Elvis Presley appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956. His three appearances on the show would cement his popularity as The King of Rock and Roll and make him a household name. However, this didn’t happen overnight. It took awhile for Presley to be invited to appear on the show.
In less than a year from late 1955 to mid-1956, Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, had catapulted Presley’s career by negotiating a record contract with RCA Victor, getting Elvis national exposure on television on The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show and The Milton Berle Show, and securing a movie contract for Elvis in Hollywood.
However, Ed Sullivan, who had the biggest variety show on TV, had declared that Elvis would never appear on his show due to Presley’s perceived obscenity by the establishment. But Sullivan changed his mind when The Steve Allen Show beat him in the ratings due to Presley’s appearance on July 1, 1956. Having the upper hand, Colonel Parker was able to negotiate the highest fee ever paid to an act by Sullivan at that point in time, increasing the fee from $5,000 to over $16,000 per show.
“Elvis was hurt by what Sullivan had said about him,” explained Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, the gospel quartet that appeared with Elvis on the show, “but he knew nothing was as big as the Sullivan Show. We all wanted it.”
Circumstances were unusual for Presley’s first appearance. He performed live in front of an audience not in Ed Sullivan’s TV studio in New York, but from a CBS studio in Los Angeles. Presley was in the midst of filming his first film, Love Me Tender, in Hollywood at the time. Meanwhile, Ed Sullivan had been in a car accident and did not appear on the show. Instead, Charles Laughton hosted the September 9 show from New York in his absence.
When Elvis came on stage to sing his first song, “Don’t Be Cruel”, he made a statement saying how grateful he was to be on the show. It truly was a climactic moment for this 21-year-old young man from Tupelo, Mississippi: “Wow!” Elvis declared. “This is probably the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except it makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Elvis sang four songs that night including “Hound Dog” which was the song that got him in trouble a few months earlier. On June 5, 1956 when Elvis was performing on The Milton Berle Show, something came over him and at the end of singing “Hound Dog” he extended the song, adding not one, but two slowed-down striptease-style verses.
Though seemingly harmless to watch by today’s standards, Elvis made some exaggerated bump and grind movements during those last two verses which caused a national controversy. The media went into an uproar after seeing Elvis’ gyrating on stage in an “obscene performance,” and the nickname “Elvis The Pelvis” took hold.
With Steve Allen threatening to cancel Presley’s upcoming performance on his show in July, Elvis was pressured into toning down his movements. On July 1, 1956, Steve Allen introduced “the new Elvis Presley” as Elvis walked onstage in a tuxedo and tails to set things right with the older generation. Allen declared this less threatening appearance Presley’s “first comeback.”
To add fuel to the fire, one month later a judge in Jacksonville, Florida threatened Presley with jail time if he did not restrain himself during his live concerts there on August 10-11, 1956. Elvis was reduced to moving only his pinky finger to keep the peace. This change in performance style is what led up to Presley’s highly anticipated appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Since Presley had already toned down his act for The Steve Allen Show, it seemed that Ed Sullivan would not have to worry about Elvis causing any controversy. But surprisingly, Ed Sullivan still felt the need to censor Elvis.
However, contrary to popular belief, Presley was not censored from the waist up on all three of his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was only fully and intentionally censored on his last appearance on January 6, 1957.
During the song “Ready Teddy” from his first appearance, there are numerous shots of Elvis being filmed from head to toe, although the camera “does not dwell on the full-form Elvis for long and more frequently cuts to tight close-ups of the singer,” observes author Allen J. Wiener.
Out of Elvis’ 13 performances over three Ed Sullivan Shows, “Ready Teddy” may be the liveliest and closest to what you will see of Presley’s energy that he exhibited in his live concert performances in the 1950s. The one thing that is helping to tone down his body movements is his guitar. He is not as free to do his pelvic shaking and thrusting when he’s got a guitar leaning against him.
When he appeared for the second time on October 28, 1956, again Elvis is filmed frequently from head to toe, especially in the final number of “Hound Dog.” This is also evident when he sings the ballad “Love Me.” This performance stands out because of a rare momentary lapse of concentration when Elvis forgets the lyrics to the song. Luckily, he is able to recover quickly. Since the show originally aired live, most viewers probably did not take notice.
However, during the song “Don’t Be Cruel”, the camera frequently goes to close-ups of Elvis, and when filming from behind, the drums conceal the lower half of Presley’s body. According to Wiener, it seems like the director “does not want to push his luck and risk showing a suddenly gyrating Elvis.”
It is not until Presley’s third appearance on January 6, 1957 when he was intentionally only shot from the waist up. The obvious reason confirmed by newspapers the day after the show was that Sullivan had received thousands of complaints about Presley’s dance movements on his first two appearances in September and October. This outcry was similar to what happened after Presley’s appearance on The Milton Berle Show in June even though his gyrations were extremely toned down on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Presley’s appearance brought Sullivan 70,000 letters from viewers, with Elvis and his movements losing the count, 40,000 to 30,000, the columnist estimates,” reported the International News Service on January 7, 1957.
However, Presley’s drummer, DJ Fontana, refuted that reasoning years later, claiming that Sullivan censored Elvis for publicity purposes.
“It was a publicity shot,” said Fontana, “just to get people to watch and see what was really going on. There was nothing going on.”
However, the public dislike of Elvis by America’s older generation was still evident in late 1956. One women’s group was circulating a petition protesting Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show describing Elvis as “vulgar, suggestive and disgusting.”
The ratings were down slightly for Presley’s second appearance on Sullivan’s show, although still beating the competition. Wiener states in his book, Channeling Elvis, that Sullivan thought he would garner some attention by announcing that Elvis’ third appearance would be shot only from the waist up. However, most newspaper columnists wrote after the show aired that they were surprised that Presley was censored on the third show, suggesting that Sullivan had not announced the censorship in advance.
Whatever the motive, Ed Sullivan described the censorship as a “compromise” to keep Presley’s young fans happy while appeasing the parents and clergymen who labeled Presley’s dance movements as “unfavorable,” to put it mildly. As a result, this made it easier for director John Wray, who wouldn’t have to worry about showing long shots of Elvis anymore. As evident in “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” shots of Elvis were restricted from the middle of his chest upwards, focusing on a straight-on close-up for most of the song, with a few shots from the side.
Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show drew an audience of 60 million viewers, a record that remained until The Beatles ‘ debut performance eight years later on February 9, 1964 which attracted 73 million viewers. For Elvis, it was a professional career milestone. He had reached the top of success in the television medium, confirming his popularity for years to come in the world of mainstream entertainment.
While many newspaper columnists surmised at the time that Sullivan would never have Presley on his show again due to the need for censoring, that decision was really up to Colonel Parker. He made it known to all three major television networks that Elvis’ fee had now gone up to $300,000 for a multi-appearance deal. As a result, Elvis did not appear on live television again until he got out of the army in 1960 and was paid a whopping $125,000 for appearing less than 10 minutes on The Frank Sinatra Show.
All of Elvis Presley’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show are available on the DVD called Just Elvis. Click here for more info:
Note: This article was revised on October 28, 2020 after finding some original articles from 1956 and 1957 discussing Elvis’ final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music