Ed Sullivan was something of a phenomenon of the 20th century.
He started his career working at a newspaper in 1919. By 1929 he became a Broadway columnist, which had him then focusing on the entertainment industry. One thing led to another, and in 1948 Sullivan hosted a CBS TV show, “The Toast of the Town,” which was renamed in 1955 “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It ran every Sunday night live from 8 to 9 pm Eastern until 1971.
It was a variety show, the likes of which no longer exist. That is, it featured comedians, jugglers, magicians, torch singers, popular musicians, and even a bizarre talking fist. The show, shot live, was performed in Studio 50*. It was later renamed the “Ed Sullivan Theater,” with the advent of David Letterman’s show. Although the late Letterman show—like Kimmel’s or Fallon’s of current—had something of the variety to it, Sullivan’s was different, in that he simply introduced the performers and they did their acts, whether it was singing a song that was quite fresh on the charts or twirling plates on a stick. He wasn’t the show. The performers who were booked were.
Given its time slot, the show was meant to be family entertainment, not something that wasn’t meant to be viewed until the children were well in bed.
One of the things that “The Ed Sullivan Show” did that no longer occurs was the exposure of new and breaking acts to literally millions of people. Arguably that exposure led to an increase in record sales and bookings for the performers, especially musicians. Certainly a good thing. (Something that would be useful now, as there have been so many acts who could use post-lockdown exposure.)
There was a wide array of people who performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” including B.B. King, The Animals, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and many more. Realize that it was an hour-long weekly show so it needed acts.
There were, of course, some famous musical incidents on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Like the third appearance of Elvis Presley, on January 6, 1957. That was the show when he was shot only from the waist up, because many people had found his gyrations somewhat lewd and lascivious. (When Elvis first appeared on the show, September 9, 1956, he said, “This is probably the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except it makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” Sullivan was important.)
Then there was the fourth time The Rolling Stones were on. That was January 15, 1967. They were to do two numbers, with “Ruby Tuesday” the first and then a more rousing second tune. But Sullivan was concerned about that one, thinking it far too suggestive, so he had the band change the name of the song and some of the lyrics. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” Jagger sang it that way but mugged for the camera in such a way to underscore the absurd change.
In September 1967 it was The Doors on the show. Sullivan, again being highly sensitive to all of the ears, young and old, that might have been corrupted were they to hear part of “Light My Fire,” told the band that “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” had to be modified to “Girl we couldn’t get much better.”
They agreed. Morrison sang the original lyric. He was told they’d never appear on Sullivan again. Morrison pointed out they already had, so that was good enough for him. He was the Lizard King and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be told what to sing.
Which brings me to one recent morning, while flicking through the channels endless channels on the television, and landing on one of those stations where the commercials are about Medicare Advantage Plans and Jitterbug phones, I saw the statue-like Ed Sullivan sweeping his arm like it was made out of marble introducing Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. That group, which had its primary run from 1967 to 1971, sometimes wore Civil War-like Union solider uniforms, perhaps figuring that Paul Revere & the Raiders (who were on Sullivan in 1967) did OK when they wore Revolutionary War outfits, so perhaps it would provide some flash. (Although Paul Revere & the Raiders seems as though it was one of those made-for-TV acts, a Dick Clark Production, that came to exist mainly in the latter half of the 1960s, it was actually established in 1958, out of Boise, Idaho.)
So I watched. The band was doing its second hit single released in 1968 and I was astonished to hear a full-throated (Puckett had reasonably good pipes) paean to potential pedophilia, not just a word or two or a gesture, but the whole damn song: “Young Girl.”
The lyrics have it that the young girl in question has applied makeup and perfume although she’s “just a baby in disguise.” The protagonist** thinks that she is aware of her seductiveness (“And though you know that it’s wrong to be/Alone with me/That come-on look is in your eyes”). Who is doing the interpretation of that “look”? And he goes on to cast the blame away from himself: “With all the charms of a woman/You’ve kept the secret of your youth/You’ve led me to believe you’re old enough/To give me love.” Oh yes, leading him on.
This all sounds like the makings of one of those British police procedurals on the BBC where there is some innocent young girl who gets chopped up and found in a bucolic setting with the perpetrator finally being revealed as some spry old guy, despite for most of the drama it seems as though it was her age-appropriate dumped boyfriend whose bedroom is plastered with photos of the young girl in question.
And if somehow the lyrics were missed, there is the repeated chorus that emphasizes that the person in question knows what is going on:
“Whoa, oh, oh, young girl
Get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run, girl
You’re much too young, girl”
“Get out of my mind”? “Better run, girl”? What is this all about if not some maniacal, twisted old bastard who will do her harm lest she take heel?
Somehow Jagger suggesting that he spend the night with someone—undoubtedly a suitably aged someone—was too much for the show, but there was the whole thing, sung out without a bit of hesitation.***
How did “Young Girl” get by Ed Sullivan and the CBS Standards and Practices department (to say nothing of being released on Columbia Records)? That isn’t innuendo. That’s a horror show.
*It was originally Hammerstein’s Theater, built by Arthur Hammerstein, dramatist, playwright, theater manager, songwriter (his most famous composition is “Because of You,” recorded by Tony Bennett in 1951), and uncle to Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote, with Richard Rodgers, musicals including Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. Seems like there was a lot of entertainment in that family.
**Although Puckett didn’t write the lyrics (they were written by Jerry Fuller, who produced the record) and although one cannot identify the singer with the content of the song, in 1968 Puckett was 26 years old, so even with those caveats, it is still seriously disturbing.
***As I looked into the catalog of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap I discovered that its sixth single, released in August 1969, “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” is, in keeping with this unusual theme: “Our hearts told us we were right/And on that sweet and velvet night/A child had died/A woman had been born.” Uh, right. . . . That song hit number two on the Billboard. . .Adult Contemporary chart.