Elvis Presley was born 80 years ago today so let’s take a look back at his first year on television when the still young medium launched him into superstardom and helped him define the very image of mid-19th-century popular music as the King of Rock and Roll. Take a look at the performances below between January and September of 1956 and watch a young man become an icon.
On January 28, 1956, the then 21 year-old singer made his very first TV appearance on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. He’d recorded his first single, “That’s All Right” for Sun Records, a mere 18 months before and his most recent, “Heartbreak Hotel” for RCA/Victor, had been released the day before. Introduced by Cleveland DJ Bill Randle who promised a television history-making performance, Presley performed Bill Haley’s “Shake Rattle & Roll”, Big Joe Turner’s “Flip Flop & Fly” and Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.”
The broadcast garnered an 18.4% ratings which, though much less than The Perry Como Show‘s 34.6%, was good enough to earn Presley 5 more spots with the Dorseys.1 He returned on February 4th to perform Arthur Gunter’s “Baby Let’s Play House” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”
The second show earned an 18.2% share vs. The Perry Como Show’s 38.5%.2 Elvis came back to The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on February 11, 1956 and he performed Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Elvis’ own hit single “Heartbreak Hotel” backed by the Dorsey orchestra.3
What’s interesting is the relatively modest crowd reaction to both the announcement and the performance of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The single didn’t hit number one on the charts until late April and Elvis’ legend was still growing. That would all change in a few weeks.
He next appeared on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on February 18th performing “Tutti Frutti” once more along with his own “I Was the One”, the B-side of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
It was another month before Presley would appear on Stage Show, but obviously the singer was really starting to break though. On March 17, he returned for another performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and the crowd reaction is noticeably more intense. The screaming starts at the mere mention of “Heartbreak” and is repeated throughout the energetic performance.
For Elvis’ final Stage Show appearance on March 24, the day after his debut album Elvis Presley was released, the singer was scheduled to perform “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” as he had the previous week, but Carl Perkins had been injured in an automobile accident on his way to perform that same night on the competing Perry Como Show, so Presley performed Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters’ “Money Honey” instead out of deference to his friend.4
While Presley’s run on Stage Show didn’t move the Nielsen meter all that much, it was enough to get the attention of NBC’s popular Milton Berle Show for which Presley recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before a group of sailors aboard the USS Hancock in San Diego on April 3.
The same day, Presley filmed a color screen test at Paramount lip syncing the same number. He would release his first film Love Me Tender for 20th Century Fox later in 1956.
Elvis returned to The Milton Berle Show on June 5 to do a little comic bit with Berle and to perform his cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and this is the moment where he really left his mark on television and started to achieve national prominence.
Performing without his guitar at the behest of Berle, Presley’s gyrations caused a stir in the audience and freaked out TV critics. Writing in the New York Times the next morning, Jack Gould dismissed him as no better than a rock and roll stripper:
“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub. For the ear he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frankie Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theatre. Nor does he convey the emotional fury of a Johnnie Ray.
From watching Mr. Presley it is wholly evident that his skill lies in another direction. He is a rock-and-roll variation on one of the most standard acts in show business: the virtuoso of the hootchy-kootchy. His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway.”5
Despite the scorn from the establishment, his appearance catapulted The Milton Berle Show over The Phil Silvers Show in the ratings for the first time ever.6 The controversy around the performance itself only cemented Presley’s status as a superstar. He had officially arrived in middle class living rooms all across the country.
Though Ed Sullivan, the reigning king of variety shows, declared Presley “unfit for family viewing”7 and refused to book him, Steve Allen had his own brand new variety show running in the same Sunday night time slot as The Ed Sullivan Show and he jumped at the chance to have Presley on his July 1 program. Wanting the ratings but perhaps not the controversy, however, Allen brought Presley out as “The New Elvis” in hat, white tie and tails as if to reassure suburban audiences the young man would not corrupt their children. Elvis first performs “I Want You, I Love You, I Need You”, his May single which hit #1 on the Country charts and #3 on the Hot 100. Then he’s reduced to a comic figure, having to sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog in a top hat.
During rehearsals for the Allen Show, an interviewer for Rock ‘n Roll Stars magazine asked Elvis about the sexual nature of his performances and he either played coy or was genuinely surprised at the reactions he was getting:
“I never even think of that when I’m singing,” he said. “After that Milton Berle show, I asked my mother, ‘Was I vulgar?’ If anyone would know, my mother would know if I’m vulgar, wouldn’t she? She said ‘No, you weren’t vulgar, but if you keep working so hard you’ll die before you’re thirty,’ but she said I ain’t vulgar. I never do more than wiggle my leg when I sing. If all that was true what some people said after the Milton Berle Show, I’d be in an institution as some kind of sex maniac. It just ain’t so.”
Then just before he was called by Steve Allen for the final rehearsal of his number, Elvis told me:
“I’m holding down on this show. I don’t want to do anything to make people dislike me. I think TV is important so I’m going to go along, but won’t be able to give the kind of show I do in a personal appearance.”
“If it isn’t that old black magic called sex that makes the girls scream ‘Oh, Elvis, I think I’m going to die,’ what is it?” I asked.
“Beats me,” the newest pin-up boy said with a shrug. “All I do is sing and dance a little.”8
Immediately after his performance on The Steve Allen Show, Elvis appeared on the the interview program Hy Gardner Calling. Hy asks him about his fame and the controversy over his TV performances and Presley comes across as a shy, unassuming, slightly bewildered kid who just wants to play music. “I don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong… I don’t see how any type of music would have any bad influence on people when it’s only music… I mean, how would rock ‘n’ roll music make anyone rebel against their parents?”
Controversy aside, when the numbers on the Allen performance came in, they were huge. The show scored a 20.2 compared to The Ed Sullivan Show‘s 14.8.9 That sealed the deal. Sullivan could no longer ignore Elvis so he booked him for three appearances for a then unheard of sum of $50,000.10
The first show on September 9th, the season premiere, was guest-hosted by Charles Laughton filling in for Sullivan who was laid up after an automobile accident. Elvis’ first number was “Don’t Be Cruel.” Contrary to everyone’s memory that Sullivan would only shoot Presley from the waist up, that restriction only applied to the third of Presley’s Ed Sullivan appearances at the behest of network censors.
He followed up with “Love Me Tender” the title song from the film which would be released a month later.
And finally he performed “Ready Teddy” and yet another rousing rendition of “Hound Dog.”
As everyone knows, the ratings for Presley’s first Sullivan appearance were enormous. NBC didn’t even bother to run The Steve Allen Show that night and ran a movie instead. It was well they did because 82% of the audience, 60 million people, tuned in to see what the fuss over this young man from Tupelo Mississippi was all about.11 A legend was born and rock and roll, society and culture would never be the same.