Remembering TV Pioneer Ed Sullivan

The influential and legendary host of The Ed Sullivan Show died on this day in 1974

*Remembering TV Pioneer Ed Sullivan

One of the biggest hosts in TV history, a talent hunter and starmaker, sometimes controversial, Ed Sullivan was born Edward Vincent Sullivan on September 28, 1901 in Harlem, New York City where he was raised a Catholic, early in his life he was an athlete, a journalist and radio host. In 1948 he was hired by CBS network to do a weekly Sunday-night TV variety show called “Toast of the Town” that later became known as “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

The Ed Sullivan Show 1948-1971

His mannerisms on camera were awkward, he usual showed a unusual stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal tenor phrasing but this would become his trademark image. During the 1950’s and 1960’s Sullivan was the biggest star-maker in the U.S, he often paid a great deal of money to secure artists that he thought were talented for his show. About this, he said: “In the conduct of my own show, I’ve never asked a performer his religion, his race or his politics. Performers are engaged on the basis of their abilities. I believe that this is another quality of our show that has helped win it a wide and loyal audience”. A typical show would feature a vaudeville act (acrobats, jugglers, magicians, etc.), one or two popular comedians, a singing star, a hot jukebox favorite, a figure from the legitimate theater, and for the kids, a visit with puppet “Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse”, or a popular athlete. The bill was often international in scope, with many European performers augmenting the American artists. Ed Sullivan was a big fan of African-American talent, in a time of strong segregation in the United States, Sullivan never hesitated in bringing black artists to his show, this got him in trouble a few times as biographer Gerald Nachman wrote: “Sullivan had to fend off his hard-won sponsor, Ford’s Lincoln dealers, after kissing Pearl Bailey on the cheek and daring to shake Nat King Cole’s hand,”, in another event, according to biographer Jerry Bowles, “Sullivan once had a Ford executive thrown out of the theater when he suggested that Sullivan stop booking so many black acts. And a dealer in Cleveland told him ‘We realize that you got to have niggers on your show. But do you have to put your arm around Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson at the end of his dance?’ Sullivan had to be physically restrained from beating the man to a pulp. During the early years of the show, Sullivan would hire obscure black artists that he thought were talented, defying the segregation rules at the time, some of these artists were Peg Leg Bates, Pigmeat Markham and Tim Moore who weren’t artists particularly admired or known by most of his white audience. Later he also brought Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr. This became more common during the 1960′ s when some of the most popular black artists of the time had their first or early TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, such as Bo Diddley, the Platters, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, and numerous Motown acts, including the Supremes, who appeared 17 times and Michael Jackson with The Jackson Five. Sullivan was also responsible for launching the Beatlemania in the U.S when he invited The Beatles to his show in 1964. Back then he British band hadn’t had any real sinificant hits in the U.S, that was typically a hard (and sometimes impossible) market for European or British acts. Knowing how the band was doing well worldwide he brought them to The Ed Sullivan Show, On February 9th, 1964 the Beatlemania broke in the U.S in a giant proportion never before seen by any British band or artist, it was the most-watched program in TV history to that point, and remains one of the most-watched programs of all time.T he Beatles appeared three more times in person, and submitted filmed performances later making a total of 13 appearances on the show, more than any other UK group. But despite him being uniquely liberal and open-minded for the time , Sullivan, paradoxically also had a conservative side that created feuds with several popular artists during the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. He was self-indulgent, possibly due to his reputation and fame at the time, he disliked and could create a grudge for life for someone who’d defy his judgement or not kept his word with him, he knew his show lived from sponsors and was constantly under pressure from CBS to not let the show fall into what they’d consider obscene or vulgar. When Sullivan first heard about Elvis Presley, he was reluctant to have him on the show, this was because of the “scandalous” behavior that surrounded Presley’s performances at the time, for example the “sensual” way he moved his hips. Sullivan thought it wasn’t appropriated for TV, however he could no longer ignore the demand for Elvis Presley and in 1956, signed him for three appearances.n August 1956, Sullivan was injured in an automobile accident and missed Presley’s first appearance on September 9. Charles Laughton wound up introducing Presley on the Sullivan hour. After Sullivan got to know Presley personally, he made amends by telling his audience, “This is a real decent, fine boy.”, despite that, Elvis was filmed from the waist up during most of these late 1950’s performances.

