It’s “Forgotten Friday!” Each Friday, I’ll profile someone or something (celebrity, movie, TV show, book, event, politician, etc.) that once held the spotlight but is now largely forgotten.
This week, it’s Ed Sullivan and his “really big shooooooow.”
The Ed Sullivan Show ran on CBS from 1948-1971 and was THE show of its time. Watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights was a near universal experience in American households through the 1950s and into the mid-1960s. Sullivan had the power to make superstars and he offered a wide variety of performance on his show: comedians, rock stars, Broadway performers, opera singers, gymnasts, etc.
Sullivan’s show is probably best remembered for giving The Beatles their first American TV appearance in 1964. Sullivan also had Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Beach Boys, The Jackson 5, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, The Mamas & the Papas, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Herman’s Hermits, and The Band on the show.
When The Doors made their one and only appearance, there was controversy. Sullivan ordered Jim Morrison to change the lyrics of “Light My Fire” to take out the line “We couldn’t get much higher.” Morrison agreed, then did the song live without changing the lyric. Sullivan banned The Doors from any future appearances.
Sullivan’s show also showcased African-American performers, something almost unheard of in TV at the time. Diana Ross and the Supremes made 15 appearances over the years, more than any other performers. Other African-American performers included Frankie Lymon, Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, LaVern Baker, Harry Belafonte, James Brown,Cab Calloway, Godfrey Cambridge, Diahann Carroll, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby, Count Basie, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bo Diddley, Duke Ellington, Lola Falana, The 5th Dimension, Ella Fitzgerald, The Four Tops, Dick Gregory, W. C. Handy, Lena Horne, The Jackson 5, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Kenny, George Kirby, Eartha Kitt, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Moms Mabley, Johnny Mathis, The Miracles, Melba Moore, The Platters, Leontyne Price, Richard Pryor, Lou Rawls, Della Reese, Nipsey Russell, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Ike & Tina Turner, Leslie Uggams, Sarah Vaughan, William Warfield, Dionne Warwick, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Flip Wilson, Jackie Wilson, Nancy Wilson, and Stevie Wonder.
Sullivan also gave us the first appearances of The Muppets. Jim Henson and his creations appeared 25 times beginning in 1966.
It’s amazing that the man who helmed such a TV show is today largely forgotten while so many of the performers that he made into stars remain household names today. Perhaps the fact that his show has not been rerun in its entirety since its cancellation has contributed to that. Or the stories of how he tried to censor acts that have since become legendary for their innovations have cast him in a negative light.
Or it may simply be that his role on his show became his role in life: introduce us to the stars and then fade into the background.
In any event, Ed Sullivan had a huge impact on American pop culture for more than two decades. That’s a legacy to be remembered.