An item in last week’s “This Week in Rock History” — if you aren’t reading it regularly, you should be — about the Dave Clark 5 appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” got me to thinking about that weekly TV variety show.
The TWRH item, in case you missed it, was about the DC5 making its debut on Sullivan’s show, after three consecutive weeks of the Beatles headlining the program. That was, of course, the literal beginning of the British Invasion, and a watershed moment in the development of rock and roll into popular music.
The Fab Four’s Feb. 9, 1964, debut was the group’s first American performance. By the end of the year, the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Rolling Stones had also come ashore, crossed the beach and trod the Sullivan stage. It wasn’t just the Limey Lads showing up on CBS Sundays, though — the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison and the Supremes appeared on Sullivan during 1964.
In fact, during the nearly 25 years that Sullivan hosted a weekly TV variety show, he offered a platform for many of the artists who had major influence on rock’s development. The most important exception probably was Bob Dylan, whose plan to perform the too-political (for the producers) “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” was nixed by the show’s management.
The up-and-coming folk music star backed out of his 1963 appearance as a result of that edict. That was not the first, or the last, of the Sullivan show’s attempts to straddle the line between cutting edge and playing it safe.
Other Brother Phil Everly said of Sullivan, “he liked rock 'n roll,” and from its inception his show featured acts that would play a role in the development of rock a decade or so later. When the show debuted in June 1948, as “Toast of the Town,” the second episode included the Ink Spots, a black vocal quartet that influenced doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock.
Other influential artists appearing that first season included jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, scat singer and band leader Cab Calloway, the Count Basie and Louis Jordan big bands, Louis Armstrong and the Ames Brothers. Musical acts like those continued to appear in the years that followed, but though the rock era is considered to have begun in 1951, it didn’t really show up on Sullivan until 1955 — and then, with a connection to that genesis of The Music.
Many call “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats the first rock recording, but it and similar songs didn’t get out of the “race music” ghetto until Bill Haley & His Comets covered it. Haley and his band (originally known as the Saddlemen), white musicians who had fused R&B and country music, appeared on Sullivan’s show on Aug. 7, 1955. They performed “Rock around the Clock,” the song which many credit for bringing rock to the general public’s attention.
Only three months later, Sullivan would host a black musician who had and would have a big impact on The Music — and provide a taste of the artist-management conflicts to come. Chicago blues pioneer Bo Diddley played his self-titled rock number instead of the Tennessee Ernie Ford hit, “Sixteen Tons,” that the producers had insisted he perform. Sullivan banned Diddley from his show, and predicted he wouldn’t last six months.
Within 10 months, Sullivan would host an artist who changed the face of popular music — but not without some controversy and a rare bad decision on the show host’s part. A young Memphis, Tenn., artist named Elvis Presley had already appeared on several other national TV programs, including “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Steve Allen Show,” the latter being Sullivan’s rival in the Sunday-night TV slot.
Sullivan had barred Presley from his show because of the reaction to his “Berle” performance, but Elvis’s appearance enabled Allen to easily beat Sullivan in the ratings game. Sullivan then changed his mind and cut a deal with Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, for the biggest TV-appearance payoff at the time, $50,000; he could have had the future King of Rock and Roll for $5,000 earlier.
The first Elvis appearance on Sullivan — broadcast from Hollywood, while the rest of the Sept. 9, 1956, show originated from New York — drew the largest TV audience up to that point, with an estimated 60 million Americans watching. Sullivan, though, didn’t host it — he was recovering from a near fatal traffic accident, and was replaced by British actor Charles Laughton.
Seven weeks later, Presley returned to the show to do three numbers, including the last of the program, “Hound Dog.” The popular press criticized his style and stage movements, and Elvis was burned in effigy in a couple major U.S. cities. For his third Sullivan show appearance, the first week in 1957, CBS censors ordered that he only be shot from the waist up.
I vaguely recall my father saying that that — those hip movements, you know — was reason we weren’t allowed to watch Elvis’s earlier Sullivan appearances. Needless to say, it didn’t kill his career; although Presley never returned to the show, he did pretty well, in motions pictures and music.
To be continued next week …