Gotta Find My Baby!

May 06, 2022

Elvis On TV: The First Appearances

Even before performing alongside Frank Sinatra, his return to the stage in 1968, Aloha From Hawaii and Elvis In Concert, Elvis was already controversial in his TV appearances.

In fact, it was his first performances that put the world on top of that kid from Memphis - and the censors on the brink of madness.

In retrospect, the fantastic performances in 1956 definitively established him as the King of Rock.

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THE DORSEY BROTHERS STAGE SHOW (JANUARY 28 - MARCH 24, 1956)

Elvis with Tommy (L) and Jimmy Dorsey (R) in 1956


Most people believe that it was Ed Sullivan who introduced Elvis Presley to the world on his popular variety show on CBS-TV in 1956.

Elvis fans know, though, that that honor really belongs to musicians Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and their Stage Show, from the same channel as Sullivan, where Presley first appeared on national TV (Elvis had appeared briefly during a broadcast of The Louisiana Hayride to the Southern US in 1955) on January 28, 1956, more than seven months before his first appearance with Sullivan.

Between that day and March 24 of that year, Elvis appeared on the Dorsey brothers show for six Saturday nights. The contract, negotiated by Harry Kalcheim of the William Morris Agency, contained an option for two more appearances. When they were completed, Presley's fee was increased to $1500 per show.

Elvis was respectful to Tommy Dorsey when the two met for rehearsals at the New York studios ahead of the January 28 initial performance.

In rehearsal, Jackie Gleason declared: "I don't like this guy." Dorsey did not agree. "I like his ass," he joked with Gleason.

Most of Dorsey's band members were uncomfortable with Elvis, actually. "During our rehearsal with him, some guys got out of the groove laughing at Elvis," musician Pat Chartrand recalled. "It was so shocking for all of us, we couldn't believe it." Musician John Frosk added: "We didn't like him because he looked dirty, and he needed a haircut. We thought he never bathed." When rehearsal ended, Tommy Dorsey predicted: "Look at that guy, Elvis Presley - he's going to be one of the biggest names in show business in no time."

New York DJ Bill Randall introduced Elvis that first night. "We think he's going to make television history tonight," Randall said. Elvis performed two standard R&B - "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "I Got a Woman".

"Presley's national debut on the Stage Show was like nothing anyone had ever seen on national television," says Tommy Dorsey biographer Peter J. Levinson. "It was the raw versus baked-on prosperity, post-war versus pre-war ownership, an atomic burst of sexual vitality that obliterated the pale remnants of Depression-era glamour. The crew even violated television etiquette by daring to film Presley below the belt!"

Elvis wore a black shirt with a white tie, dark pants and a white striped tweed jacket. Presley, wide-eyed, had a loose smile as his body spun with unabashed sexuality. A strong Blues and Country essence emanated from the handsome young singer, whose topknot fell over his face, adding even more to his appeal.

Not surprisingly, Elvis' appearance generated a flood of letters from enraged viewers who couldn't understand how the respected Dorsey brothers could allow someone like Presley on their show. However, the Stage Show ratings soared, and they brought him back for the next five Saturdays.

Elvis, Scotty, Bill & DJ during their first appearence on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show; January 28, 1956


For the second appearance on the Stage Show on February 4, Elvis was the only guest star. He sang "Tutti Frutti" and "Baby Let's Play House".

On February 11, sharing billings with comedian Jackie Mills and Ella Fitzgerald, he performed "Blue Suede Shoes" and his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel". Presley featured his single again in his fifth and sixth appearances, on March 17 and 24. At that time, the song was climbing the Billboard Top 100, and several weeks later it would reach No. 1 for seven consecutive weeks.

The standard perspective of Elvis historians over the years has been that Colonel Parker and RCA imposed the then little-known Presley on the unflinching Dorsey brothers, who continue to deliver the sound of the Big Band past.

Elvis' performance of "Heartbreak Hotel" at the February 11 show was a milestone in Dorsey's history, as the band and singer went completely out of tune during the performance. The fault lay not with Elvis or the band, but with the Dorsey orchestra, who tried to fill the song with a complete arrangement, but only got confused; unable to keep up with the singer, they performed the entire last verse out of time. That was the end of the Dorseys' fancy arrangements.

