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Archive for the ‘Elvis’ Category

Elvis performing "Hound Dog" ("The Milton Berle Show," June 5, 1956)

Elvis performing "Hound Dog" ("The Milton Berle Show," June 5, 1956)

In my last post, “Elvis the Pelvis,” I wrote about Elvis’ sensational and controversial performance on “The Milton Berle Show” (NBC) on June 5, 1956, when he sang “Hound Dog.” His playful yet sensual rendition of the blues number – his hips gyrated provocatively  – rocketed Elvis to fame while also unleashing a floodgate of criticism. Elvis was too sexy for prime time TV, some said.

Ed Sullivan, host of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” CBS’ long-running (1948-1971), top-rated Sunday night variety show. Ed is shown with the little lovable Italian mouse puppet, Topo Gigio, that made more than fifty Sullivan appearances. On the show, Topo Gigio greeted Ed with a sugary "Hello Eddie!" and ended his weekly visits by crooning to the host, "Eddie, Keesa me goo'night!"

Ed Sullivan, host of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” CBS’ long-running (1948-1971), top-rated Sunday night variety show. Ed is shown with the little lovable Italian mouse puppet, Topo Gigio, that made more than fifty Sullivan appearances. On the show, Topo Gigio greeted Ed with a sugary "Hello Eddie!" and ended his weekly visits by crooning to the host, "Eddie, Keesa me goo'night!"

At the time, TV variety and comedy shows were the rage and “The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS) was  the #1 show on TV. The host of the top-rated Sunday night show was Ed Sullivan, nicknamed “Old Stone Face” for his deadpan delivery. But Ed Sullivan made up for what he lacked in personality in instinct. He had a knack for spotting talent and promoting it. Many entertainers who began on his program became household names. But Ed was a family-minded man. Elvis Presley may have been the flavor of the day, the month, or even the year, but Ed let it be known that he didn’t consider Elvis family entertainment and that he would never allow Elvis to appear on his show.

But TV ratings are hard to ignore for TV hosts. This was 1956, the infancy of TV programming. While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television set in 1946, 55.7% had one in 1954. ABC existed but only began to air programs like “Leave it to Beaver” in the mid-1950s. The only two TV networks were NBC and CBS.  In 1956, NBC offered Steve Allen a new, prime time Sunday night aimed at dethroning CBS’ top-rated “Ed Sullivan Show.” It was NBC’s aim for Steve Allen to defeat Ed Sullivan in the ratings.

Comedian Steve Allen’s personal distaste for rock and roll didn’t cloud his business sense. He needed a ratings boost and Elvis was hot stuff. Steve had seen Elvis on another TV show, didn’t catch his name, but was enchanted by his gangly, country-boy charm. He sent a memo to his staff to find out who the entertainer was and book him for “The Steve Allen Show.” They booked Elvis for a July 1, 1956, performance on “The Steve Allen Show,” three weeks after Elvis’ performance on “The Milton Berle Show.” From the time of the memo to the date Elvis performed on “The Steve Allen Show,” Steve’s show outperformed Ed Sullivan’s in the ratings game.

Writing in Hi, Ho, Steverino!, Steve Allen recalls:

Elvis singing "Hound Dog" ("The Steve Allen Show," July 1, 1956)

Elvis singing "Hound Dog" ("The Steve Allen Show," July 1, 1956)

When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing “Hound Dog” (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe–white tie and tails–and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare.
For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat. We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.

Elvis Presley with his manager, the notorious "Colonel Parker"

Elvis Presley with his manager, the notorious "Colonel Parker"

“Inasmuch as Elvis later made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve often been asked why I didn’t make the same arrangements with him myself. Here’s the reason: Before we even left the studio the night Elvis appeared on our show, Ed telephoned Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, backstage at our own theatre. So desperate was he to make the booking, in fact, that he broke what had until that moment been a $7,500 price ceiling on star-guests, offering the Colonel $10,000 per shot. Parker told Sullivan he’d get back to him, walked over to us, shared the news of Sullivan’s offer, and said, ‘I feel a sense a loyalty to you fellows because you booked Elvis first, when we needed the booking; so if you’ll meet Sullivan’s terms we’ll be happy to continue to work on your program.’

