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Poster for the Elvis Presley movie “Kid Galahad” at the long closed Broadway Theater in Reidsville, NC

 

Everyone knows people who were at Woodstock, whether they really were or not. They say that if everyone who says they were at Woodstock had actually been there, New York state would have sunken into the ground.

While we were chatting Friday on WSJS radio about our recent post on Elvis Presley’s 1956 visit to Winston-Salem, J.R. Snider mentioned that a woman had just called the studio to say that she was one of the screaming girls that we had mentioned. He asked if I thought that Elvis’s appearance at the Carolina Theater had attained “Woodstock status” in the same way. No doubt it has. About 8,000 people saw Elvis on stage at the Carolina. They know who they are. The others, well…in the 2000 US census, about 13.9 million people claimed to have served in-country in Viet Nam. Only about 2.7 million actually did, and almost 1/4 of them were then already dead.

But I might point out that within a few days time, Elvis also appeared at the National Theater in Greensboro, Center Theater in High Point, Ambassador Theater in Raleigh, Carolina Theater in Charlotte, Charles L. Coon High School in Wilson, Walter Williams High School in Burlington, and the YMCA gymnasium in Lexington. So thousands of people in this area did indeed see Elvis before he was famous.

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YMCA gym, Lexington, NC

Meanwhile, I have had any number of people mention to me that they saw Elvis’s first ever national TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Good for them. The only problem is that Elvis had performed on national television more than half a dozen times before he appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show.

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Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis, Ed Sullivan, 1956

If you have seen our “Down at the end of Lonely Street” blog post, you saw the earliest surviving film of Elvis on national TV (or at least that is what I thought at the time…keep reading, because it is not), on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, just a few weeks after his appearance in the Twin City. That event was part of Milton Berle’s April 3, 1956 broadcast, nearly six months before Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan on September 9.* But even then, he was already a national TV veteran.

Unlike later incarnations, the early Jackie Gleason show was not an hour long variety event. It was actually two half hour shows. The second part was “The Honeymooners”. The first was a stage show using Gleason’s name but hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey at 8 o’clock on Saturday nights as a lead in to “The Honeymooners”.

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38 Chauncey Street, Brooklyn…”The Honeymooners”

In January, 1956, Colonel Tom Parker negotiated a deal with that show for four appearances by Elvis Presley, at $1,250 a pop, with an option for two more at $1,500 each. In late January, Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys had already started their tour which would bring them to Winston-Salem barely two weeks later, so Scotty, Bill and D.J. drove from Memphis to New York where they joined Elvis and the Colonel at the Warwick Hotel on 52nd Street.

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Elvis with his father Vernon, Memphis, 1956

The next morning, Saturday, January 28th, they rehearsed at Nola Studios. Their instruments were already on their way to their next tour stop in a pink trailer built by Elvis’s father Vernon, so they used rented instruments in New York. At one point in the series, Bill Black managed to break the neck, the sound post and the back of his rented standup bass. Repairs cost $32.96. I’ll bet our local bass guru Steve Wishnevsky could have beaten that quote.

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That night, they made their first ever national TV appearance at CBS Studio 50, 1697 Broadway in Manhattan. The show also featured Sarah Vaughn and comic Gene Sheldon. Tommy Dorsey introduced legendary WERE Cleveland DJ Bill Randle, who said:

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Bill Randle and Tommy Edwards of WERE, Cleveland, introduce Elvis and Bill Black to the crowd at Brooklyn High School, Brooklyn, OH, October 20, 1955

“We’d like at this time to introduce to you a young fellow who, like many performers – Johnnie Ray among them – came out of nowhere to be an overnight big star. This young fellow we saw for the first time while making a movie short. We think tonight that he’s going to make television history for you. We’d like you to meet him now – Elvis Presley.”

Elvis wore a black shirt, white tie, dress pants with a shiny stripe and a tweed jacket.** He first sang a medley, “Shake, Rattle & Roll / Flip, Flop & Fly”, then his new B side, “I Got a Woman”.

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Elvis on the Gleason / Dorsey “Stage Show”, January 28, 1956

It was raining in Manhattan, so the studio audience was less than capacity, but reacted enthusiastically. The TV ratings were not so good either, an 18.4 share, compared to rival Perry Como’s 34.6. But Gleason and the Dorseys knew what had happened. The option for two more appearances was immediately activated.

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Tommy Dorsey, Elvis, Jimmy Dorsey, Studio 50, NY, 1956

And guess what…you’re going to get to see this show on video, complete with the Dorsey brothers, Bill Randle and the whole performance by Elvis, but I’m not going to give you the link yet, because once you click it, you will be gone for hours, days, maybe even weeks, and there is still a little more to the story here.

