Ed Sullivan for the Rock Hall
Like many people, I think the Rock Hall is a joke. Leaving Jeff Lynne out as producer blows my mind. Only one of the 10 best producers who ever lived not named George Martin. Pat Benatar should have been in long ago. And as much as I consider Lionel Richie an affront to bantamweights, and as much as I largely ignore his work after ‘Brick House,’ I respect what he’s done at a high level for so damn long it’s criminal he’s not in yet.
With that said, I think that, without a doubt, Ed Sullivan aka Ed Sullystone, should be in the Rock Hall. He is not even in the discussion and people associate him more with Topo Gigio and tired Borscht Belt comics like Alan King and Jackie ‘Two Fingers’ Mason. To that, I would submit no one — no one-did more to get rock and popular music accepted than Sullivan. He had a platform no one has had before or since — 8pm Sunday night nationwide-when everyone was watching. He could have ignored rock as a passing fad or just something for kids. Or, like Johnny Carson, pretty much ignore it altogether.
But he didn’t.
It all started with Elvis. Doesn’t it always? Some hosts, like Steve Allen, were total dipshits with E, making him sing Hound Dog to a Bassett hound. But Sullivan had a genuine fondness for Presley and likewise.
This in turn opened the door for other acts to appear. Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Connie Stevens.
And then The Beatles blew the damn door down.
February 9, 1964. The US in the immediate aftermath of JFK and a war brewing in Vietnam in desperate need of healing. And this is when Sullivan introduced The Beatles for the first time on a major platform (and it’s important that many people — including kids-had no idea what the band looked like until that night.) Sullivan took to The Beatles, calling them fine young men. (Sidebar: there is the picture of the four of them standing next to Sullivan, on which as a 13 year old I wrote ‘The Beatles’ and then an arrow pointing to Sullivan ‘Ed.’ Because that’s how I rolled, and still roll.) The Beatles appeared on Sullivan’s show the next two weeks (including the following week in Miami Beach (or Mi-am-ah Beach) and would appear several more times in video form after they stopped performing live. He also hosted the concert at Shea Stadium in August 1965. THAT is the mutual respect the Beatles and Ed had for one another.
How much does this mean to me personally? I wasn’t born yet on 2–9–64, my parents were engaged by not yet married. But I observe February 9 as Beatles Day.
From that point on, every major rock, pop and soul act of the day was featured. You name it: The Four Seasons. Roy Orbison. The Association (not the NBA) The Four Tops. The Beach Boys. The Jackson 5ive (sic) Tom Jones (the Jimmy Garoppolo of singers) Santana. The Rolling Stones. The Supremes. Even ‘counterculture’ bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Doors and Johnny Cash. And yes, Barbra Streisand. Basically, everyone and anyone who mattered went on Ed’s show.
What made, and makes, the Sullivan show as remarkable as it was and is were several things: First, most bands actually performed. This wasn’t American Bandstand where they just went along to a record and then talked to Dick Clark afterward. You PERFORMED. Go on YouTube and watch. Note the next time you watch that the songs come to a dead stop.
Second, and maybe more important, is that the telecasts have been beautifully preserved, especially after the telecasts went to videotape in 1959 (one of the first that did) and then switched to color in 1965. Just now I watched Gary Puckett and the Union Gap perform Will Power and Young Girl on the show. The colors popped, from the somewhat odd mint-green of their uniforms, Puckett’s bowl cut, the players joy and the special effects that even now stand out. Hell, I even picked up on the microphone Puckett used that was cutting edge back in the day.
These performances, if anything, aren’t much older than I am (I’ll be 56 on 9/5) but they are truly a joy to watch. For which, by the way, Andrew Solt and SOFA Productions deserves a lot of credit as being a nonpareil custodian of the archive. Ed would be very pleased, I think.
Of course there are the stories about ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’ and ‘Make Some Girl’ getting censored or Jim Morrison deliberately saying ‘Higher’ when told not to (and by the way the Doors DID NOT have a ten show contract) and Bo Diddley singing Bo Diddley when he was told not to. Sullivan was prickly about his brand, and he had every right to be. And you could say that these bands in many ways may have been sanitized, for your protection. I disagree; I think the acts were true to themselves, of course in the framework that Sullivan set. And in doing so, they benefitted themselves in that by being given a national platform, they could gain popularity and then they COULD do their own thing.
And who did that better than the Beatles.
As I’ve touched on in this space before there are actually MORE ways to discover new bands and new music through platforms like Spotify, YouTube and SiriusXM. Even better, we DON’T have to wait for Sunday night at 8pm AND we DON’T have to sit through Wayne and Shuster YET AGAIN to get to what we wanted. The free world is, of course, better for this. But, for a critical period in the history of popular music there is a beautifully preserved archive of where we were and how we got there. And if it weren’t for Sullivan, the path may have been a lot slower and more difficult.
For introducing us to these artists, showing them at their best and being open minded at a time when many people weren’t and the generation gap was getting wider, Ed Sullivan needs to be in the Rock Hall of Fame.
And if they won’t put him in, I’ll put him in my own.