‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ vs. Rock & Roll: How Early Rock & Rollers Opened New Frontiers and Battled Censorship

For twenty-three years (1948-1971), the Ed Sullivan Show reigned supreme in both ratings and stature in the early years of television. Airing on CBS on Sunday nights, the weekly variety show, hosted by Ed Sullivan, a doughy, less obnoxious Ryan Seacrest, would be one of the earliest television programs to showcase bands from the emerging field of Rock & Roll. The exposure was a dual-edged sword, however. Sullivan would dictate to bands what songs they would perform, or lines in a song that had to be changed. The bands would be faced with self-censorship or defy Sullivan and risk being blackballed from performing on TV ever again by a vengeful Ed Sullivan.

Bo Diddley would be the first of several run-ins the crotchety MC would have with Rock & Rollers during the course of the show’s run. Sullivan requested he play the current hit song ‘Sixteen Tons’ as one of the songs. Because Bo Diddley knew the song, he agreed. When it came time, for whatever reason, the singer forgot the change and launched into his most recent hit the self-titled classic “Bo Diddley.”

The man himself takes up the take from here:

“”Ed Sullivan says to me in plain words: ‘You are the first black boy—quote—that ever double crossed me!’ I was ready to fight, because I was a little young dude off the streets of Chicago, an’ him callin’ me ‘black’ in them days was as bad as sayin’ ‘nigger’. My manager says to me ‘That’s Mr. Sullivan!’ I said: ‘I don’t give a shit about Mr. Sullivan, [h]e don’t talk to me like that!’ An’ so he told me, he says, ‘I’ll see that you never work no more in show business. You’ll never get another TV show in your life!'”

Whether or not Sullivan was a racist could be debated. What could not be debated was his distaste for the youth culture of the time, even though his show regularly presented new bands and new music of the time.

The next individuals to clash with the impresario would be another young and hot new Rock & Roll act, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The point of contention again was again creative. The 21 -year old Holly and his band were riding a gigantic wave of success with their #1 hit single ‘Oh Boy.’ Holly had promised friends back home in Texas that he and the band would perform their hit and dedicate it to them on the nationally televised program.

Ed Sullivan had a problem, however. He thought the song was way too sexually suggestive and raucous for his little program. Ed Sullivan had a problem, however. He thought the song was way too sexually suggestive and raucous for his little program.

Wikipedia continues the tale from here:

“During the afternoon the Crickets were summoned to rehearsal at short notice, but only Holly was in their dressing room. When asked where the others were, Holly replied, “I don’t know. No telling.” Sullivan then turned to Holly and said “I guess The Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show” to which Holly caustically replied, “I hope they’re damn more excited than I am.”

The Holly/Sullivan battle would unfold in front of the cameras. The 57-year old host would intentionally try to sabotage the 21-year old bandleader’s performance. Sullivan would mispronounce Holly’s last and, to rub salt in the proverbial wound, would have a member of the production crew turn off the volume to Holly’s guitar.

The television icon would not mellow with age.

On May 12, 1963, Bob Dylan would be the next young, budding musician to earn the wrath of Ed Sullivan. The Minnesota-born Folk singer was scheduled to make his national television debut. No doubt wanting to make his TV debut memorial, Dylan would make the provocative choice of ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ to perform.

The song was based on a group of like-minded conservatives who were convinced the communists were coming out of every imaginable place to get freedom loving Americans. Dylan operated under the understanding that Sullivan was okay with the choice.

He wasn’t –

“…during the afternoon rehearsal that day CBS officials told Dylan they had deemed the song unacceptable for broadcast and wanted him to substitute another. “No; this is what I want to do,” Dylan responded. “If I can’t play my song, I’d rather not appear on the show.” He then left the studio, rather than altering the act.”

Dylan would never play the show.Dylan would never play the show.

The Doors would be next to have a run-in with Sullivan. The Doors would be next to have a run-in with Sullivan.

The year was 1967 and the Doors were climbing the charts with their iconic number ‘Light My Fire.’ The Wikipedia entry for the show takes up the story:

“CBS network censors demanded that lead singer Jim Morrison change the lyrics to their henit single “Light My Fire” by altering the line, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” before the band performed the song on-camera on September 17, 1967. “

An interest bit of trivia – ‘Light My Fire’ was written, including lyrics – by guitarist Robbie Krueger. Morrison, with the backing of members John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Krueger, sung the song as it was written and the Doors were never invited back.

The Rolling Stones would fare a little at least. The source of their conflict with the then 60-year old host was their new hit single ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ Again, Sullivan and CBS were uncomfortable with song content.

Take it away Wikipedia –

” the Rolling Stones were instructed to change the title of their “Let’s Spend the Night Together” single for the band’s January 15, 1967, appearance. The band complied, with Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman ostentatiously rolling their eyes heavenward whenever they reached the song’s one-night-only, clean refrain, “Let’s spend some time together”. Mick Jagger did not wear a jacket on their first appearance on the show (October 25, 1964) and this annoyed Sullivan. They were asked to appear again, but they were asked to wear jackets for their 1965 appearance. The Stones would ultimately play on the Ed Sullivan Show six times”

Ahh, betcha didn’t know this story was going to have na happy ending>