Elvis did not sing “Heart Break Hotel” until the third Gleason / Dorsey show, on February 11, just five days before his Winston-Salem appearance. Here is the schedule of songs:

1-28-56: Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly   I Got a Woman
2-4-56: Baby Let’s Play House   Tutti Frutti
2-11-56  Blue Suede Shoes   Heartbreak Hotel
2-18-56:  Tutti Frutti   I Was the One
3-17-56:  Blue Suede Shoes   Heart Break Hotel
3-24-56:  Money Honey   Heart Break Hotel

“Blue Suede Shoes” was originally scheduled for the final show on March 24, a sort of battle of the bands, because “Shoes” originator Carl Perkins was to appear opposite Elvis on the Perry Como show that night. But Perkins was seriously injured in an automobile accident on his way to New York, so out of respect for his friend, Elvis refused to perform “Shoes” that night.

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Carl Perkins & Elvis exchange autographs, Memphis, June, 1956…we purists prefer Carl’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes”

On November 15, 1956, “Love Me Tender” opened in New York. Six days later, on November 21, it opened at the Carolina Theater in Winston-Salem to a packed house. That inspired a concurrent live rock show and Elvis imitator contest at the fading Colonial Theater on Liberty Street.

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On Saturday, November 24, 1956, just 3 days after Elvis’s first movie, “Love Me Tender”, opened at the Carolina Theater, the Twin City held its annual Christmas parade. Here, the color guard of the John W. Hanes High School marches past the theater. Note that Elvis officially was billed third in the movie, behind Richard Egan and Debra Paget, but the Carolina management reversed that order because they already knew which side their bread was buttered on. Click the pic for the full effect.

After Elvis’s last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957, TV appearances would become few and far between. He entered the US Army in March, 1958 and finished his service in March, 1960. He was offered the opportunity to form a band and spend his two years entertaining the troops, but he refused and wound up in the tank corps, serving a tour in Germany at the height of the “Cold War”.

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On March 26, 1960, Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra threw a “Welcome Home Elvis” party at the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami which was carried live on ABC. Elvis sang “Fame And Fortune” and “Stuck On You” and a “Love Me Tender” / “Witchcraft” duet with Sinatra.

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He would not appear on TV again until 1968, when his NBC-TV special aired from Burbank on December 3. He sang 23 songs, including “Heartbreak Hotel”, “All Shook Up”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Christmas”.

His final TV appearance was “Aloha from Hawaii”, aired live via satellite from the Honolulu International Center on January 14, 1973. Elvis sang 26 songs and one medley, including “Early Mornin’ Rain”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Blue Hawaii”, “Suspicious Minds” and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”.

* Sullivan had initially said that he would never have Elvis Presley on his show. He was the king of Sunday night TV and could afford to pick and choose. But when Elvis appeared on his rival Steve Allen’s show and nearly doubled Sullivan’s ratings, money took precedence over prurience.***

Sullivan signed Elvis for three appearances, September 9, October 28 and January 6, 1957. The price of prurience? $50,000 per show, 40 times what Gleason/Dorsey paid.

Sullivan at least managed to avoid having to host the first show. Like Carl Perkins, he was injured in an automobile accident prior to the show. Charles Laughton stepped in as temporary host. And Sullivan’s New york stage went unsullied as well…Elvis was in Hollywood by then, filming his first movie, “Love Me Tender”, so the feed came from California.

Oh, and there is this urban myth…Sullivan ordered that Elvis only be shown from the waist up…none of that wiggling stuff. That was true for the first set, in which Elvis performed “Don’t Be Cruel” and the as yet unreleased “Love Me Tender”. But in the second set that night, the camera drew back to show bumping and grinding as Elvis sang “Ready Teddy” and part of “Hound Dog”. The truth is always far more interesting than the myth.

 

** Doubt the immediacy of Elvis’s impact? You should have been at the Ardmore School Safety Patrol Dance, the major social event of the year, in May, 1956 at the local Police Pistol Club. I wore a white sport coat, a pink shirt, a black wool knit tie, black pants, white bucks and pink and black Argyle socks…so cool…except I was lost in a sea of guys in the exact same outfit.

*** Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen Show, July 1, 1956. He sang “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” and “Hound Dog”, the latter to a Bassett hound named Sherman. Some Elvis fans were offended, claiming that Allen was “dissing” Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. Allen, who like the Dorsey brothers and Sullivan, made no secret of his dislike of rock ‘n’ roll, always insisted that Elvis was in on the joke and found it hilarious. The easily offended will always be with us.

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So now comes the ultimate Elvis link, where you can see his very first appearance on national TV and about a gazillion other things, including spectacular pictures and video and facts, regarding the earliest days of our greatest musical phenom. As always in life, there is irony here, because this website is not based in Memphis, or Cleveland, or even the United States. Try Australia…go figure. And have fun.

Ultimate Elvis

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