“I thanked him for his frankness but told him I thought he should accept Ed’s offer. The reason, primarily, was that I didn’t think it reasonable to continue to have to construct sketches and comic gimmicks in which Presley, a noncomic, could appear. Ed’s program, having a vaudeville-variety format, was a more appropriate showcase for Elvis’ type of performance.

“For his own part, Elvis had a terrific time with us and lent himself willingly to our brand of craziness. He was an easy-going, likeable, and accommodating performer. He quickly become the biggest star in the country; but when I ran into him from time-to-time over the years it was clear that he had never let his enormous success go to his head.”

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Elvis Presley (1935-1977) The King of Rock 'n' Roll

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) The King of Rock 'n' Roll

With the release of his first record album in April, 1956, Elvis Presley began to receive lucrative offers for TV, Las Vegas, and movie appearances. On April 1, he made a screen test for Paramount Pictures and would go on to make the picture, “Love Me Tender.” On April 3, he sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on NBC-TV’s “The Milton Berle Show,” and received rave reviews, causing Berle’s TV rival, Ed Sullivan, to sit up and take notice.

On April 23, he went to Las Vegas, where he was scheduled to perform until May 6, but his show was such a flop with the middle-aged audiences that his manager, Colonel Parker, cut the run from four weeks to two. While there, though, Elvis stopped by the Sands Hotel and saw Freddie Bell and the Bellboys live. It was a game-changing moment. He heard them sing Leiber and Stoller’s blues song “Hound Dog” and loved their version of it. With Freddie’s blessing, Elvis added “Hound Dog” to his live performances.

Then, on June 5, Elvis made Rock-n-Roll History and catapulted to superstardom. It was his second appearance on “The Milton Berle Show.” Backed up by the Jordanaires, he performed “Hound Dog” before a studio and TV audience. His sensual rendition of the bluesy song both electrified and stunned the nation. At the beginning of the number, Elvis gave it a standard, upbeat tempo. Then, halfway through the number, he slowed down the beat to a crawl, swiveling his hips in time to the music, and driving the studio audience wild with his raw sex appeal. Some critics likened Elvis’ performance to a striptease. The next day, he was referred to as “Elvis the Pelvis” and an international campaign began to keep him off the airwaves.

Watch the clip below. June 5, 1956. “The Milton Berle Show.” Elvis Presley sings “Hound Dog.”

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Confederate General Robert E. Lee, seated, with 2 of his officers, photographed by Mathew Brady in April, 1865, following Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Richmond, Virginia.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, seated, with 2 of his officers, photographed by Mathew Brady in April, 1865, following Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Richmond, Virginia.

At daylight on April 10, 1865, the firing of 500 cannons spread the news throughout Washington, D.C.,  that the War Between the States was over and the Union preserved. The cannons were so loud that they broke windows on Lafayette Square, the neighborhood around the White House. (1) “Guns are firing, bells ringing, flags flying, bands playing, men laughing, children cheering – all, all jubilant,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells. (2)

Expecting the president to make a speech, several thousand people gathered outside the White House. President Lincoln was not sure what to say as he was planning on giving a formal address the following evening.Just then, his twelve-year-old son Tad appeared at a second-floor window, waving a captured Confederate flag. It gave the president an idea. He asked the Marine Band to play a favorite tune of his, “Dixie,” the unofficial Confederate anthem.

“I have always thought ‘Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he told the surprised crowd. “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.”

True to the promise he made in his second inaugural address, Lincoln was already trying to bind up the nation’s wounds.
 
Now let’s hear Elvis Presley sing “Dixie.”

(1) White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln. (New York: Random House, 2009)

(2) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. (New York: Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

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