Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ed Sullivan Show (1948 - 1973)

Fellow blogger and cyber-buddy Perplexio, publisher of two blogs, The Review Revue and Pieces of Perplexio, asked me to participate in a blog essay challenge posted by another blogger, pattinase, to write about our favorite TV shows. It’s an interesting proposition. However, despite my varied interests that include Major League Baseball and American History (especially the Revolution and World War Two eras), I never wanted this blog to be about anything but my main passion, music. So instead of writing about my all-time favorite shows that include All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Sopranos, and very recently, AMC’s Mad Men I’m going to write about one of the most important shows in TV history, one of the most popular of my youth, and a show that was very important in the annals of pop music, The Ed Sullivan Show.

For those of you who don’t know, Sullivan’s show aired from the same theater that currently hosts The Late Show with David Letterman on Broadway in New York City. The program was on CBS from 1948 to 1973 and offered a lot of music even though it was a true variety program. Sullivan also featured comedians, dancers, magicians, acrobats, and even the occasional skit from Broadway plays.

Even though Southern sponsors and stations protested, without any hesitation Sullivan's show regularly included many Black performers, including comedians Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson, jazz all-stars Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, opera star Marian Anderson, Sly and the Family Stone, and Diana Ross and The Supremes who were guests well over a dozen times on his weekly "really big show." There were scores more.

During the program's heyday you could hear your favorite music on the radio, and see pictures of your favorite musical stars in magazines, but before PBS, cable, MTV, and the Internet it wasn’t easy to watch musicians play live unless you purchased a concert ticket. While most TV programs devoted to music often had the artists lip-synch to their own records, the otherwise very unhip host was somewhat revolutionary by allowing the biggest artists of their day to play music live. For most of us who came of age in the early days of the British Invasion the first and only time most of us saw a live performance of our favorite musical stars was on Sullivan’s Sunday night, CBS gig.

While music was only part of the hour-long extravaganzas, the show was an important stop for any musical act that wanted to generate a large audience. Local radio may have been able to play a particular record far more frequently but they could never deliver the monster exposure that even one appearance on the Sullivan show provided.

Sadly, The Ed Sullivan Show ended in the Spring of 1973. Unfortunately, because nobody knew at the time it would not be renewed for the following fall, there was no grand finale. The big three networks, most notably CBS, decided that simple ratings indicating the total number of viewers watching a program were no longer the best way to sell products to the audiences their sponsors coveted. Sullivan's audience was both dwindling and aging, so along with most of the network's other shows that failed to reach the right demographic, (mostly young, urban, and more educated professionals) the greatest variety show ever aired became history.

Musicians still perform live today on late night TV but there is little fanfare surrounding their appearances since those shows have much smaller audiences by percentage of viewers than Sullivan’s early evening time slot.

The only words left to say about The Ed Sullivan Show are the ones George Carlin uttered to end one of his monologues about the host: "Thanks Ed."

Here are some Sullivan live musical highlights:

The first time almost all Americans saw The Beatles was on their now famous Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964.

Elvis Presley’s career received a huge boost amid a controversy that developed because of The King’s hip gyrations that offended many.

The Doors were requested to change a controversial line of "Light My Fire." "Girl, we couldn't get much higher," was to be replaced with "Girl, we couldn't get much better." After Jim Morrison sang the lyrics as originally written the morally conservative Sullivan refused to shake the quartet's hands after they played. Morrison and the band were never invited back.

At the host’s request, The Rolling Stones did change "Let’s Spend The Night Together" to "Let’s Spend Some Time Together" thereby staying in Sullivan’s good graces.


  1. I was a kid as the show disappeared from the airwaves back in 73, though I have watched many clips over the years. He did a lot to bring diversity into the living rooms of "Middle America" and cracked a lot of huge acts. I can't think of a more implausible and quirky (yet iconic) figure to score with TV viewers through such a long run.

    Great post.

  2. One of the joys of being my age (50) aside from the fact that I look 40, is that I was around for some really good music! Albeit, I was only FOUR when The Beatles hit the stage but it was a moment etched in my memory forever. I was watching with my father who immediately became a fan of the Fab Four and I spent my youth listening to them and other great music :)

    Excellent post!