“He was a man who could brighten a room simply by leaving it,” comedian Joe E Lewis said of Ed Sullivan, for 20 years the most powerful man in American music television.
A stiff, shifty-looking Irish-American with all the charisma of a depressed mortician, Sullivan was the host of a Sunday night variety show that introduced America to Elvis, The Beatles and just about every other pop and rock act of the late ’50s and ’60s.
The fact that Sullivan basically detested rock’n’roll?a loathing obvious from the way he introduced bands with the avuncular warmth of Richard Nixon?doesn’t change the fact that he arguably did more to promote it than any other single figure in America. As Chris Hillman remarks in Elvis Presley And Other Rock Greats , one of six DVDs of Sullivan show highlights: “If you got on The Ed Sullivan Show you had it made.”
Hillman’s band, The Byrds, did get on the show?singing “Mr Tambourine Man”?but only once. As was his wont, the bolshy David Crosby got in a fight with Sullivan’s producer. And as was Sullivan’s wont, the fight got The Byrds banned from any future appearances on the show. Ditto The Doors after Jim Morrison sang “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” during “Light My Fire”.
Such was Sullivan’s power. You can see how almost frightened bands are when he sidles up to them on stage. Even Elvis, whose appearances on the show remain breathtaking in their erotic self-delight, looks petrified when he shakes the hand of the man who could virtually make or break his career.
Having said that, the exotic parade of junkies and acid casualties that passed through the show’s New York studios?these DVDs feature Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, The Rolling Stones, Santana, Janis Joplin and more?is testament to a kind of courage.
The six DVDs are all, in their way, cheesy as hell. Cheerily bland commentary?”sock-hops had given way to sit-ins!”?punctuates the original footage, some of which is glorious. Joplin is in full Etta James-on-mushrooms mode for “Raise Your Hand”. On a medley of “Everyday People” and “Dance To The Music”, Sly and Rose Stone shake it up in the aisles for the embarrassed squares. The Soul Of The Motor City and The Temptations And The Supremes volumes are outtasight: here’s little Michael J in his purple pimp-fedora exploding on “I Want You Back”; there’s the elongated David Ruffin whooping through “My Girl”.
Meanwhile, on Legends Of Rock James Brown rides the grooves of “I Feel Good”, “Prisoner Of Love”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.
The best stuff of all is the schlock-pop of the psychedelic era. “There was a lighter side to 1968,” announces the cheery commentator at the start of Chart Toppers ’68/’69/’70 , thereby prefacing a sequence of clips that feature such divine MOR fare as The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Brooklyn Bridge’s “The Worst That Could Happen”.
Almost as entertaining is the ridiculous Vanilla Fudge doing “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” on Rockin’ The Sixties ?high camp in all but name. It’s a good corrective to the notion that everything was wild and radical at the end of that decade, and it’s certainly more fun than the ghastly Jefferson Airplane doing “Crown Of Creation”.
Who else? Well, there’s pint-sized idol Frankie Valli shrieking through The Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, as sharp and slick as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. There’s Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969, tossing off an effortless “What’d I Say”. There’s a brilliantly blank Tommy James singing the mesmerising “Crimson And Clover”. You can’t have got this far in life without having seen at least some of the Elvis and Beatles footage: suffice to say that it almost defined both of them at key junctures in their careers.
Dour and puritanical Sullivan may have been, but entirely humourless he probably wasn’t. “I would like to know the exact wording of your introduction,” Brian Epstein informed him before The Beatles’ historic February ’64 appearance on the show. “I would like you to get lost,” said Ed. Nice one.