Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a round of applause for the June Taylor Dancers. And now, right here on our stage, Judge Steve Evans will juggle prepositions while spinning punctuation on broom handles.
We gotta whole lotta lip-syncing goin' on during Ed Sullivan's "reeeeally big shooooow."
Ventura packs 65 rock & roll tracks, virtually all of them classics, onto three discs featuring nearly four dozen bands and solo performers on their rise to glory. Some would become legends. Others would burn out or simply fade away. For music lovers who are into time capsules, this one's a beaut.
Video is surprisingly clean, but the sound quality is all over the place. This may be moot since many of the groups who played the Ed Sullivan Show were not recorded live. Instead, they often mouthed the words to a backing track—typically off their own 45 single—a common practice in the early years of live television. Still, as a document of impossibly young-looking musicians who 40 years later are household names, here's a set worth adding to a music DVD collection.
Ed Sullivan enjoyed a 23-year run as emcee of his own variety show, which appeared Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS from 1948 until June 1971. He died of cancer three years later. The show featured a bit of everything, from guys spinning china plates on a dozen broom handles, to stand-up comedians, magicians, and ventriloquists. The real appeal of the show, the feature that kept audiences coming back every Sunday night, was the spotlight on a hot music group. In his selections, Sullivan had no equal. Despite a personality and demeanor that practically shouted "square," (to use the vernacular of his era), Sullivan booked the hippest musicians and gave their careers a lift while watching his own ratings blast into orbit.
In practice this was often more peculiar than it sounds. Come experience real cognitive dissonance as the buttoned-down Sullivan in pinstripes and a tie greets paisley-wearing Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, both of whom were probably high as kites. Sullivan just smiles benignly and welcomes his far-out guests, who deliver a too-perfect rendition of "Turn, Turn, Turn." If there was a generation gap in the 1960s, Sullivan closed the abyss with plenty of cash and the prestige of appearing on his show. More importantly, in an era of extreme racial prejudice, Sullivan bucked convention by booking Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Sam and Dave, and scores more black performers. If his producers or sponsors balked at black people on television, Sullivan, to his credit, told them to go to hell. Music is music, Sullivan once said. White man, black man; it made no difference. Talent and promise were all that mattered. Sullivan gave everyone a shot.
During his prime, Ed Sullivan was the go-to guy for groups who wanted instant recognition on a national stage. There was a certain cachet to scoring a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was more significant than the closest contemporary equivalents: playing Saturday Night Live or landing on the cover of Rolling Stone (Sullivan had already been on television nearly 20 years by the time that seminal rock magazine debuted in San Francisco). The Beatles' first appearance on Sullivan's show, in February 1964, set a record for the most-watched program in television history up to that time.
Sullivan began his career as a sportswriter and Broadway columnist for the New York Daily News. He later worked in radio, delivering show business news commentary before breaking into television in spite of a face like rough-hewn granite. Sullivan himself evidently couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, but he had an unerring ear for top talent and the clout to book whoever he wanted. An appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show didn't always guarantee enduring success (anyone remember Oliver?), but a shot on the program gave hundreds of musicians a major career boost. In the Beatles' case, those historic shows were nothing less than a firm beachhead from which to stage the British Invasion. Sullivan's influence on pop music from roughly 1950-1970 cannot be underestimated.
Here's a surprise: Between performances, a narrator provides some background on how each musician or group came to be booked on the show, as well as the occasionally fascinating tidbit that adds valuable perspective to our knowledge of music history. This is unflinching stuff, often harsh and unrelenting. We learn, for instance, that the Mamas and the Papas were disintegrating at the height of their popularity in 1966. When they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the group was about to implode on the revelation that Michelle Phillips was cheating on her husband (and group leader) John Phillips. Turns out she was having an affair with Denny Doherty, the group's tenor. This knowledge adds a certain irony to the group's performance of "Dedicated to the One I Love," an achingly beautiful ballad and highlight of Disc Two on this set. The lead vocals are by Michelle Phillips, who throws at least one meaningful glance in Denny's direction during their performance.
Famously temperamental, Sullivan was not above demanding changes in a band's lyrics if he thought the audience might be offended. Some groups complied; others blew off Sullivan's orders, typically delivered backstage by an underling. When The Rolling Stones sang "Let's Spend the Night Together," Mick Jagger changed the lyric—at Sullivan's insistence—to "let's spend some time together." But The Doors dissed Sullivan and refused to alter a reference to getting higher in "Light My Fire." Jim Morrison sang the lyric on-air as written and The Doors were promptly banned from The Ed Sullivan Show. Their lone appearance on the program is perhaps an inevitable omission from this set.
It's refreshing to have so much contextual information on a boxed set of rock music. Instead of tarnishing golden idols, the between-songs commentary plays up the essential humanity of the musicians. At times, this is actually poignant as we know what the musicians could not: many of them would die young.
Highlights include rare footage of Jackie Wilson, early Rolling Stones (Keith Richards had yet to mummify himself), The Beatles singing "Ticket to Ride," Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin, an electrifying set by James Brown, a song each from Elvis and Buddy Holly, and a fascinating look at the Beach Boys purring "Good Vibrations" during their short-lived flirtation with psychedelia. There's much more. Watching Smokey Robinson sing "I Second that Emotion" can make a weary soul deliriously happy. And check out the moves on The Temptations! Mercy. A complete track listing is included below.
There are no extras, but it's hard to complain with this much content to enjoy. Audio features include a choice of remixed Dolby 5.1 or stereo. The latter sounds cleaner to these ears, which could discern no sonic benefit from a 5.1 mix that comes off thin and undernourished. Audio quality is inconsistent, but probably sounds at least as good as the original broadcasts, which were hardly audiophile quality.
The box comes recommended mainly for the 4 1/2 compulsively watchable hours of terrific archival footage. By capturing many of these acts in their early years, Ed Sullivan's video crew has kept rock's promise of eternal youth.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ventura Distribution
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