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Posts Tagged ‘Colonel Parker’

Elvis in his 1957 film, "Jailhouse Rock"

Elvis in his 1957 film, "Jailhouse Rock"

In my two previous posts, “Elvis the Pelvis” and “Elvis: Too Sexy for His Shirt,” I wrote about Elvis Presley and the TV appearances that made him a star. His hip-gyrating performance of “Hound Dog” on NBC’s June 5, 1956, “The Milton Berle Show,” created a huge new fan base and a storm of controversy. Moral crusaders tried to keep him off the air. Critics in the press labeled his performances “vulgar” and “obscene.” Elvis was dubbed, “Elvis the Pelvis.” Top-rated TV host Ed Sullivan vowed, “I wouldn’t have Presley on my show at any time,” as he considered Elvis unsuitable for family viewing.

In a New York radio interview, Elvis said, in his defense,

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, and you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I have to move around. I can’t stand still. I’ve tried it, and I can’t do it.”

As they say in show business, all publicity is good publicity. The Berle show drew such high ratings that comedian Steve Allen, not a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, rushed to book Elvis for “The Steve Allen Show” for July 1, 1956. “The Steve Allen Show” ran on NBC opposite its chief rival, “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday elvispresley-hounddog-steve-allen-show-july-1-19562nights. It was Steve’s aim to defeat Ed in the TV ratings game.

Steve wasn’t about to let Elvis strut suggestively on his program. He decided to introduce a “new Elvis,” one the whole family could love. He costumed Elvis in a top hat and tails and had him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound. With its sad eyes and droopy ears, the hound dog severely upstaged Elvis who was reduced to minimal movement.

Ed Sullivan, Colonel Tom Parker, and Elvis

Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis, and Ed Sullivan

Elvis was reportedly angry with his treatment on Steve’s show, but the ratings were phenomenal. Elvis’ manager, the ruthless Colonel Tom Parker, was able to sign Elvis for three engagements on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed offered Elvis the unprecedented amount of $50,000 for the three shows.

Ed Sullivan was asked to explain why he’d reversed his opinion of Elvis:

“What I said then was off the reports I’d heard. I hadn’t even seen the guy. Seeing the kinescopes, I don’t know what the fuss was all about. For instance, the business about rubbing the thighs. He rubbed one hand on his hip to dry off the perspiration from playing his guitar.”

Presley’s first Ed Sullivan appearance (September 9, 1956) was seen by some 55–60 million viewers, one out of every three Americans. On the third Sullivan show on January 6, 1957, Elvis sang only slow paced ballads and a gospel song. Nevertheless, for the first time, Elvis was shown to the television audience only ‘from the waist up.’ The conventional wisdom has been that Elvis was “cropped” at the request of TV host Sullivan to please network censors by hiding Elvis’  hip movements. However, this was Elvis’ third appearance on the show and Elvis’ first two appearances hadn’t been censored. He had been shown full-bodied both times before. It is more likely that Elvis’ notoriously greedy manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and not network censors or Ed Sullivan, who ordered that Elvis be shot from the waist up to generate publicity.

Italian-born actor Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 silent film, "The Sheik"

Italian-born actor Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 silent film, "The Sheik"

In spite of any misgivings about the controversial nature of his performing style, Ed Sullivan declared at the end of the third appearance that Presley was “a real decent, fine boy” and that they had never had “a pleasanter experience” on the show.

Below is a clip from Elvis’ 3rd appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” January 6, 1957, – the official “Waist-Up Appearance” in which Elvis sings, “Too Much.” One biographer has suggested that Elvis’ spangled vest, heavily made-up eyes, and hair falling in his face made Elvis resemble the smoldering silent film idol Rudolph Valentino as he appeared in “The Sheik.” What do you think?

Elvis in "Harum Scarum" (1965)
Elvis in “Harum Scarum” (1965)

Whew! Waist-up or full-bodied, Elvis proves he’s got what it takes.

If Elvis really did want to dress up like Valentino in “The Sheik,” then, in 1965, he got his wish when he was cast as Johnny Tyronne in his nineteenth movie, “Harum Scarum.” Elvis’ wife, Priscilla Presley, recalls in her memoirs that Elvis liked the exotic Arab costumes so much that, after wrapping up filming for the day, Elvis wore his full make-up and costumes home from the movie set.

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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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