September 9, 1956: Elvis sings on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’
Elvis Presley is one of the most iconic musical performers of all time. Fans love his music and he made teenage girls swoon in the 1950s and ‘60s. But his September 9, 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show solidified his career—becoming the most-watched TV broadcast of the 1950s. But Ed Sullivan didn’t want Presley to appear on his program at all.
A controversial performer
In 2019, it’s hard to imagine Elvis Presley as ever being “controversial.” However, in the 1950s, Presley was viewed as an entirely different performer. He became known for his sultry looks, swinging hips, and dynamic vocal style, and these characteristics drove teenagers wild with love for the rock n’ roll star.
His June 5, 1956 appearance on The Milton Berle Show was met with immediate controversy due to his pelvis-shaking intensity. Critics [and parents] criticized the performance for its “appalling lack of musicality,” “for its “vulgarity,” and its “animalism.” The Catholic Church warned church members to “Beware Elvis Presley.” Adults were concerned Presley was a poor role model for teenagers.
After Berle’s show, Ed Sullivan, whose variety show was the highest-rated variety program of the 1950s, declared he would never sign Presley. Steve Allen, who had already booked the musician for his variety hour, was pressured by NBC to cancel the performance. Allen promised Presley wouldn’t offend his viewers.
A change of heart
Allen kept his promise. During the July 1956 performance, Presley dressed in white formal wear and sang Hound Dog to a basset hound. The show received high ratings. Due to the program’s success, and Presley’s appearances on other programs, Sullivan had a change of heart and agreed the rock ‘n roll star could appear on his variety show. Presley was signed to a $50,000 contract to make three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sixty million viewers tuned in to watch Presley’s appearance on the program, making it the most-watched live television broadcast of the 1950s. Clad in a plaid jacket, Presley told the audience that the performance was “probably the greatest honor I have ever had in my life.” He performed classic hits, including Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, and Love Me Tender. From then on, Presley would continue to enchant audiences with his musical talents and the effortless way he would declare, “Thank you, thank you very much.”