Levinson summed up the significance of Elvis Presley's six appearances on the Dorsey brothers' show as follows: "His arsenal of bumps and grinds again shocked, terrified and delighted television audiences. In those years, that same audience took for granted the homilies and assurances - and, yes, the mediocrity - represented by artists like Arthur Godfrey, who perhaps can be described as a kind of country redneck uncle. Elvis Presley represented the complete antithesis of it all. He had nothing to learn from Tommy Dorsey musically. "

There was irony in Tommy Dorsey providing Elvis with a national stage on which to build his popularity. Presley would soon surpass Dorsey as the best-selling studio artist in RCA history. Still, Tommy Dorsey remained an Elvis supporter.

Their paths almost crossed again three months after Presley's last appearance on the Stage Show. Both were in Charlotte, North Carolina in June for shows at the Coliseum – Elvis on the 26th and Dorsey on the 28th. "I don't particularly care about his type of music," Dorsey told a reporter in Charlotte, "but that's the teens' choice and if they like it, we'll give it to them. Only time will tell if he has lasting qualities. Young people want Elvis and they should be able to have him as they want."
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THE MILTON BERLE SHOW (APRIL 3 - JUNE  5, 1956)

On April 3, 1956, The Milton Berle Show, one of the most popular programs of the Golden Age of television, was broadcast live on NBC-TV from the deck of the USS Hancock while docked at Naval Air Force Base in San Diego, California.

Elvis was now being handled directly by Colonel Parker, as Bob Neal's contract expired on March 24, 1956, the day after the release of Elvis' first LP on RCA. The show starred Esther Williams, Berle's comedy sidekick Arnold Stang, and the Harry James Orchestra with Buddy Rich and brought in co-stars Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ.

The trio played three songs; they were 1-minute maximum truncated versions of "Shake Rattle & Roll", "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Blue Suede Shoes" - the latter receiving a reprise at the end of the show. Elvis also performed a comedy sketch with Milton Berle playing his supposed twin brother, Melvin Presley. It was the first time they had performed before an audience of military personnel.

Members of Elvis' fan clubs received a flyer from the Colonel to publicly thank Milton Berle for bringing the singer to his show and helping to promote upcoming concerts in San Diego.

Flyers distributed by Parker to Elvis fan clubs

The King of Rock obviously had many notable moments during his career, but Elvis Presley's most significant musical performance came on June 5, 1956, when he appeared on national television on Milton Berle's show. His sexually charged rendition of "Hound Dog" that night, and the virulent condemnation that flowed from the press and public, pushed Presley to the forefront of the cultural battle for the hearts and minds of teenagers in the mid-fifties.

Several factors made Presley's second appearance on The Milton Berle Show different from his previous appearances.

First, there was the decision to do "Hound Dog". Elvis had been singing the provocative number on stage for some time, but this was the first time the entire country had seen it. "Several reporters and columnists were in attendance at the June 4 rehearsal, as well as guests like Debra Paget, actress Irish McCalla, 'Sheena of the Jungle' and seven-year-old Barry 'Boy Wonder' Gordon, but Elvis was the big one in the spotlight," noted Herald-Express columnist Bob Hull.

The interview during rehearsal seemed to play on Elvis' Rock and Roll reputation. Berle told the gathered journalists: "This boy sings music the way children who love him talk." Elvis added: "All I do is sing... I want to sing ballads, stuff like Harry Belafonte does. I can't help it if Rock and Roll is popular now. I like it and I enjoy it."

Bob Hull gave a relaxed impression of Presley: "Elvis ... is not at all like your singing style," he concluded in his Herald-Express column the next morning. "You'd expect him to be a real character, a thief, a beast, which he's not. He's just a regular young man who has a salable style, three Cadillacs, two diamond rings, a jeweled watch, and a mission in life."

Of Elvis' style, Hull explained: "He really squirms when he's doing the R&B numbers. Some people, particularly in the elderly group, call it exhibitionism. Some, like Berle, say it's marketing." Obviously, Hull did not anticipate the stormy reaction to Presley's performance that night.

The Milton Berle Show aired on NBC-TV at 8 pm that Tuesday, June 5, 1956. Elvis sang his current hit, "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You", and participated in comedic sketches with Berle and Debra Paget. However, this was all background noise. All people would talk about for the next few days was the 2 minutes and 30 seconds it took Elvis to perform his "Hound Dog".

Instead of a guitar, Presley used a microphone for support. The first 90 seconds were uptempo; the final minute was more provocative, with Elvis tilting the mic towards him and performing a series of slow pelvic thrusts. The microphone could represent a phallic object or a woman Elvis was making love to. In any case, the sexual symbolism was very obvious. The evening's audience revealed that Elvis' controversial appearance had allowed Milton Berle's show to beat contestant Phil Silvers for the first time in several months.

