- Historic Sites
The Ed Sullivan Age
He took vaudeville, Broadway, the tabloids, and, with his strange, gray, tongue-tied genius, melded them into a working model of a better America
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
A white man wrote “Blll Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” just as George Gershwin wrote the music of “Swanee” and Al JoIson sang it. Irving Berlin, who was Jewish, wrote both “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” As well as a New York neighborhood, Tin Pan Alley was a wise-guy state of mind. Whatever you wanted, they’d write it: sentimental ballads, comical immigrant medleys, Broadway show tunes, ragtime, even “coon songs.” They also wrote the score for Ed’s home movie of an innocent and consensual America. Creepy to remember, but no singer appeared on his show as often as Connie Francis. Nor did we lack for Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Gordon MacRae, Parti Page, Wayne Newton, Vikki Carr, Liberace, and Tiny Tim. For the longest time even black entertainers like Nat “King” Cole and Leslie Uggams sounded as pink and squeaky clean as Pat Boone.
It wasn’t exactly elevator music. Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey could blast through the wax in our ears. What Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan did to standards was what alchemists had tried and failed to do to base metals. When they weren’t stopping the show, Lena Home and Nina Simone knew how to slow it down and make it think. But each appearance of a “mongrel” music, the distilled sound of an aggrieved subculture outside Ed’s Dream Palace, had a fugitive quality. When Nashville and Motown learned at last how to plug their own songs on radio, they’d do terrible things to Tin Pan Alley. Rock, of course, would take elevator music down to hell, and Ed’s show with it.
But without pop standards there would have been no show. They were more than the punctuation of the program; they were its sculptured space. Anything might happen, but someone always sang. And what got sung was the latest hit. Ed was about hits, and to make sure he had an uninterrupted flow of them, he had entered into a mutual-assistance pact with Tin Pan Alley that amounted to a codependency. He needed the top ten. And by appearing on his show, you stayed in the top ten, the way a book on The New York Times bestseller list will sell enough copies to remain there for months; it must be good. Besides, showing up twice a year on Ed guaranteed a singer year-round club dates, plus constant play on the radio and jukebox.
This was less hanky-panky than a synergetic shakedown of mass-communications conglomerates. (If you need hanky-panky, look to CBS Records, with whom Ed had a cozy deal, which is why we heard so much My Fair Lady and so little Frank Sinatra, who belonged to Capitol.) As if to signify this codependence, Ed ordered fancy sets built for every singing act, and no set was ever used a second time. In other words, music video. But you had to go live and couldn’t lipsynch. Because Mary Tyler Moore insisted on synching, she was banished from the show, a sort of premature Milli Vanilli.
Well then, rock. Ed passed on Elvis the first time around in 1955, at a loose-change price of five thousand dollars. In July 1956, however, a terrible thing happened to Ed on his way to the Trendex ratings. Elvis appeared on Steve Alien’s brand-new Sunday show directly opposite Ed. The Monday news was Ed, 14.8; Elvis, 20.2. To reporters calling for his reaction Ed said, “I don’t think Elvis Presley is fit for family viewing.” But that afternoon he was on the phone to Tom Parker, striking a fifty-thousand-dollar deal for three spots.
And contrary to what you think you remember, when Elvis showed up for the first of these, in September, we saw all of him. Having been burned in effigy in St. Louis, hanged in effigy in Nashville, and banned, at least his lower body parts, in the state of Florida, the full-frontal Elvis didn’t seem so awfully shocking. It was the second Elvis appearance that got shot only from the waist up, because producer Mario Lewis had heard a rumor that a playful Elvis had taken to hanging a soda-pop bottle in the crotch of his trousers. Ed actually decided to like Elvis after a press conference in which a reporter asked if he was embarrassed when “silly little girls” kissed his white Cadillac. The King replied: “Well, ma’am, if it hadn’t been for what you call those silly little girls I wouldn’t have that white Cadillac.” Like Trendex, this was something Ed could appreciate.
But did any of us appreciate what else was going on? With an Elvis, Ed had not only opened the gates to the ravening chimeras and barbaric hordes of rock; he had also unlocked the doors to the attic, the bedroom, and the basement of the Ike culture. After a long sedation all that sexual energy seemed to explode. It may have been acceptable to cross-pollinate the races and classes in Times Square. It was something else again when long-haired, poor, white Southern trash insinuated a rockabilly/ hubcap-outlaw variant of R&B and “dirty dancing” into the ears, hearts, and glands of the Wonder-bread children of a bored and horny suburban middle class. What Elvis meant, along with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the motormouth beats, was that the sixties were coming, an animal act that rattled everybody’s cage and couldn’t be contained on any consensus television program that doled out equal time to competing but acceptable subcultures in a median range of American taste. Some chairs were going to be broken, some categories, some heads, and some hearts.