Famous Feuds

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Some of artists that Sullivan got into serial feuds with were Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, David Crosby, Jim Morrison. One of the first examples of this was in 1955 when for his second appearance on the show, Bo Diddley planned to sing his namesake hit, “Bo Diddley”, but Sullivan told him to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song “Sixteen Tons””That would have been the end of my career right there,” said Diddley years later, so he sang “Bo Diddley” anyway. Sullivan was enraged: “You’re the first black boy that ever double-crossed me on the show,” Diddley quoted him as saying. “We didn’t have much to do with each other after that.” For Buddy Holly and The Crickets second appearance in January 1958, Sullivan considered the lyrics of their chosen song “Oh, Boy!” too suggestive, and ordered Holly to substitute another song. Holly responded that he had already told his hometown friends in Texas that he would be singing “Oh, Boy!” for them. Sullivan, unaccustomed to having his instructions questioned, angrily repeated them, but Holly refused to back down. Later, when the band was slow to respond to a summons to the rehearsal stage, Sullivan commented, “I guess the Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Holly, still annoyed by Sullivan’s attitude, replied, “I hope they’re damn more excited than I am.” Sullivan retaliated by cutting them from two numbers to one, then mispronounced Holly’s name during the introduction. He also saw to it that Holly’s guitar amplifier was turned off. Nevertheless, the band was received so well that Sullivan was forced to invite them back; Holly responded that Sullivan did not have enough money. In 1965 when The Byrds performed on the show, David Crosby got into a shouting match with the show’s director, the whole band was asked to not return by Sullivan. In 1967 The Rolling Stones famously capitulated during their fifth appearance on the show when Mick Jagger was told to change the lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s spend some time together”, but Jagger prevailed by deliberately calling attention to the censorship, rolling his eyes, mugging, and drawing out the word “t-i-i-i-me” as he sang the revised lyric. Sullivan was angered by the insubordination, however the Stones did make one additional appearance on the show, in 1969 as their fame was too big to be ignored by CBS. One of the most famous episodes happened in 1967 when The Doors were invited to do six shows.Sullivan who didn’t wanted to miss any oportunity to be considered a starmaker or talent promoter, brought The Doors to The Ed Sullivan Show to perform their No.1 hit “Light My Fire”, this was the first time The Doors were going to play in national TV, however, Sullivan thought that the lyrics of the song were “too explicit”, particularly the word “higher”. Sullivan thought that The Doors would easily accept his request to change the lyrics because of the promotion they were getting just like The Rolling Stones earlier that year had done, the band agreed to do so but did the contrary, but Jim Morrison was no Mick Jagger and not only he sang the original lyrics of “Light My Fire” but also yelled “higher” and “fire” in what became one of Rock music history seminal moments. After the broadcast, producer Bob Precht told the group, “Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you’ll never work the Ed Sullivan Show again.” Jim Morrison replied, “Hey, man, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show.” The Doors never returned to the show. Other artists simply rejected appearing on the show, notably Bob Dylan who was booked to appear in May 1963, his chosen song was “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, which poked fun at the ultraconservative John Birch Society and its tendency to see Communist conspiracies in many situations, on the day of the broadcast, CBS’s Standards and Practices department rejected the song and he was asked to play a different one, Dylan responded that if he could not sing the number of his choice, he would rather not appear at all.

The End Of An Era

After decades of success and specially a very successful 1960’s decade, in 1971, the show’s ratings begun to plunge. In an effort to refresh its lineup, CBS canceled the program along with some of its other longtime shows. Sullivan was angered, and refused to do a final show, although he remained with the network in various other capacities and hosted a 25th anniversary special in June 1973. This was the end of a golden era, for TV and Sullivan. Toward the end of his life Ed Sullivan started to suffer from dementia, Paul McCartney remembers meeting Sullivan again in the early 1970’s. Sullivan apparently had no idea who McCartney was. McCartney tried to remind Sullivan that he was one of the Beatles, but Sullivan obviously could not remember, and nodding and smiling, simply shook McCartney’s hand and left. In early September 1974, X-rays revealed that Sullivan had an advanced growth of esophageal cancer. Ed Sullivan died five weeks later on October 13, 1974, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital with 73 years old. The CBS Studio where he filmed The Ed Sullivan Show since 1948 was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theater on December 10th, 1967.

Ed Sullivan highly regarded today as one of the main pioneers in modern TV entertainment, his show could feature in one hour the variety that hundreds of channels feature today. He inspired several future TV Hosts and the eclectic group of music acts that performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, even the ones that got into conflict with his demands and suggestions, are some of the best the world has ever seen on TV. Ed Sullivan and The Ed Sullivan Show holds a very special and privileged place in Pop Culture imagery to this day.

*Based on an original article published by Pop Expresso in September, 2017

Now watch our Top 20 Of The Best Musical Moments From The Ed Sullivan Show


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