Elvis at The Milton Berle Show; June 5, 1956
Still, the review was hot and heavy for several quarters.

New York syndicated columnists led the assault on Elvis. "Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability," stated Jack Gould in The New York Times the morning after Berle's show. "His specialty is the rhythmic songs which he does in an indistinct moan; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotypical variations that accompany the aria of a beginner in a bathtub."

Instead of voice, Gould was convinced that Elvis' talent lay elsewhere: "He's a Rock-and-Roll variation on one of the most standard acts in show business: the hootchy-kootchy virtuoso. His specialty is an accentuated movement of the body that until now has been identified mainly with the repertoire of blonde dancers in burlesque shows. The 'spin' has never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn't."

Daily News television editor Ben Gross agreed in his June 8 column: "Popular music has been shipwrecked in this country for some years now," he noted. "Now it's reached its lowest depths in the little words and hips of one Elvis Presley. The TV audience got a noxious sampling at the Milton Berle show the other night. Elvis, who rotates his pelvis, was terrible musically. A suggestive and vulgar display, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to brothels... This new phenomenon, as he sings, indulges in bumps and grinds and other movements, would bring a flush to the cheeks of a knight knowledgeable in burlesque theater. He wiggles and writhes, scratches and scratches, twists and turns as if he were taking a disgusting approach to a dancing victim... No wonder there were so many reports of teenage riots and other explosions in cities where Elvis has made personal appearances."

In the Journal American, columnist Jack O'Brien conjured up pretty much the same image: "Elvis Presley rocked and squirmed with abdominal twists like a burlesque dancer... planned, suggestive, of an aboriginal mating dance."

In the Herald Tribune, television critic John Crosby lashed out: "One thing about Elvis Presley, the convulsive vibrator of Rock and Roll music, is that he could be the end of Rock and Roll after a return to musical sanity. I mean, where are you going with Elvis Presley? The last appearance of this enviable inexplicable and vulgar animator produced a storm of complaints from both the press and the public, which I imagine any animator would hesitate to try again on television. But, as I said, where do you go with Elvis, without overt and against the law obscenity? Popular music has been in a meltdown for years and I am hopeful that with Presley it has hit rock bottom and will only have to start getting better."

The assaults on Presley also came from other directions. In a letter to Milton Berle, music teacher Harry A. Feldman criticized Elvis' influence on teenagers' music and morals: "Elvis Presley presented something with execrable taste, bordering on obscenity," he stated.

On June 7, WNEW New York disc jockey Jerry Marshall decided to censor Elvis on his radio show: "I think Elvis and the people who manage him should be interested in his future and build his popularity on something more enduring than a current craze. Elvis will have to put the twists and turns of the pelvis aside in his burlesque circus shows."

The bottom line on Elvis' controversial performance on The Milton Berle Show's "Hound Dog" on June 5, 1956 is that all of Presley's accumulated conviction immediately made him even more popular. Critics continued to denounce Presley, but his growing number of young supporters came to his defense.

During the first half of 1956, when Elvis Presley brought his show to town, local press coverage varied widely. After June 5, however, Elvis was front-page news everywhere he went. No single event gave Elvis Presley's career a greater boost than that provided by those two and a half minutes of Rock at Uncle Miltie's show on June 5, 1956.
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THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (JULY 1, 1956)

Animator Steve Allen was in a quandary when controversy erupted over Presley's performance on the Milton Berle show.

Allen disapproved of the airing, but was contractually obligated to feature Elvis on his NBC variety show on July 1. Allen felt the need to address the issue, and so, just days before the appearance, he wrote a letter of reply to television critic Charles Mercer.

It appeared in newspapers across the country. At first, Allen appeared to defend Elvis on the one hand, while agreeing with his critics on the other.

"The anti-Presley arguments I've been hearing seem a little illogical," Allen explained. "You see, he made a lot of TV appearances before Berle's show, all without arousing any tone or crying, so there can't be a firm foundation to keep him off TV altogether. The heart of the matter is that he got distracted by certain movements that many people found objectionable." On the subject of talent, Allen again pondered: "Who's to say Elvis isn't talented? You say that, and a few million people might support you, but I'm sure millions more will rise to his defense saying he's brimming with talent."

Allen then, surprisingly, takes it upon himself to apologize on Elvis' behalf: "He knows he made a mistake with Milton Berle," he stated, "and I think he's smart enough not to do it again. We all make mistakes, right? And we all like to be forgiven." Allen closed his written apology by assuring viewers that they "will not be offended by Elvis on any show I control. We are going to show you a new side of the boy."

