The Ed Sullivan Shows
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
To quote Ed Sullivan, this is "a really big shoe." This is Elvis, the future "Kang," in his youth. Elvis, the man with more gyrating parts than Sputnik. Elvis, captured on the edge of superstardom in 1956, screamin' like a demon in front of a live audience.
Not many non-card carrying members of A.A.R.P. remember Ed Sullivan. The humpbacked, humorless entertainment writer was one of the most influential syndicated columnists in New York from the 40's to the 70s. He hosted his own TV variety show that ran for an unprecedented 24 years, and was responsible for breaking many musical acts in the States, including The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, and, of course, The Kang. A few lines of copy from Sullivan would get you noticed; an appearance on his Sunday night variety show would expose you to millions of rabid record buying teenagers. If Sullivan took a shine to you and you weren't already a star, you soon would be. Sullivan's stiff-backed stance and baggy-eyed deadpan delivery was the butt of many jokes and inspired comics to mimic the way he dragged out the word "show" until it became "shoe." But he must've been doing something right - a record setting 72 million Americans tuned in to see Elvis Presley's first appearance on his "shoe" - and Sullivan wasn't even on it.
The song selections in the first three segments of the DVD might get a bit monotonous for non-Elvis devotees. That's because Elvis sings "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," and "Hound Dog," during each of his three appearances on Sullivan's show. (Imagine how many times Patti Page had to sing "The Tennessee Waltz" on all the variety shows in the 50s and you begin to understand why Elvis revisited the same songs. The network expected the hits rather than taking a chance on what might be a hit.) Don't be discouraged by a lack of variety, Elvis puts enough of a spin on the songs each time to keep them fresh. He purposely emphasizes the "Hmmm" he ad-libbed before "Don't Be Cruel's" second verse, rolling his eyes suggestively. By his third appearance on Sullivan's show, the gesture becomes somewhat of a running joke and the audience responds with cheers of approval.
What's surprising is Elvis' command of the stage. Yeah, in his later years, Elvis was all about spangles and spectacle. This is young Elvis, pre-Kang. It's just him, a small combo and his back up singers, the Jordanaires. In his first appearance, Elvis plays mostly to the audience, slippin,' sliddin,' and swayin'. By the time he makes his third appearance, The Kang simultaneously plays to the audience and the camera. Even though you can only see him from the shoulders up, he fills the stage. You'll also see him clown around with the audience and -gasp -chuckle during some of the songs. When I got my copy of the lead singer's handbook, page three was all about taking one's craft seriously. You never laugh when you're performing. You want to crack wise, act like Dean Martin between tunes, that's fine -- but never, never interrupt the flow of a song by joking around when you're supposed to be singing. Elvis can get away with it because he has such a mesmerizing stage presence. Check out his concentration during the first version of "Love Me Tender." He knows it's the song's debut; that millions of kids will rush out and buy the 45 on Monday if they like what they hear Sunday night, so he puts on his best forlorn expression and delivers. He's equally focused and serious for "Peace in the Valley" because he loves gospel and it's an opportunity to show the audience he's more than a jukebox. He does "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender" and the other hits for the audience - "Peace in the Valley" is for his own enjoyment.
Elvis' band, particularly legendary rockabilly guitarist Scottie Moore, rock and reel real good. (Natty Scottie is the one wearing the double-breasted suit, holding a wood bodied guitar that would be worth a mint today.) Moore's blustery solo during "Ready Teddy" shows why he's considered an architect of the rock n' roll axe. And pay attention to the Jordanaires, the quartet of back up singers who look like science teachers and sing like archangels. They were the precursors to country quartets like The Statler Brothers, a mix of old time backwoods gospel and barbershop quartet harmony. Elvis thought so much of their considerable talents he used them in the studio and in concert for 14 years. He put their names on his records, an unheard show of respect for back up singers who usually went uncredited on recordings. The quartet is always near by, sometimes so close to Elvis' shoulder he reportedly stepped on their toes whenever he backed up. The Jordanaires really get to air it out when Elvis sings "Peace in the Valley." Their harmonic synergy with Elvis is inspiring; you don't hear vocal magic of that magnitude very often.
Since it was shot in 1956, the footage is in glorious black and white, which helps tone down the somewhat garish girly make up and blonde highlights Elvis sports during his first appearance. He's also shot mostly from the waist up because censors in the 50s were worried Sullivan's conservative, show tune loving, Borscht Belt embracing audience would be offended by his sexually suggestive swaying. (Sullivan's crew actually believed Elvis put a Coke bottle in his trousers to show America how he was happy to see us.)
Since the Ed Sullivan Show appearances run a fast 45 minutes, there's plenty of room for some Elvis vignettes in the extras, including "Special Elvis Moments," "Remembering Ed and Elvis," and "Jerry Schilling's Home Movies."
You'll learn why it was actor Charles Laughton and not Ed Sullivan who introduced The Kang's debut on the show. Charlie appears to have tipped a few beforehand and isn't all that familiar with the subtleties of using a teleprompter. Laughton was one of the most distinguished and respected actors of his generation, and he tries to fake his way through the task of M.C.ing a historic performance, but he's obviously under rehearsed, at one point saying with a smile, "Music soothes the savage breast."
"Elvis Moments" include comedy routines by night and day comedians John Byner and Jack Carter. Byner, a master impressionist, imitates Sullivan and Elvis, then sings "Colonel Parker," a lampoon about the debt The Kang owed to his manager, Colonel Parker. (If John only knew the truth.) Carter, who could be as surly as a starved junkyard dog, appears in one of the few color segments, dealing out shtick "Ed brought us The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals... There hasn't been a human being on his show for three years."
The bonus for Elvis aficionados is the never before seen color footage shot by Jerry Schilling. Schilling, a member of the "Memphis Mafia," (Elvis' highly pampered entourage), found a home movie of Elvis performing at a county fair. He also unveils home movies of Elvis, his wife Pricilla, and then one-year old daughter Lisa Marie riding horses. (Elvis' named his horse after Sun Records.) There are shots of The Kang on the set of his movies with his favorite co-star, Shelley Fabares ("The Donna Reed Show," "Coach"), and a glimpse of a young actor who'd go on to marry Farrah Fawcett and portray "The Six Million Dollar Man."
"Remembering Elvis and Ed" offers up comments from the likes of Gordon Stoker, a member of The Jordanaires, Sullivan show producer Marlo Lewis, disc jockey George Klein, TV game show host Wink Martindale, and record mogul Sam Phillips. A still awed Stoker comments, "No one could put more feeling into a song than Elvis. He lived each song he was recording." Phillips is criminally immodest about giving Elvis his first record contract, but concedes, "It's no mystery at all that he became the biggest thing in entertainment."
I understand Wink Martindale's importance in Elvis' lore. He was insightful enough to film one of Elvis' earliest interviews - too bad it's not shown. (I smell a Wink meets The Kang DVD.) But if you're in your 70's, sporting a fake Buster Poindexter 'do and you're still being called "Wink," it's hard for anyone to take you too seriously.
Fire up the bacon and banana sandwiches, put on your sequined jump suit and check out Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. It's a hunk of burnin' love.