Wednesday, January 31, 2007

DVD Review: Elvis on Sullivan

“Exciting” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows. For one thing, there’s Elvis himself: he’s captured here in the infancy of his superstardom, at the peak of his rockin’ form, giving some of the most revolutionary performances in the history of American popular music—and the history of American television. Which brings up another reason why this Image Entertainment DVD package is so exciting: it represents American cultural history in the making. The early days of television, the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and two of the most venerable personalities of both art forms, coming together marvelously to form a union that is at once highly unlikely and highly touching. But perhaps the most exciting thing about this 2006 release is that it preserves these cultural artifacts for posterity, with a thoughtful, accessible presentation to boot.

Elvis Presley achieved mainstream popularity in 1956, when rock ‘n’ roll was still considered a wild new style that was bound to fade away once the kids grew up and developed more sophisticated tastes. Many adults hated this so-called music, but as long as rock ‘n’ roll artists were topping the charts, variety shows had to feature them. After all, variety shows of the time were supposed to provide “something for everyone”—and that included the teenagers with their crazy rock ‘n’ roll music. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley was already known for his wildman antics: flashy clothes, flamboyant vocals, sexually-charged hip and leg movements. There was nobody like him in showbiz at the time. He was a white man who sang in the style of black R&B artists and appropriated their rhythmic body movements. Yet he was not the charlatan that many made him out to be; he added a distinct country tinge that followed naturally from his Southern upbringing, helping to pioneer a new hybrid style that transcended numerous boundaries. After all, his single pairing “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” hit #1 on Billboard’s pop, R&B, and country charts. Yet he was every bit as divisive as he was a uniting force: while teenage girls shrieked in amazement and arousal at Elvis’ obvious sex appeal, their parents shrieked in horror at the qualities that stood in direct contrast to the arch-conservatism of the 1950s: his raucous, reckless sound and sexual openness. His willful mimicking of black music styles also raised quite a few eyebrows in those racially tense times.

And then there was Ed Sullivan, who made a name for himself as a writer and perhaps should have stayed in that position. In retrospect, he was the very antithesis of a television star: he was not good-looking, he had little discernible charm or wit, he was uptight and rigid, and he never seemed the least bit comfortable in front of a camera—he is still legendary for his tendency to flub practically everything he attempted to say. Why was he given his own TV show? Two reasons: one, he started out in the late 1940s, the very beginning of American television, when nobody really knew what to do with the brand-new medium. Two, he had a knack for spotting the hottest new acts in entertainment and booking them on his show. Yet his was always pitched as a family-friendly program; how would Elvis Presley fit in? Given the immense popularity of the greasy-haired singing sensation, it was only a matter of time before America found out.

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows contains all three of the Ed Sullivan episodes in which Elvis performed, reprised in their entirety as they originally aired on September 9, 1956, October 28, 1956, and January 6, 1957. (The last of these is notorious because Elvis was filmed from the waist up due to his crazed stage behavior in his first two appearances.) One could argue that a DVD consisting solely of Elvis’ performances from these episodes would have served the purpose better, but getting the entire episodes on DVD allows viewers of today to appreciate the context in which Elvis reached unprecedented numbers of American television viewers over 50 years ago. On the first episode, for example, Sullivan was recuperating from a car accident, and this was actually a surprisingly fortunate turn of events. The gloriously uncouth British actor Charles Laughton served as guest host, sharing his off-color, totally inappropriate sense of humor with a presumably appalled audience. Elvis couldn’t possibly have seemed as shocking under these circumstances as he would have had Sullivan been on duty! And throughout all of these episodes, one gets a good idea of just how revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll was at the time. Look at the acts with whom Elvis shared the bill: Indian beauty Amru Sani and Rubenesque Brazilian Leny Eversong delivering dreadfully overwrought performances of popular songs; stage actors singing numbers from the musicals The King And I and The Most Happy Fella; Senor Wences and Arthur Worsley, two of the worst ventriloquists in the world (lest you think that “talent” means the ability to say “a gottle o’ geer” without moving your mouth); the effeminate daredevil acrobat Unus; and an extremely young Carol Burnett doing a hilarious musical comedy routine. But for those who want to go straight to the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” there is direct chapter access so that one can view each song or medley individually, plus there is an “Elvis-Only Playback Option” which allows viewers to watch all of Elvis’ performances from each episode in one fell swoop.

