The King of Rock and Roll teams up with TV’s reigning variety program, as Elvis Presley appears on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time on September 9, 1956.
After earning big ratings for “The Steve Allen Show,” the Dorsey Brothers “Stage Show” and “The Milton Berle Show,” Sullivan finally reneged on his Presley ban, signing the controversial singing star to an unprecedented $50,000 contract for three appearances.
With 60 million viewers—or 82.6 percent of TV viewers at the time—tuning in, the appearance garnered the show’s best ratings in two years and became the most-watched TV broadcast of the 1950s.
Although “The Ed Sullivan Show” was filmed in New York, Presley performed remotely from CBS’s Los Angeles studio (he was filming his first movie, “Love Me Tender,” in California). At the time, his first album, “Elvis Presley” had already debuted and “Heartbreak Hotel” was a hit single, but he wasn’t quite yet “The King.”
On the variety show, Presley, then 21, was introduced by British actor Charles Laughton, who was filling in for Sullivan that night, as the legendary host was at home recovering from a serious car accident. Presley performed “Don’t Be Cruel,” Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and “Hound Dog” and viewers got a full head-to-toe look at the singer despite fears of “vulgar” hip-shaking gyrations. He also sang “Love Me Tender” and, according to Variety, “For the first time in the history of the record business, a single record has achieved one million sales before being released to the public.”
Presley, clad in a plaid jacket, told the audience performing on the show was “probably the greatest honor I have ever had in my life,” before kicking things off with “Don’t Be Cruel.” He said, “Thank you, ladies,” to the screaming fans and then introduced “Love Me Tender” as “completely different from anything we’ve ever done.”
During his second segment, Presley sang “Ready Teddy” and “Hound Dog.” Laughton’s closing remarks that night? “Well, what did someone say? Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast?”
“When it was over, parents and critics, as usual, did a lot of futile grumbling at the vulgarity of this strange phenomenon that must somehow be reckoned with,” a reviewer for Time magazine wrote at the time.
Other guests that night included singers Dorothy Sarnoff and Amru Sani, a comedy act from novelty quartet The Vagabonds, a tap dancing duo and an acrobat act.
During his second performance on October 28, 1956, Presley once again performed “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” along with “Love Me Tender.” And during his third and final performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on January 6, 1957, he sang seven songs, including the gospel song “Peace in the Valley,” over three segments, but the episode is most famously remembered for TV censors refusing to show Elvis below the waist.
At the end of his performance, however, Sullivan called Presley “a real decent, fine boy. … We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you.”