To put this in context, you have to be a child of the ’60s. Public television was airing the Best of Ed Sullivan recently. I fell off the current time continuum and found myself sitting on a bed in my parent’s bedroom. My entire family was gathered, watching a “portable black & white TV ” on Sunday night. There was Topo Giggo and other regulars, but we tuned in for the musical guest. At some point, TV Guide made its way to the grocery list so we could prepare for the up coming show, knowing at least a bit about the featured musical act.
Of course there was Elvis, famously filmed only from the waist up for modesty’s sake. However, once the Beatles broke the barrier, rock and roll became a staple, replacing the acts my parents originally tuned in for. The Young Rascals, Diana Ross and The Supremes, acts were guaranteed air play on our AM transistor radios and ultimately sales of albums after being featured on the show. The sets and sound were abominable but nothing like this had ever happened before in the history of music. Black girl bands, California beach bums and British edgy long-hairs ruled Sunday night.
Funk was born, (“Now here for the youngsters is Sly and the Family Stone singing “Everyday People”) with a message that things were going to be different from here on out. Costumes were elaborate, probably determined by Ed’s staff. Sly wore heavy gold chains that hugged his afro-topped neck and draped from his wrists. He danced out into the audience and the stiff, brown-suited white dudes looked stunned.
In 1967 Jim Morrison and The Doors performed “Light My Fire.” America’s answer to the bad boy Brits introduced an anthem for the times. They wore suits. Morrison almost looked terrified, a mere shadow of who he would become. He was banned from the show for saying, “Higher” due to the drug implications.
Groups such as The Turtles were safer, “Happy Together” was a more positive spin if Ed had to pander to this new audience of viewers. The Beach Boys were acceptably “Cute and so darned American!” to my parents. The fact that they didn’t hold jobs, merely surfed and sang seemed unrealistic but at least they looked like nice boys.
We saved our allowances for the freshly printed glossy magazines that came out every week. They proclaimed to hold all the inside scoop on the new music scene. There was an entire magazine devoted to each act with fold-out photos suitable for thumbtacking to your walls. The Rolling Stones appeared in turtlenecks and sports jackets on the show but the Mick Jagger every girl fell in love with was stripped down to jeans and a t-shirt and was scotch-taped inside her closet door. We styled ourselves after Janice Joplin’s messy locks and the india print shifts of Mama Cass. We swooned over Peter Noone as Herman’s Hermits. sang “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” Though it was in black & white, those big blue eyes were burned into our dreams of the perfect boyfriend. When The Animals performed “House of the Rising Sun”, an unlikely anthem of the dark side of life in New Orléans, they looked stiff in their tight suits and pointed “Beatle Boots.” They were lit from the front, a black abyss behind them. If you close your eyes, or look away from the screen and just listen, the memories flood back. California dreaming was more than a song title, the age of Aquarius was unfolding.
They sang of crying, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Tears of a Clown”. They sang of love, “Good Love” was all the Young Rascals needed, “You Can’t Hurry Love” preached The Supremes. The raciest of songs titillated us. February 16, 1966 Ed was in color when he introduced the British bad boys of rock, “and here for all the youngsters in America and Canada, The Rolling Stones!” “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” became a call to fight back against the establishment. The stage was pure white and the backdrop was bright red, Mick shock Ed’s hand after the set but the screaming throngs of fans drowned out the audio. Things got grittier from there.
We sat through the opera singers, comedians, plate spinners and Russian gymnasts, holding out hope for that final act that was the start of something new. Many nights as the show ended my parents would look at us and say, “Do you really think that is music?”
Looking back, I am proud to have been witness to the changes; the evolution of television and the indelible mark rock and roll made on society.
N.B. If you haven’t caught this documentary, PBS is selling a 7 DVD set that would make a great Father’s Day gift for any Baby Boomer Dad. http://www.edsullivan.com/products/rock-n-roll-classics-7-dvd-set/