On January 6, 1957, Elvis Presley made his third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. That night he performed seven songs. First, a 3-song medley of his top hits: “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Then “Don’t Be Cruel”:
followed by “Too Much”:
and “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again.”
At the very end of the show, Presley backed by The Jordanaires, sang a gospel song, “Peace in the Valley.” Ed Sullivan introduced the song describing Presley’s plea for people to donate to the charitable cause of Hungarian refugee relief. In 1956, the Hungarians waged a revolution in a desperate fight for freedom against the Soviet Union.
“Because he feels so keenly about Hungarian relief,” Sullivan said, “he urges all of us through the country to remember that immediate aid is needed… he wants to remind you to send in your checks to your various churches, Red Cross, etc.”
Sullivan also mentioned that Elvis would soon be doing a benefit concert for Hungarian relief when he returned to Los Angeles. Even though the concert never happened, the fact that Presley dedicated the gospel song “Peace in the Valley” to the Hungarian refugees had a significant effect on the people of Hungary. About 25 million Swiss francs were raised for their cause. To this day, Hungarian Elvis fans have expressed their gratitude to Presley for recognizing them. They constructed the Elvis Presley Park in Budapest in his honor, and in 2011, awarded him honorary citizenship.
But why would Elvis Presley choose to sing a gospel song on national television during the height of his rock and roll career? And why would Presley’s record company, RCA, and shrewd business manager, Colonel Parker, allow Elvis to veer off in another musical direction and possibly risk alienating his fanbase? The question was a perplexing one for fans who saw Elvis as The King of Rock and Roll.
For many years, Elvis fans have believed the story that was described in the book, The Gospel Side of Elvis by Joe Moscheo, about why Presley sang “Peace in the Valley” on The Ed Sullivan Show. Moscheo described Elvis as the one who insisted he sing a gospel song for his mother, even to the point where he had a showdown with the producers of show.
But documents recently uncovered in 2020 by the official Graceland archives show a different story. According to a letter dated just three days before Presley’s performance, from Colonel Parker’s assistant, Tom Diskin, to Elvis, Ed Sullivan was the one who suggested Elvis sing a gospel song on the show.
“Mr. Sullivan thought it might be very appropriate for you to sing a hymn or a semi-religious song on the show,” Diskin wrote to Presley. “You certainly can sing a hymn very effectively and I think it would make a very strong impression on all the viewers. It has been suggested that a song like ‘Peace in the Valley’ might be held in readiness.. We have obtained the music on this song and are forwarding it to you.”
Considering the cultural environment at the time, this makes a lot of sense. Ed Sullivan was receiving a lot of negative feedback from viewers and advertising sponsors complaining of Presley’s vulgarity of movement on his first two appearances on the show in September and October 1956. To many people’s surprise, Sullivan chose to censor Presley from the waist up on his third appearance as a “compromise”.
Common sense says that another way to tame down Presley’s movements would be to have him sing a less-raucous song so that he would not feel the need to gyrate. Although Diskin tells Elvis that it was Ed Sullivan who came up with the idea, it would be no surprise if the real instigator of this song choice was Colonel Parker. In fact, Parker had written a letter to Ed Sullivan dated September 25, 1956 suggesting which ballad Presley should sing for his second appearance on the show on October 28, 1956.
As Angie Marchese, Director of Archives at Graceland, said about the letter (even though it has a typo as dated January 3, 1956 instead of 1957): “It’s quite interesting that that request actually came from Ed Sullivan and not Elvis’ request which is what has been folklored all these years.”
In a subtle attempt to explain Presley’s choice to sing a gospel song, Sullivan said Elvis was going to “sing a song he feels that this is sort of in the mood that he’d like to create.”
The public reacted positively to the performance, which then prompted RCA to support a four-song gospel EP called Peace in the Valley which was released a few months later in April. The Peace in the Valley EP surprised everyone by initially selling over half a million copies (and ultimately going Platinum), prompting RCA to encourage Elvis to do his first gospel album a few years later.
Elvis would go on to record three gospel albums during his career. Ironically, the only GRAMMY awards The King of Rock and Roll ever won were for his gospel recordings.
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