This Day in History: September 9th

This Day In History: September 9, 1956

elvisOn September 9, 1956, 21-year-old Elvis Presley made the first of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. If Presley’s career was skyrocketing before, the exposure he received from Sullivan’s program launched it into the stratosphere.

At first, Ed Sullivan had no intention of having Presley on his show, insisting that Elvis was “unfit for family viewing.” However, when Steven Allen invited Presley to appear on his program and trounced Sullivan soundly in the ratings, he reconsidered and booked Elvis for three shows at an incredible $50,000 (about $400,000 today). Never say never, eh, Ed?

On the night of September 9, Ed Sullivan was recovering from a car accident and wasn’t available to host the show. Elvis was in Hollywood filming his first movie and was unable to appear in the New York, and performed from the CBS studio in L.A. Actor Charles Laughton was filling in for Ed Sullivan, and introduced the show’s main attraction with: “Away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley!”

As self-assured as Elvis appeared, he believed this performance had the power to make or break his career (he was right) and was apprehensive about the outcome. He wanted his friends and back-up group, the Jordanaires, as close as possible for moral support.

Jordanaire Gordon Stoker remembers, “He was nervous and didn’t want to feel alone on stage. He had us stand just as close to him as we could stand. We were so close that when he would move back, he would step on our toes.”

Everyone believes that due to 1950s prudery, Elvis was only filmed from the waist up for this performance, but that’s not entirely true (some would say the plaid jacket he was wearing was far more offensive than any gyrating he may have been doing.)

During his first two songs, “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Love Me Tender,” the cameramen did stick to above the waist shots and close-ups. But when he performed the up-tempo “Ready Teddy” and “Hound Dog,” those watching at home were treated to some – albeit brief – full body shots of young Elvis swiveling those hips to the screams of appreciative female fans.

And that home audience was massive – 82.6 percent of those watching TV that night in the U.S. were watching Elvis do his thing on Ed Sullivan. Steven Allen didn’t even bother attempting to compete – that evening, his network NBC ran a movie they knew no-one would be watching.

Presley’s performance of the not-yet-released “Love Me Tender” (the theme from his upcoming movie) did wonders to promote both the song and the movie. DJs taped the performance and played the song on the radio, which increased pre-orders for the single to almost a million.

Elvis’ performances on the Ed Sullivan Show also had the positive outcome of eradicating some of Rock and Roll’s negative stigma with the older generation. Presley had good manners and was a God-fearing southern boy who loved his mother. The last song he ever sang on Ed Sullivan was the gospel standard “Peace in the Valley.”

And when Elvis walked off his stage for last time on January 6, 1957, Ed Sullivan, the man who once swore to never have the likes of Elvis Presley on his show, told the country, “This is a fine, decent boy.” And if Elvis was good enough for Ed Sullivan…

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