In the fifties and sixties, there simply was no show bigger and better than The Ed Sullivan Show. Originally titled ‘The Toast of the Town’, the show began in 1948 and continued at a heady pace gathering up the great and the good of show business and providing a wholesome family hour of fun through a variety magazine-style programme. While there was always comedy, dancing and some other notable acts, the real draw of the show during its peak was the music.
Sullivan’s show quickly became famed for its music after the host welcomed a series of high profile name of rock ‘n’ roll to grace the studio and reach a nationwide audience of millions. It was an opportunity that few artists could afford to turn down or not comply with. However, that doesn’t mean that a lot of them didn’t. It’s fair to say that The Ed Sullivan Show launched some of the biggest stars America had ever seen but he didn’t always agree with the rockets being used.
It may well have provided a mainstream home for rock ‘n’ roll but the Sullivan show wasn’t exactly a place full of thrills, spills and teenage rebellion. Television studios, especially during this era, were not the creative place they are today. Instead, what many of the band below faced when they arrived to take part in quite possibly the biggest television performances of their lives was a somewhat cold and stoic place of work. When bands and artists arrived at the studio they were expected to play ball.
Some agreed to the rules and soon found themselves as regular guests and continuous moments of pleasure for Sullivan and his audience. Others, however, refused to comply and yet still found themselves riding a rocket into stardom thanks to the huge exposure the show offered.
Below, we’re taking a look at six acts Ed Sullivan launched into fame.
The story goes that Elvis Presley had previously been on the no-fly list for the traditional Ed Sullivan. The host had never much cared for Presley’s antics in the limelight and had neglected to give him the stage of his show. But on September 9th, 1956, suddenly he had a change of heart and the clamour for The King was growing with intensity by the day.
Presley had appeared on television through a series of shows with Steve Allen and Milton Berle, all of which had been lampooned in the press as being sexually advantageous—Presley had shaken his hips. About the performance on the Berle show, Sullivan said: “I don’t know why everybody picked on Presley, I thought the whole show was dirty and vulgar.”
Presley may well have been amassing huge record sales but it was his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show which sealed the deal. “Thank you, Mr. Laughton, ladies and gentlemen. Wow,” said Presley on air after being introduced. “This is probably the greatest honour I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now…” The King began to play ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Love Me Tender’.
When the camera returned to Laughton, he stated, “Well, well, well well well. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley. And Mr. Presley, if you are watching this in Hollywood, and I may address myself to you. It has been many a year since any young performer has captured such a wide, and, as we heard tonight, devoted audience.”
When The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in the midst of Beatlemania in 1964 it was always going to be a special occasion, one which has now become a key part of the iconic group’s history. As Paul McCartney remembers in Anthology: “Seventy-three million people were reported to have watched the first show. It is still supposed to be one of the largest viewing audiences ever in the States.
“It was very important. We came out of nowhere with funny hair, looking like marionettes or something. That was very influential. I think that was really one of the big things that broke us – the hairdo more than the music, originally. A lot of people’s fathers had wanted to turn us off. They told their kids, ‘Don’t be fooled, they’re wearing wigs.’”
The Beatles performance was nothing short of ground-moving for those who witnessed it. They sang ‘All My Loving’, ‘Till There Was You’ and ‘She Loves You’, in the first half of the programme — before returning to perform ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ following the ad break. It sent the entirety of America into meltdown and confirmed The Beatles as the next big thing.
The Rolling Stones
On the evening of October 25, 1964, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts all sat backstage anxiously awaiting their call time to go on air in front of the majority of Americans sitting patiently at home.
Dutifully, the band performed the Chuck Berry classic ‘Around & Around’ and ‘Time Is On My Side’ with Jagger doing his usual swashbuckling best and flanked by Keith and Brian to deliver a memorable performance. As soon as the last notes of the song landed, the curtain dropped on the band to the shrieks of excitement from the crowd in front of them and at home.
They didn’t stop screaming either. As the next act got ready to come onto the stage, the crowd were still screaming so loudly that it had become intolerable for the older heads in the production team. In fact, Sullivan lost his temper and shouted “quiet!” several times. It was proof that The Rolling Stones had well and truly arrived.
According to Mick: “Ed told us that it was the wildest, most enthusiastic audience he’d seen any artiste get in the history of his show.” There was another confirmation awaiting too: “We got a message from him a few days later, saying, ‘Received hundreds of letters from parents complaining about you, but thousands from teenagers saying how much they enjoyed your performance.’”
Diana Ross led The Supremes through a magnificent rendition of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ in September 1966, which had just become yet another number one single for the unstoppable group.
The group performed on the Ed Sullivan Show a staggering 16 times which was more than any other Motown act. By all accounts, Sullivan developed a great friendship with the three singers over the course of the show’s run which is why they were more than happy to come back with almost every single. In fact, he even nicknamed them ‘the girls’, such was his affection.
Mary Wilson was quoted as telling reporters, “At first, being young, there was a little distance, but he became very close to us when he found we were kind of, you know, nice girls. He really liked that.” Sullivan played a key part in giving them the mainstream attention they deserved and they were grateful towards him.
Following the rise of their chart-topping single ‘Light My Fire’, The Doors were the hottest band around and were a shoo-in for a special spot on the variety show. Led by Jim Morrison, The Doors represented the devilish side of art.
“You boys look great, [but] you ought to smile a little more,” said the typically stone-faced Sullivan when approaching the band as they rehearsed in the CBS Studio before the big night on September 17th, 1967. Following Sullivan’s words, a producer duly followed up after him to discuss a much more serious matter, a contentious lyric in the single ‘Light My Fire’ — which was “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” with the suggestion of changing the word form “higher” to “better”.
The Doors, of course, refused to oblige and after they were informed that the group were now banned from the show by CBS even though Sullivan wanted them to do six more, Jim Morrison’s response was poetic: “Hey, man. We just did the Sullivan show.” Of course, the band’s infamy on the show would only endear them further to the hearts and minds of the rebellious youth—it was exactly what they wanted.