Elvis returned to New York on June 29, 1956 to begin rehearsals for The Steve Allen Show. Due to the controversy over "Hound Dog" and to detract from Elvis' sexy performance, the initial order was to put him in a tuxedo that he would wear to sing the song to a basset hound named Sherman.

Many Elvis fans never forgave Steve Allen for this, saying it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate and ridicule Rock 'n' Roll which Allen made no secret of not liking. Allen disputed this. Nearly 40 years later, he insisted he meant no disrespect and that Elvis was aware and found it hilarious. On the Steve Allen show aired on July 1, 1956, in addition to "Hound Dog", Elvis sang "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You".

Elvis & Steve Allen; July 1, 1956


Later that night, he gave a live phone interview for the Hy Gardner Show: "I don't feel like I'm doing anything wrong," he told Gardner. "I don't see how any kind of music would have any bad influence on people. How would Rock 'n' Roll music make someone rebel against their parents?"

The next day, July 2, Elvis went to RCA's studio in the city and recorded, for seven hours, his versions of "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel", which would become his most successful singles, accumulating 11 weeks at number one on the charts, in addition to the ballad "Any Way You Want Me". This was the first session where Elvis made it clear that he was the real producer of his records.

He recorded 31 takes of "Hound Dog" before feeling like he had one just the way he wanted it. Elvis would never enter a New York studio again.
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THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW (SEPTEMBER 9, 1956 - JANUARY 6, 1957)

Although Ed Sullivan said he would never want Elvis on his show, he changed his mind when Steve Allen had about twice as many viewers as his show that night. After negotiating with Elvis' agent, Ed Sullivan paid the enormous sum - at the time - of $50,000 for three appearances on his show.

Elvis' first appearance on September 9, 1956 was by far the most significant of his three at the Sullivan show.

With The Jordanaires standing behind him, Elvis opened his portion of the show with "Don't Be Cruel," the recording which was about to begin a seven-week reign at the top of the Billboard singles chart. The highlight of the performance was "Ready Teddy", as the cameras showed a bit of Elvis' torso in motion for a few moments. Elvis used the Jordanaires and his band to create the same spectacle as his own shows and he was really enjoying himself.

According to Jordanaire Gordon Stoker, Elvis believed that Sullivan's show appearance could make or break his career: "He was nervous and didn't want to be alone on stage. He kept us as close as possible. We were so close that when he came back, he could step on our toes."

The Jordanaires received extraordinary camera coverage on all of Presley's appearances on the show, but his band, however, was far less visible. Scotty, Bill and D.J. were seen on camera only three times, once in each show. The rest of the time they played their parts live on stage, but off camera.

This performance was the trigger for all the controversy surrounding Sullivan and the alleged order to film Elvis only from the waist up. On the surface, it suggests that Ed Sullivan refused to allow cameras to film Presley below his belt. But as noted with "Ready Teddy", this was not completely true. In addition to that number, Elvis can be seen from head to toe when he performed "Love Me" and "Hound Dog" on the October 28 show and while singing "Peace in the Valley" on January 6, 1957.

On the other hand, it has been reported frequently over the years that Presley was filmed from the waist up only when he played "Hound Dog" in the initial show. This statement is also inaccurate; the cameras never ventured below Elvis' belt in other renditions, and at the January 1957 show, they filmed him only from the navel up. Overall, the controversy over Sullivan's "from the waist up" is still open for debate.

An awkward moment for Elvis, which took place on the October 28 show, rarely seems to come up in discussions of Sullivan's show appearances. Halfway through "Love Me", Elvis froze and forgot the lyrics. It's unclear if one of the Jordanaires whispered it to him or if he recovered on his own, but it must have been a terrifying moment, knowing a large national audience was looking at him in his momentary blank.


Elvis at The Ed Sullivan Show; September 9, 1956

Elvis' third and final appearance on Sullivan's show on January 6, 1957 contains the legendary moments when the CBS censors would not allow his entire body to be shown.

Elvis even put on an emotional show, singing seven songs in three segments. In one segment, he and the Jordanaires sang "Peace in the Valley", which Elvis dedicated to an earthquake victims in Eastern Europe. Sullivan closed the show with a seal of approval for this new family-friendly version of Elvis, saying: "This is a good boy, decent and nice. We've never had a more enjoyable experience with a big name."

This was Elvis' last television appearance until the Frank Sinatra Special in 1960. When Sullivan's show ended, Elvis boarded the midnight train to Memphis, where on Tuesday, January 8, he would celebrate his 22nd birthday.
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