Although it’s hard to believe in the context of today’s media-saturated culture, Elvis Presley made only 17 major television appearances during the course of his lifetime. Together, they tell the King’s story from his meteoric rise to his tragic downfall.
After making his national television debut 60 years ago, on January 28th, 1956, Presley shattered viewership records, challenged social mores and helped bring the rock & roll revolution into American living rooms. Even on the small screen, Elvis Presley was larger than life. These are his 10 most important broadcast moments.
January 28th, 1956: Stage Show
Though he had performed on the regional TV program Louisiana Hayride in March 1955, this spot on Stage Show was Elvis Presley’s first national television appearance. Hosted by sibling big-band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the show was broadcast live from CBS Studio 50 in New York — which also housed The Ed Sullivan Show.
The special aired just a day after his first major-label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and Presley was virtually unknown. The winter weather was particularly raw that night, so the future King of Rock made his American TV debut to a partly empty house. Clad in a stylish black shirt, white tie and tweed jacket, he performed Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and a medley of two Joe Turner songs, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Flip, Flop and Fly.”
Two days later, Presley cut his quintessential cover of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” at New York’s famed RCA Victor Studio 1. He would return to the Stage Show five more times before April.
June 5th, 1956: The Milton Berle Show
Presley’s popularity was on the rise by the time he completed his final Stage Show set on March 24th, earning him a slot on the top-rated Milton Berle Show. His first appearance on April 3rd was broadcast live from the deck of the USS Hancock while naval personnel and their dates screamed in appreciation. Presley performed a short snippet of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” before launching headlong into “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” He even acted in a comedy skit in which Uncle Miltie played his twin brother, Melvin. Considering that Presley spent most of his life haunted by the death of his actual twin brother at birth, the bit makes for uncomfortable viewing.
But none of this compares to his June 5th appearance, which would bring him widespread fame — and infamy. During prior television performances, Presley had played uptempo numbers with an acoustic guitar strapped to his body, severely limiting his ability to dance. But before Presley unveiled his cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” to TV audiences, Berle advised him to perform without the guitar. “Let ’em see you, son,” he reportedly said.
Indeed, 40 million American viewers saw him, and they were not prepared for Presley’s unobscured pelvic thrusts. The episode horrified parents and press, delighted the youth, and made Elvis a star.
June 16th, 1956: Teenage Dance Party
Presley appeared on future game-show icon Wink Martindale’s Teenage Dance Party to promote his July 4th charity show at Memphis’ Russwood Park. In addition to performing, Elvis pledged to auction off his diamond-studded initials ring as a door prize at the event. Though he doesn’t sing, the appearance is a unique chance to see Presley react to his first few months of stardom. He remained friendly with Martindale in the years to come, giving him a rare telephone interview while stationed in Germany during his military service. In an odd coda, Martindale went on to marry Presley’s ex-girlfriend Sandy Ferra in 1975.
July 1st, 1956: The Steve Allen Show
In the wake of the firestorm sparked by Presley’s “obscene” movements on Milton Berle four weeks earlier, Steve Allen took a unique approach when featuring his increasingly popular guest star. The original Tonight Show host stripped “Hound Dog” of any danger by having a tuxedo-clad Presley croon the tune to an actual basset hound. It’s bizarre, it’s awkward, and it has to be seen to be believed.
Ironically, Allen’s attempt to avoid controversy just caused him further headaches. Presley was apparently furious with the host for putting him through the humiliating routine, and he swore to never do his show again. “It was the most ridiculous appearance I ever did, and I regret ever doing it,” he said in later years.
Many have since accused Allen, an avowed jazz fanatic with little interest in rock, with intentionally trying to belittle Presley with the song and other hokey sketches. Allen insisted this wasn’t the case. Whatever the motivation, the episode’s ratings were high enough to beat CBS’ Sunday night juggernaut, The Ed Sullivan Show.
July 1st, 1956: Hy Gardner Calling
Immediately after his performance on The Steve Allen Show, Presley made his first and only live television talk-show appearance. He spoke with gossip columnist Hy Gardner, famed for interviewing celebrities via telephone and employing a then-novel split-screen technique. Although Gardner was something of a pioneer in television journalism, his questions are far from groundbreaking. Many address the slanderous rumors filling the press, including one ridiculous story about Presley shooting his own mother. The 21-year-old singer looks bored, if not completely exhausted, as he speaks from his suite at New York’s Warwick Hotel. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that this was Presley’s last talk-show spot.
September 9th, 1956: The Ed Sullivan Show
Ed Sullivan initially deemed “Elvis the Pelvis” too hot for family viewing and refused to book him. But when Presley’s July 1st spot on Steve Allen scored top ratings, Sullivan reconsidered his position. Offering Presley $50,000 for three appearances — 10 times what Allen had paid — TV’s Sunday night king got his man and made history.
Presley’s first appearance that September drew a record 60 million viewers, 82.6 percent of the national TV audience, making it the most-watched broadcast of the decade. Sullivan himself was recuperating from an automobile accident, so British actor Charles Laughton had the honor of introducing a very nervous “Elvin” Presley, live from Los Angeles where he was filming his first movie. He opened with “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender,” before returning for a rowdier set later in the hour with Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and “Hound Dog.”
