Chapter Eleven: Elvis
(Elvis’ three appearances on the Sullivan show in the 1956-57 season were national events, with audiences hovering around 50 million viewers. Sullivan’s uneasy grappling with the charismatic power of the controversial singer would reveal larger cultural contradictions, as the staid 1950s learned of this uncontrollable thing called rock ‘n’ roll. This excerpt describes part of Elvis’ second Sullivan show performance, on October 28, 1956.)
When Elvis came back for his final set, he appeared to be in a light-hearted mood. So too, were his fans. They had behaved, or so they had been told, but they didn’t want to anymore. The singer’s mere appearance provoked screams that suggested a fire had broken out in the theater. He asked, “Ladies and gentlemen, ah, could I have your attention, please?” and he flashed a beguiling smile, suddenly getting near silence. He started to play with the audience, as if its excitement level could be increased. “I’d like to tell you that we’re going to do a sad song for you,” he said with a big grin, “this here song is one of the saddest songs you ever heard… it really tells a story, friends…” He pretended to jumpstart the song several times, teasing the audience with his head fakes, each time eliciting a groan of female anticipation, each time pulling back for a toothy smile, his well-lubricated pompadour glistening in the studio lights.
And then he did it. Presley catapulted into the rapid-fire growl of “Hound Dog” – the song had hardly ever been rendered this fast. For the first time that evening, viewers got all of Elvis, his hips gone mad, the camera pulling back to show full torso, his whole body a quivering, dancing blur. For a moment he caught himself, clearly shaking his head no, as if to say, I shouldn’t shake like that, and he stood ramrod stiff – which lasted all of four beats, after which the damn broke.
As the rock beat kept up a foot-tapping rhythm, he swiveled with untrammeled abandon; not only were his hips gyrating, everything about him was gyrating. He was a human zig-zag, his lip upturned, his legs akimbo, his head bobbing, unshackled from anything that had come before, dancing and weaving across stage in immoderate happiness. He wasn’t just singing rock ‘n’ roll, he was rock ‘n’ roll; this was freedom and joy and sex all wrapped up into a moment of spontaneous beatitude. The girls were out of control, their promises of restraint broken and forgotten, their screams erecting a wall of sound over which Elvis was hardly audible. As he concluded his two and half minute revolution, he breathlessly grinned and waved good-bye: “Until we meet again, may God bless you, like he’s blessed me.” His fans shrieked as if they had been hypnotized. Based on the studio audience’s response, this had to be one of the most successful Sullivan shows ever.