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                           Muses on The Music

It Was a Really Big Shoo, Part 4

March 29, 2017

      The past three weeks of blog posts, about the impact of “The Ed Sullivan Show” on rock and roll, took us back in time, and forward again, to the Beatles’ next-to-last appearance on the Sunday-night TV variety show, in the fall of 1965, and the Byrds’ one-and-only performance there.

       The hits kept comin’ in 1966. The Four Seasons (now known as Frankie Valli and) performed on the first show of the year. Two weeks later, Ricky Nelson made his “Sullivan” debut, nearly a decade after “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” had helped make him a national star. (His father, the Ozzie of the TV sitcom, had barred him from appearing on other TV shows.)

       The Animals, the DC5, the Four Tops, the Stones, the Supremes and the Young Rascals would appear before 1966 was done. (There were back-to-back weeks of eye candy for the teen boys, too, with Nancy Sinatra and Annette Funicello performing on consecutive shows.)

     In May, James Brown made the first of his two “Sullivan” appearances. The “Godfather of Soul” started his set with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and ended it with his signature drop-to-the-stage-in-exhaustion routine. The Beatles made their final appearance that June, introducing taped performances of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” — songs that indicated the Fab Four was veering away from the three-minute rock-song format.

      The following month, edited into a rebroadcast of the Jan. 30 episode, Simon and Garfunkel performed “I Am a Rock” as the show’s final number. The song went to No. 3, the second of their threeTop 10 hits that year.

       The first of those was the new version of “The Sounds of Silence,” which had hit No. 1 early in January. That single had flopped on its initial release nearly two years earlier, shortly before the duo broke up, but was remixed after it started to get airplay during 1965. (Paul Simon’s father had performed on the same stage used by the “Sullivan” shows, as part of the CBS network orchestra.)

       The Four Tops made their “Ed Sullivan” debut in October of the year. Appearing on the “Sullivan” show late in 1966 were the Mamas and Papas, who performed their two No. 1 hits, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’.”

       Another watershed year in rock music, 1967, arrived a couple months later, although it didn’t look that radical on “Sullivan.” Rock acts like Stones appeared, but so did more pop-oriented groups like Spanky and Our Gang and the Turtles.

       Things started to get weirder towards the end of that year, though, with the Doors performing their hit, “Light My Fire,” in mid-September — and getting away with ignoring the producers’ demand that they change the “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” line. November brought a classic combo, with the Supremes and Temptations appearing on the same episode, each performing the other’s hits.

       The following month, The Genius made a much-belated debut on the show. Ray Charles had been scheduled to appear on the show six years earlier, but “Sullivan” had dropped him after he was arrested for drug possession. Joining him on stage for the December 1967 show was the Fifth Beatle, Billy Preston.

       The trend toward harder rock and psychedelia continued in 1968, with the Jefferson Airplane (they looked pantless, because their jeans matched the blue screen used for the video), Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition (seriously, you have to see The Gambler’s first music video), Vanilla Fudge, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sly and the Family Stone among those performing. 

       That trend continued in 1969, when the Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and Steppenwolf among the acts making their “Sullivan” debuts. So did the Band, Santana and the Jackson 5. 

       But Ed continued to showcase soul, R&B and African-American pop groups, with Sam and Dave, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (the show host misidentified them as “Smokey and the Little Smokies”!) and the Fifth Dimension appearing. The Fifth Dimension would become almost regulars on the “Sullivan” show in its final three seasons.

       The Supremes’ Sept. 21 performance of “Someday We’ll Be Together” was their last as the original group, Ed announcing afterwards that Diana Ross was leaving the group. Neil Diamond made his one and only “Sullivan” show appearance in November.

       The show seemed to be losing its edge in 1970, though, with acts like Bobby Goldsboro, Oliver and the Lettermen turning up. The “New” Supremes performed, as did half of the Righteous Brothers. About as adventurous as the show got was the Ike and Tina Turner Revue (at least, Tina was pretty adventurous at times) and Tommy James and the Shondells.

       That was a sign that the handwriting was on the wall for the show. With a declining viewership and an aging audience, CBS abruptly cancelled “Sullivan” (and a number of other programs), after the 1970-71 season. That final season included a mix of the good, the not-so and the ugly (as in Tiny Tim): Melanie, the Carpenters, Bobbie Gentry, Buck Owens, B.J. Thomas, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Gladys Knight and the Pips, etc.

       B.B. King made his one and only appearance late in 1970, the veteran bluesman saying that he was more nervous than he’d ever been before a performance. The month before the last “Sullivan” episode aired, the show was dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the Fifth Dimension.

       Melanie appeared on the last show hosted by Ed himself. The last episode also featured Melanie — and guest host Jack Jones singing the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If I Could Read Your Mind.”

       Something of an ignominious end to 20-plus years of showcasing the trends in popular music. But we can be thankful for those two decades, because the show enabled us to see the performers we either already loved, or would soon come to love.

 

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