Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Elvis Remembered

Thirty-four years ago, August 16 also fell on a Tuesday. A hot, muggy day throughout most of the Midwest, by afternoon the news went forth that Elvis Presley had died. The hip-shaking Southern boy who made rock 'n' roll an international sensation that would soon become the dominant force in music, was found on the floor of his bathroom at Graceland, the gaudy mansion in Memphis, Tennessee that is now on the National Register of Historic Places, visited yearly by fans from around the globe.

It's a bit mind-boggling to realize that Elvis has been a dead icon for much longer than he was a living one. By the time of his death in 1977, he had spent twenty-one years in the spotlight, and now thirty-four years have passed since he proved he was always as mortal as the rest of us. It would also be difficult for the generations that followed to realize the impact Presley had on the world way back in 1956. A clue can be found in the complete episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show, released on DVD several years ago and reviewed below:

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows (2006)

Elvis Presley made no less than nine network television appearances before performing on The Ed Sullivan Show the evening of September 9, 1956, but most of America first saw him then. Despite a stiff demeanor and tendency to pronounce show as “shoe,” Sullivan was the ringmaster of American entertainment. His Sunday night variety program was an institution in the days when television was still a three channel proposition. Appearing on his show was an important break for any entertainer. It was tantamount to receiving the show business seal of approval.

But Sullivan originally did not approve of Presley and vowed he wouldn’t touch the singer with a ten-foot pole. Despite selling more records faster than any recording artist in history, Presley was more than hot. He was scorching. The swivel hips that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” (which he despised, calling it “childish”) and his expressive singing style made him a lightning rod of controversy. One journalist compared his stage act to that of a stripper. However, when Presley appeared on The Steve Allen Show which was scheduled opposite Sullivan on Sunday nights, the ratings went through the roof. Sullivan reversed himself and offered Presley a then record $50,000 to make three appearances on his show.

Just how shocking Presley was in 1956 was never apparent in the frequently recycled clips of his performances. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment’s 3 disc DVD set, Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show, his performances can be seen in their proper context.

Ironically, a car accident prevented Sullivan from being present that first night. Charles Laughton, the brilliant British stage and screen actor (and husband of Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein), was the guest host that night, kicking off the proceedings by reading some poetry followed by limericks. The Brothers Amin, an acrobatic act, came next, then Dorothy Sarnoff performed a song from Broadway’s The King and I. After a commercial, Laughton, standing before a wall of Presley’s gold records, introduced the man whom a record 72 million views tuned in to see.

Wearing a plaid jacket and a guitar slung over his chest like a machine gun, Presley blasts his way into “Don’t Be Cruel” and it’s a little like Moses parting the Red Sea. Prior to Elvis, entertainment didn’t have to be rated with letters signifying what age group should be permitted to watch. Families watched TV and listened to music the same way they went to the movies: together. Now Elvis came to drive them apart.

Teenagers love him, of course, especially the girls, and what was there not to like? Handsome, but in a way men had not been before; threatening, yet still somehow tame, as if his mask of menace was only meant to conceal a wounded heart. He is, after all, very well-mannered, saying “Yes, sir” and thanking “Mr.” Laughton. What was one to make of this guy with the unusual name, the pompadour, and the long sideburns?

“He just does this,” Ed Sullivan would say while shaking his body on the October 28 show, “and everybody yells.” Presley looked a little more sinister this time in his dark suit, and he offers reprises of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Hound Dog” while also introducing one of his sultriest numbers, “Love Me.”

What did Dorothy Sarnoff think? And Senor Wences, who was on the bill the same night Presley appeared a second time?

Clearly, show business had been rocked into a new dimension.

His third and final appearance for Sullivan came on January 6, 1957 on a show that also featured Carol Burnett, one of the few stars on these episodes whose wattage would increase in future years. By now, the country was clearly divided into two camps: those who championed the King of Rock and Roll, and those who condemned him. Sullivan was now in the former, surprising audiences and Elvis himself by proclaiming him a “good, decent boy.”

But there was no turning back. Soon, people would be talking about the “generation gap” and, later, “youth culture.” The gap would widen in the ‘60s with even Presley taking his place among the old guard, but the gap started here. With the release of Elvis-The Ed Sullivan Shows on DVD, it’s now possible to properly assess the earth shaking impact Presley had in the more innocent era of the 1950's.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Other posts on Elvis:
Remembering Elvis
August 16, 1977
Elvis Is Everywhere

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