Elvis appears with his classic entourage: Bill Black on bass, Scotty Moore on guitar, D.J. Fontana on drums, and The Jordanaires on backup vocals. These performances are the stuff of legend, all participants brimming with energy and style. “Love Me Tender” proves to be a bit of a challenge for Elvis to perform under these urgent circumstances, but the rockers ROCK beyond belief. Elvis displays contrasting sides to his personality: for all his ostentatious behavior while he’s singing, he proves himself to be a shy, humble person when speaking to the audience. Even during his songs, he is clearly embarrassed and overwhelmed by the number of adoring fans who scream at him almost incessantly. This would explain why he often looks into the audience and chuckles mid-song, but from the number of lyrics he flubs (especially during “Too Much”), one can also surmise that he was nervous. He comes off as a gentle country boy who was not ready for life in the limelight, and this makes Elvis a tragic hero in some respects. It’s sad to think that someone so talented and so vital ended up becoming another statistic in the ages-old story of performers who were simply not ready for success when they found it. Nevertheless, Elvis gives it all he’s got and takes everything in stride; “Don’t Be Cruel” always comes off well, “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” is nice to hear in this setting, and his rendition of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” is truly electrifying. His dedication of the spiritual “Peace In The Valley” to the people of Hungary is especially moving. Hungary at the time was facing stiff Soviet opposition to its attempts to enact democratic reforms, and for Elvis to dedicate a religious song to that struggle was a keen move indeed; remember that in the Soviet bloc, religion was outlawed.

In addition to the actual episodes, the numerous special features give viewers a chance to gain intriguing insight into the relationship between Elvis and Ed Sullivan. Interviews with Sullivan’s producer Marlo Lewis, TV personality Wink Martindale, The Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker, and Elvis’ friend Jerry Schilling illuminate both Elvis’ and Sullivan’s personalities, while Elvis-related clips of later Sullivan episodes indicate that the host really meant it when he famously described Elvis as a “decent, fine boy.” One can tell that Elvis Presley and Ed Sullivan, as different as they were, had a mutual and profound respect and admiration for each other, continuing to support each other’s endeavors long after Elvis’ final Sullivan appearance. An interesting aside about the special features: the back cover of the DVD box implies that the song “Colonel Tom” is an Elvis song, but in reality it is part of a performance by comedian John Byner. Byner’s appearance is from June 21, 1964, and the song is quite similar to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Elvis’ remake of same being his current hit at the time.

The package is bolstered by many more special features, excellent audio and video restoration, and an analytical essay by veteran rock scribe Greil Marcus. This well-conceived collection is a must-have for any rock ‘n’ roll fan who has even a passing interest in the genre’s history. Scratch that; it’s a must-have for anyone who has even a passing interest in the vast cultural history and legacy of these here United States.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.


  1. Your write-up on Elvis is quite good, but I find your review rather off the mark in some of the other areas. Before you write off my comment as that of an old fogie, I should tell you that I am 28 years old and somewhat a historian of the '50's and early '60's.

    First of all, I have had the pleasure of watching over 100 episodes of the Ed Sullivan show (most of them the edited half hour shows from syndication on PBS, Cool TV, and other stations, but some full shows I have collected). In my opinion, Ed Sullivan, was the perfect variety show host. It is an exaggeration to say that he flubbed every line he attempted to say, as you state. He did make quite a few mistakes from time to time, some of which are showcased on the Ed Sullivan specials, but most of the time, he introduced the acts with no problem. It's true that he paused often and was not as polished as the hosts on talk shows today, but this is one of the reasons he was so effective. When Ed Sullivan did brief interviews with his acts or took part in a segment, it all seemed natural and down to earth. He projected an honest sort of authority figure on the show, and never seemed condescending to the viewers. I know someone who met him in real life, and he stated that he was completely friendly and had no problem associating with "common" people. He would treat you just the same as everyone else. This aspect of his personality often shone through on his show.

