Last week’s blog post about the impact of “The Ed Sullivan Show” on rock and roll took us back in time, and forward again, to Elvis Presley’s final appearance on the Sunday-night TV variety show.
Elvis’s first Sullivan appearance broke records for the TV audience, and that viewer bonanza no doubt had an impact on the show host’s choices in musical guests. Not that Ed went all-in on rock; musical guests in the weeks after Presley’s gig included actor Robert Mitchum (singing a medley of calypso songs?).
Or that everything Sullivan touched turned to gold. Rockabilly singer Charlie Gracie appeared that March, singing his hit “Butterfly.” Oh, you don’t remember it either?
But Ed brought Bill Haley and the Comets back to the stage the following month. Haley, who two years earlier had brought rock to the Sullivan (and national) stage, was being crowded out by other, edgier acts, and his popularity was on the decline. But in June, the show brought the Everly Brothers on for the first of three 1957 appearances; on the second, they performed “Wake Up Little Susie.”
“Little Susie” went to No. 1 despite (or maybe because of?) being banned by some radio stations. (Hard to believe that song was ever that controversial, but those were different times.) The Everlys made a number of Sullivan show appearances between then and 1971, including one while they were serving in the Marine Corps.
In September 1957, Sullivan introduced a 16-year-old teen idol named Paul Anka, who would appear on the show a total of 16 times (and become increasingly disengaged from rock). Two months later, Sam Cooke debuted on the show, but got only one line into his classic “You Send Me” when the clock ran out and the show ended.
Sullivan got so many complaints about cutting off Cooke mid-song that he brought him back four weeks later. The R&B legend did an “unplugged” version of “You Send Me,” and the song went to No. 1 not long after the show aired. (Cooke would die in a motel shooting seven years later, and the Sullivan show performance is one of his few TV appearances that have been preserved.)
Before Cooke’s return appearance, Buddy Holly made his debut on Sullivan. Holly and his Crickets performed two songs off their first album, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” which would become classics; they returned the following month, on a show that aired a year and eight days before Holly’s death in light plane crash.
For the next few years, Sullivan’s knack for catching the wave seemed to fail him. The rest of the guest list in 1958 included the likes of Sheb Wooley (“Purple People Eater”), David Seville (“Witch Doctor”) and the Champs (“Tequila”), although the Platters did make an appearance.
He didn’t get much edgier than the Four Preps, Bobby Darin and the Fleetwoods in 1959 (unless you consider Fidel Castro a musician), although Johnny Cash did appear that year. It was a more pop in 1960 — more Darin, Eartha Kitt, the Brothers Four — up until early December, when up-and-coming R&B star Jackie Wilson made his Sullivan (and national TV) debut.
Wilson returned the last week of the following May, but 1961 otherwise only offered Chubby Checker twisting in his Sullivan debut that October. Timi Yuro kicked off 1962, which was much more promising, with the Everlys returning the following month, Wilson performing several times and Fats Domino performing in March and Cliff “The English Elvis” Richard appearing later in the year. (Domino had actually appeared on the show nearly six years earlier, but the two Elvis performances were a tough act to follow!)
The next big breakthrough came late that year, with the Four Seasons debuting with their second big hit of the year, “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” (They had performed on the show under their original name, the Four Lovers, in 1956.)
The success of Valli et al was a sign that change was in the air, but it didn’t show on Sullivan much in 1963. However, Neil Sedaka debuted, Wilson and Richard returned, and the Angels and Lesley Gore made their first appearances late in the year. (Hank Williams Jr. performed, too.)
The really big breakthroo, though, was in early February of 1964, when the Beatles debuted, the week after“I Want to Hold Your Hand” knocked Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again” out of No. 1 on the Hot 100.
To be continued, again …