‘The Ed Sullivan Show’: A Long-Running Sunday Night Tradition of ‘Really Big Shows’ Began 75 Years Ago
Debuting June 20, 1948, host Ed Sullivan’s legendary CBS variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show, was called Toast of the Town for seven years before it was officially given the title it had become more popularly known by.
Under either name, and in both black-and-white (from 1948-65) or color (1965-71), during its 24 seasons — which encompassed more than 1,000 episodes before ending on March 28, 1971 — Ed Sullivan was a Sunday night tradition for people to gather around the tube and enjoy.
An appearance on the show was a boon for any new artist; for a long time, it was a sign that someone was on their way to the big time when they were asked to be on Ed Sullivan.
The Ed Sullivan Show also featured artists who were already big or were getting big, presenting them in some of their first major American television showcases. As such, the show delivered some of the most iconic moments in TV history, including early appearances by Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
Although the show featured a lot of singers and musical groups, it also spotlighted other types of talent, including comedians, puppeteers (Jim Henson and his Muppets were guests on the show 25 times starting in 1966, and Sullivan himself had his famous “Little Italian Mouse” puppet sidekick, Topo Gigio, starting in 1962) and ventriloquists (Wenceslao Moreno Centeno, better known as Señor Wences, was the most famous of the ventriloquists, appearing on the show 48 times beginning in December 1950).
Below are some photos and footage of just a few memorable moments from nearly a quarter-century of The Ed Sullivan Show.
The First Episode — June 20, 1948
Guest highlights of The Ed Sullivan Show‘s first episode (it was known then as Toast of the Town) included Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (both pictured below) and singer Monica Lewis.
The Ed Sullivan Show featured the first rock ‘n’ roll song broadcast on a national television show on Aug. 7, 1955, when Bill Haley & His Comets performed their classic tune “Rock Around the Clock.”
Sullivan would feature Black artists on his show during an era when that was rarely, if ever, done on other programs. One example is this great Bo Diddley performance from Nov. 20, 1955.
Among The Ed Sullivan Show‘s most famous broadcasts were the three times Elvis Presley came on to perform, early in his career (even if Sullivan had initially vowed to never have Elvis on his show, and though he did, it seems like he never really was a fan).
Presley’s records had already been exciting fans, but getting to actually see him gyrate his pelvis while giving his dynamic performances was on another level (contrary to urban legend, the performer’s whole body was seen during his first two appearances), as you can tell from the screams in the studio audience in some of the videos below (there may have been a few shocked gasps from some parents watching at home, as well).
Beyond his performances, which are, of course, terrific, Presley, just in his early 20s at the time, is also funny, charming and self-deprecating in between numbers as he interacts with fans. Just enjoyable appearances all around.
Elvis’ First Appearance: Sept. 9, 1956
Charles Laughton was actually the guest-host for the show featuring Elvis’ first appearance. Across two sets, he performed “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Ready Teddy” and a shortened version of “Hound Dog.”
This episode was viewed by over 60.7 million people and netted a whopping 82.6% share of the television audience — still the largest percentage share in U.S. television history.
Elvis’ Second Appearance: Oct. 28, 1956
Presley returned about a month-and-a-half later for another Sullivan appearance. Across three segments, he again performed “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender,” along with “Love Me” and a longer version of “Hound Dog.”
Elvis’ Third Appearance: Jan. 6, 1957
In his third and final Sullivan appearance, Elvis was again featured in three segments, with his song choices largely focused on ballads. He first performed a medley of “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” followed by a full version of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Then came “Too Much” and “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again.” Finally, he performed “Peace in the Valley.”
For this appearance, producers decided to film Presley from the waist up; kind of ironic, since here he mostly performed songs that did not include a lot of movin’, shakin’ and gyratin’.
Chubby Checker appeared on Sullivan on Oct. 22, 1961, to perform his legendary hit “The Twist.”
Iconic jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show nine times between 1957 and 1969, performing solo and with others.
Her May 5, 1963, appearance featured this performance of “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”:
On her March 7, 1965, appearance, Fitzgerald was joined by Duke Ellington for a memorable performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”:
Along with Elvis’ appearances, the performances by the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan are among the show’s most iconic and enduring.
John, Paul, George and Ringo made some of their first appearances before American television audiences — and basically kicked off Beatlemania and the British Invasion here — on Ed Sullivan, on Feb. 9, 1964, followed by appearances on the next two shows, on Feb. 16 and 23.
The foursome also appeared on the May 24, 1964, Sullivan, and, finally, on the Sept. 12, 1965, episode (the performance was recorded in August).
After that, the Beatles weren’t performing live much as they began to create their newer, more sophisticated sound in the studio, but they must have had a soft spot for Sullivan for helping expose them to the American audience. They continued to provide the host with exclusive material to use on his show in the later ’60s/early ’70s, like promotional music videos for songs like “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.”
The Beatles last “appeared” on Ed Sullivan on March 1, 1970, via music videos for “Two of Us” and “Let It Be.”
Here’s a performance from their Feb. 9, 1964, appearance:
From the Feb. 23, 1964, appearance:
The Beatles’ full appearance on Sept. 12, 1965:
Of course, the Beatles weren’t the only soon-to-be-legendary Brit rockers to have early American appearances on Ed Sullivan. The Stones weren’t far behind, including this October 1964 appearance:
Plenty of iconic American music groups also appeared on Ed Sullivan, including a number of Motown legends like The Supremes, who made 14 appearances as The Supremes and as their later incarnation, Diana Ross & The Supremes.
Dec. 27, 1964 (first appearance):
Feb. 20, 1966:
A memorable appearance with The Temptations, each group performing the other’s hits, on Nov. 19, 1967:
Another notable American band who appeared on Sullivan were The Doors, giving a controversial performance of “Light My Fire,” featuring Jim Morrison singing the original version of a line (“girl we couldn’t get much higher”) even though he had sung an alternate during rehearsal that swapped out the word “higher.”
Jim Henson and The Muppets
One of the later, and among the funniest, performances by Jim Henson and his beloved Muppets on Ed Sullivan came on Nov. 30, 1969, with an early performance of “Mah Nà Mah Nà”:
Even in its waning days, The Ed Sullivan Show still had some remarkable upcoming talent appearing on the show, including comedian Albert Brooks in this hilarious performance on the Jan. 31, 1971 episode:
The Final Episode — March 28, 1971
Guest highlights of the final Ed Sullivan Show episode included: Singer Melanie; impressionist David Frye (pictured below); magician Vic Perry; comedians Lennie Schultz and Norman Wisdom.