    He seemed like a friend to the viewers at home, providing info. on the latest trends in entertainment, hit broadway shows, sports figures and sometimes current events (such as when he showed a clip of himself talking to Fidel Castro in the late '50's). Ed was bascially a great personable guy, who was, in my opinion, the perfect host. It is a shame we don't have talk show hosts like him today.

    Now on to some other items. Arthur Worsley was one of the greatest ventriloquists of the time, and very influential to others who followed him. What you need to remember is that the bottle of beer routine was fairly new in the field when he did it, and he was one of the pioneers. It only became a cliche because so many copied him afterwards. Arthur was on Ed's show quite a number of times, and the reason was simply because he was one of the best novelty acts then.

    In addition, Senor Wences is a legend in the novelty field, and I wouldn't classify him as simply a ventriloquist. He was featured on countless variety shows and there is a reason that he was still doing his act on shows like the Paul Daniels Magic Hour into the '90's. If he was really as bad as you say, he wouldn't have lasted so long in the business. Besides his unique voices, he created some very bizarre and interesting characters (such as the head in the box) which charmed audiences for many decades. I remember watching one particular performance of his from an Ed Suvllian show in the '60's, and being astonished at how he could carry on such a hilarious conversation with all of his characters at the same time and in rapid sucession with each other. It's hard to explain in print but I came away very impressed by his talent, humour, and ability of concentration. I think he did all of this, if I remember correctly, while doing the spinning plate act at the same time.

    Finally, you mention that the other acts on the shows display how revolutionary rock and roll was. That may indeed be true, however, I think it should be mentioned, that besides Worsley, Wences and a few others, the acts featured in the Elvis shows (besides Elvis of course), were pretty weak. I do wish other shows would be released from the era with better acts, and it is a shame that the entertainment booked with Elvis was so lacklustre. Sometimes I wonder if Ed simply booked lesser acts on purpose for these shows since Elvis was the big draw. It's also possible that the big acts didn't want to have the competition of Elvis and so did not want to appear on these shows, I don't know.

    Therefore, I will say that there are many many fantastic singers and bands (non rock and roll as well as rock and roll) that appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the '50's, much better than the ones you see on these shows (besides Elvis). There were plenty of good non-rock and roll related acts (music, comedians etc) around before rock came along, and there continued to be for many years afterward. Rock and roll was revolutonary and did change the music industry and North American culture, however, unlike what some critics will tell you (and I'm not referring to you here), there was not nothingness before it came along. There was still a rich culture with many talented singers and musicians. Much attention is paid to rock and roll performers of the '50's, and that's fine since I am a big fan of them myself, but I do think the merits of non-rock and roll music (and performers) from the '50's and early '60's should not be overlooked or forgotten.

    Ideally, if all the existing Ed Sullivan shows were released in season sets, a much greater view of the entire rich entertainment field (and not just the rock and roll aspect) in the '50's and '60's could be had.

  2. As a child I saw Arthur Worsley perform. He was a true master of his craft, and universally recognised as such (do some research... you'll see). Your gratuitous criticism of Arthur won't dent his reputation, but it does undermine your credibility as a critic.

  3. David: My criticism of Arthur Worsley undermines my credibility as a critic? First of all, a critic's job is--to criticize! And secondly, if you'd bothered to read the blurb underneath my photo, you'd see that I am a music journalist, hence the focus on Elvis in my review. Saying nasty things about a ventriloquist does nothing to undermine my credibility as a music journalist. And for that matter, it is quite common for critics to go against the grain and write unfavorable things about acts that are generally considered to be brilliant. You have every right to disagree with my opinion of Arthur Worsley and to state as much in your comment, but it's simply childish to attack my professional integrity because I don't share your views.


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