Contrary to popular belief, Presley was not shot from the waist up during this first Sullivan performance, or even during his second on October 28th. It was only after morally outraged crowds in Nashville and St. Louis began burning him in effigy that the censors intervened. Presley’s third and final appearance on January 6th, 1957, was kept above the belt, thus shielding the God-fearing public from the sight of wiggling hips.
Despite the onscreen neutering, Sullivan had nothing but kind words for the 22-year-old from Tupelo. “This is a real decent, fine boy,” he told the crowd at the end of the show. “We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. … You’re thoroughly all right.”
May 12th, 1960: The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis
Presley’s two-year stint overseas with the Army left his American fans ravenous for their idol. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took full advantage of the demand by booking his client on Frank Sinatra’s variety show for an exorbitant $125,000. It was a fortune for eight minutes of screen time, but producers couldn’t pass up a chance to bring Presley to television for the first time since 1957, and to unite the biggest musical rivals of the Fifties.
The show began with an abbreviated appearance from Presley in his Army uniform, singing a portion of “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling.” He returned later in the program to perform “Fame and Fortune” and “Stuck on You,” his first post-Army single, released days before. But the highlight of the night is the duet between the King and the Voice, with Sinatra singing lines from “Love Me Tender” while Presley trades lyrics from “Witchcraft.”
Welcome Home Elvis was a major success, earning 41.5 percent of that night’s television ratings. More importantly, the appearance with Sinatra re-introduced Presley to an older audience as an all-around entertainer rather than a disposable teen idol. For the next eight years, the formerly controversial rocker courted the mainstream with formulaic movies and increasingly bland musical offerings.
December 3rd, 1968: Elvis
The 1960s were not kind to Elvis Presley’s image. He neglected his serious music career to appear in a string of third-rate movies with laughable scripts and dismal soundtrack songs, causing disappointed fans to scatter. By 1968, he was a cultural dinosaur in the eyes of the hip youth who worshipped artists like the Beatles. Being “uncool” was one thing, but when Colonel Tom Parker began having problems securing Presley’s million-dollar movie fees, he knew something had to change.
He inked a deal with NBC to finance Presley’s next movie (1969’s Change of Habit) as well as an exclusive television broadcast, his first in more than eight years. The TV program was initially conceived as a throwaway Christmas special to satisfy the contract, but director Steve Binder saw an opportunity to salvage the singer’s reputation and remind everyone why he was a star. Presley liked the idea: “I want everyone to know what I can really do,” he told NBC executives. He did exactly that.
Elvis (known forever after as “the ’68 Comeback Special”) was a triumph, mixing big-budget production numbers, intimate live band performances, a few socially conscious pleas for world peace and rump-shaking rock & roll. Though he hadn’t performed live in more than seven years, Presley was in top form both vocally and physically. His leather getup harkened back to the young twentysomething who drove kids wild on Ed Sullivan a decade earlier. Now he ruled the stage with the supreme confidence of a grown man in total control. The King had returned for his crown.
The show was the highest-rated television special of the year, and provided a shot in the arm to Presley’s floundering career. As a direct result of the production, he decided to refocus on music and the Memphis sound that he loved. Within weeks, he recorded “Suspicious Minds,” which reached number one that year. He soon began a series of record-breaking tours and Las Vegas residencies.
January 14th, 1973: Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite
Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China had a major impact on Presley, inspiring him to make some international history of his own. That summer, he announced plans to broadcast a concert via satellite, allowing the whole world to see him perform. It would be the first time a solo act ever attempted a live global transmission of this scale, and the $2.5 million price tag made it the most expensive entertainment special up to that point.
Presley chose a venue in Hawaii, a favorite vacation spot where he had already filmed three of his movies. More than a billion people reportedly tuned in from more than 40 countries across Europe and Asia to watch Presley perform a 22-song set. Amazingly, the U.S. initially did not air the special since it conflicted with Super Bowl VII. American fans would have to wait until April 4th to see what all the fuss was about.
The show crystalized what we now envision as latter-era Elvis Presley, complete with dramatic “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” intro and bold studded jumpsuits. The accompanying double album rose to the top of the charts, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. It would be the final Number One pop album of Elvis’ lifetime.
October 3rd, 1977: Elvis in Concert
Released two months after Presley’s death, Elvis in Concert is arguably his most controversial television appearance — not because of sexual potency, but because it’s just so damn sad. The special shows a man who is clearly not well, bloated, glassy-eyed and fumbling through the lyrics of his hits. It also contains the last known footage of Presley ever filmed, receiving a gold record from RCA executives on June 26th, the day of his final concert.
The film is edited together from a June 19th concert in Omaha, Nebraska, and one that followed on June 21st in Rapid City, South Dakota. The performances were deemed so poor that CBS producers considered shelving them in favor of a future tour, but this was mooted after Presley was found dead on August 16th.
Fans and critics alike found the program difficult to watch, and challenged the ethics of broadcasting such a sorry spectacle. Elvis in Concert has never received a commercial release in any format, and it is likely to languish in the vaults indefinitely. Bootleg clips are available online, but they are no way to remember the King.