" and "Too Much," as well as the gospel song "Peace in the Valley."
Classic Elvis, right? Sort of.
As always, Elvis put on an amazingly energetic show, and he thrilled the live audience, who cheered and screamed with his every move. But the audience at home only saw, for the most part, Elvis from the waist up. They heard the audience's cheers and screams, but they didn't see what exactly was causing them, other than the top half of Elvis. Elvis' now-famous dance moves simply weren't seen.
Rumor has it that CBS and Ed Sullivan received angry calls from those who were offended by Elvis' first two performances, so the decision was made to only show Elvis from the waist up for that third appearance. Elvis from the waist down? Too wild, too obscene, too much for American audiences.
Still - when it was all said and done, and at the conclusion of that final show, Ed Sullivan told the audience that Elvis was a "real decent, fine boy... We want to say that we've never had a pleasanter experience with a big name than we've had with you."
In the end, all three of Elvis' performances - and the cool, bad boy reputation Elvis garnered after his third appearance - only helped Elvis' career.
Want to learn more about the King of Rock 'n' Roll? Visit Graceland and learn more about the "real decent, fine boy" who defied the censors.