The forthcoming SOFA Entertainment DVD release of legendary performances by The Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show–and the Sullivan Show‘s Motown artist performance DVDs that immediately preceded it–is cause for celebration. But it also is reason all the more to revere Ed Sullivan, “the Great Stone Face,” himself.
True, he was one of the oddest looking and sounding fellows ever to grace the small screen, an “awkward and fumbling former newspaperman,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ website says of the ex-Broadway gossip columnist. A Time magazine article from 1967, which called into question Sullivan’s “talent,” likened him to “a cigar-store Indian, the Cardiff Giant and a stone-faced monument just off the boat from Easter Island.” Though famously thin-skinned (he banned Bo Diddley, The Doors, The Byrds and eventually even the Stones), he nevertheless laughed along at legions of imitators of his stiff, wooden physical appearance, as well as an eccentric delivery of signature lines like “We’ve got a really big show” (with “show” pronounced more like “shoe”) and “For all you youngsters out there…”
It was for the youngsters, of course, that Sullivan became one of the most important, if relatively unappreciated, figures in rock ‘n’ roll history. Setting aside the landmark Sullivan Show performances of Elvis Presley and The Beatles, Sullivan every Sunday night brought into an average 35 million American homes rock ‘n’ roll artists ranging from virtually all of Motown Records’ top soul greats to the British Invasion bands that followed the Beatles–and the new American rock ‘n’ rollers who were influenced by them.
His open-minded booking policy facilitated greater acceptance of African-American artists–whom Sullivan had promoted via the already established, grown-up likes of Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong–by white teenagers, not to mention country artists, opera stars and Broadway singers, and comedians, magicians and novelty acts. All were equal to Sullivan, who never condescended to all us youngsters out there–even if he was hardly one of us.
“There were other shows, but The Ed Sullivan Show was the best rock ‘n’ roll on television ever in the world!” says SOFA Entertainment president Andrew Solt, who owns the rights to The Ed Sullivan Show library and has created over 100 hours of new programming from the archive. He alludes to television’s classic dedicated rock ‘n’ roll shows like American Bandstand, Shindig! and Hullabaloo.
“We all know what they were, but those other shows [had performances that] were lip-synched,” Solt notes. “Sullivan was live, and with the artists in their prime. It always looks so good, not only because it was CBS and a Sunday night showcase, but the set always changed behind the artist: It was never the same set two weeks in a row, and the artists are so well covered and captured with six cameras–and the sound makes the show stand out.”
For Solt, with all its varied music offerings and other entertainment presentations, The Ed Sullivan Show has provided “a golden vault, awesome and amazing and deep–and that’s why I worked so hard to buy it and put it out,” he says.
“I watched that show every Sunday with my parents and couldn’t wait to see who was on–and rock ‘n’ roll was always represented, especially in the ’60s,” he adds. “Where else could you see Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Lloyd Price, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly, and then the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Byrds–besides The Beatles and The Stones. There were so many historic performances by so many great artists in their prime: That’s what makes them hold up so beautifully.”
The Ed Sullivan Show ran from 1948 to 1971, “the definitive and longest running variety series in television history,” according to Ron Simon on The Museum of Broadcast Communications website. “For twenty-three years the Sullivan Show fulfilled the democratic mandate of the variety genre: to entertain all of the audience at least some of the time.”
The show was predicated on the late ’40s TV concept of vaudeo–the principles of vaudeville, which Sullivan knew intimately as a Broadway columnist–applied to the new television medium.
“He was really a fuddy-duddy and not of our generation, but our grandparents’ generation,” notes Solt. “But he loved going to nightclubs ’til three or four in the morning and discovering new talent, and being the presenter of great talent and the arbiter of taste. He often garbled his introductions, but he had a great producer’s instinct for a show’s timing and pacing. In his gut he knew good television.”
So he mixed ballet’s Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, opera’s Roberta Peters and Maria Callas (she performed a fully-staged scene from Tosca), classical pianist Van Cliburn, Broadway’s Richard Burton and Julie Andrews (they performed a scene from Camelot), Henry Fonda reading The Gettysburg Address, comedians George Carlin and Woody Allen, and pop music stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to the Beatles–and everything in between. And any number of now nameless and forgotten, but equally extraordinary, magicians, acrobats and jugglers–and the endearing Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio.
“What distinguished Sullivan from other variety hosts was the ability to capitalize on teenage obsession,” wrote Simon. “His introduction of rock ‘n’ roll not only brought the adolescent subculture into the variety fold but also legitimized the music for the adult sensibility.”
The Ed Sullivan Show, Simon added, “reflected an era of network television when a mass audience and, even, a national consensus seemed possible. Sullivan became talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his career. His show implicitly recognized that America should have an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling to opera.”
But times had changed in the Vietnam War-ravaged country by 1971. “No longer a generational or demographic mediator,” noted Simon, the Sullivan Show was canceled. The entertainment consumer and marketplace have long since splintered, what with the advent of cable and computer delivery.
Heartbroken by his show’s cancelation and the death of his wife Sylvia, the great Ed Sullivan died in 1974. He was 73. Unlike Dick Clark, who gave us the ’60s rock ‘n roll TV shows American Bandstand and Where The Action Is, he is not in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ed Sullivan surely deserves such recognition as much as Clark–if not more so.
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