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.