1956 When America Was Rocked

September 9, 1956

Ed Sullivan was a sports writer turned gossip columnist who wrote for the New York Daily News a piece called “Little Old New York.” His column gave him contacts in the developing world of television, and CBS decided to let him host their new variety show.

The Ed Sullivan Shows

Sullivan was a fixture on CBS from June 20, 1948, until June 6, 1971. His first big show featured comedians Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who were each paid $100 for their appearance. The show got the reputation of showcasing the hottest acts. Sullivan had one rule: the acts had to be appropriate for the “family hour.”

Sullivan was styled by David Habersham as the “unofficial Minister of Culture in America.” Sullivan was determined to project an idealized image of American life. With a doubling of the GNP between 1940 and 1960, and median family incomes up by thirty percent, never had so many American families been so well off. Families added the same appliances to their homes, the watched the same shows on TV, they ate at the same fast food restaurants, and shopped at the same stores.  The trend toward uniformity was reinforced by the shadow of the cold war and the atomic bomb.

Despite the emphasis on conformity and consensus, there were signs of changes to come all around. In those years between 1940 and 1960, the number of women in the workforce doubled. The civil rights movement was being born as individuals stood up for their rights by civil disobedience. This was the era of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. The biggest change was postwar baby boom and the purchasing power they had to move markets.

Youth Culture

The growth of public education had a big influence on the distribution of new cultural ideas. Between 1930 and 1950, the ratio of children aged fourteen to seventeen increased from 50 percent to 73 percent. By segregating young people with many others of the same age, education gave teenagers the opportunity to develop their own values. J. D. Salinger’s Cather on the Rye (1951) and movies like Rebel Without a Cause noted the change in adolescent values.

The most powerful expression of the new youth culture was popular music. A mix of rhythm and blues, country, and white gospel music gained popularity among African Americans in the late forties. Because of its association with blacks and its strong sexual overtones, most whites dismissed the new sound as “race music.” At first the music was recorded only by small recording studios and played on African American radio stations. In 1951 a white disc jockey named Alan Freed began playing this “race music” on a popular Cleveland radio station, renaming it “rock and roll.”

Meanwhile, in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, was looking for a white man with the Negro sound and Negro feel. In the summer of 1953, a truck driver named Elvis Aron Presley walked into Sun Records to make a record and changed the history of American Pop culture.

Elvis on TV

Elvis made his television debut on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, produced by Jackie Gleason for CBS-TV in January 1956. Elvis made six more appearances on Stage Show over the next seven weeks. The Dorsey brothers threatened to walk off if Elvis was invited back to Stage Show.

Elvis made his next TV appearance on The Milton Berle Show, June 5, 1956. Elvis then appeared on a new NBC show, hosted bye Steve Allen, that competed with Ed Sullivan’s show. Despite growing anti-Elvis sentiment of some parts of the community, the Allen show beat Sullivan 20.2 to 14.8 in the ratings.

A few hours later Sullivan was negotiating with Presley’s agent, Colonel Parker.  Parker signed Elvis to a three-appearance deal for $50,000. Elvis appeared on the Sullivan show September 9,  1956, and rock and roll became part of mainstream American culture.


  • Video Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show 1956
  • Lecture
    Rowe 10 Days Episode 9 Ch. 9 Elvis
  • Study Guide


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