For Elvis the Dorsey Stage Show
Was the Jumping-off Point in '56
Most Americans credit Ed Sullivan with introducing Elvis Presley to the nation on his popular CBS-TV variety show in 1956. Elvis fans know, though, that that honor really belongs to band leaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, on whose CBS Stage Show Elvis first appeared on national TV in January 1956, over seven months before his first appearance on the Sullivan show. Between January 28 and March 24, 1956, Presley appeared on the Dorsey brothers' show six Saturday nights.
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey with Elvis Presley in 1956Dorsey musicians didn't care for Elvis
The contract, which was negotiated by Harry Kalcheim of the William Morris Agency, contained an option for two more appearances. When they were later picked up, Presley's fee was raised to fifteen hundred dollars per show.
Elvis was respectful of Tommy Dorsey when the two met for rehearsals at New York Nola Studios before Presley's initial January 28 appearance. At the rehearsal, Jackie Gleason declared, "I don't like this guy." Dorsey disagreed. "I like his kisser," he told Gleason. "Don't worry about him." Most of the members of Dorsey's band were uncomfortable with Elvis. "During our rehearsal with him, some guys fell off the bandstand laughing at Elvis," recalled musician Pat Chartrand. "It was so shocking to all of us, we couldn't believe it." Musician John Frosk added, "We didn't like him because he looked dirty, and he needed a haircut. We thought he never bathed."
When the rehearsal was over, Tommy Dorsey predicted, "You see that guy Elvis Presley—he's going to be one of the biggest names in show business in a short time." Levinson saw this as evidence that Dorsey could recognize talent when he saw it.
New York disc jockey Bill Randall introduced Elvis that first night. "We think tonight that he's going to make television history for you," Randall said. Elvis performed two R&B standards, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "I Got a Woman."
"Presley's national debut on Stage Show was like nothing that anyone had ever seen before on national television," "It was the raw against the cooked, postwar prosperity versus prewar propriety, an atomic burst of sexual vitality obliterating the palled remnants of Depression-era glamour. The camera crew had even breached television etiquette by daring to photography Presley below the waist!"
Elvis wore a black shirt, with white tie, dark pants and a white-striped tweed jacket. "The sloe-eyed Presley had a leering smile," "while his body gyrated with unabashed sexuality. A strong country blues sense emanated from the handsome young singer … whose forelock drooped over his face, added to his allure."
Not surprisingly, Elvis's appearance generated a flood of mail from infuriated viewers who couldn't understand how the respected Dorsey brothers could allow someone like Presley on their program. However, Stage Show's ratings went up, and they went up again the following Saturday night when Elvis made his second appearance.
CBS executive Mike Dann commended Tommy Dorsey on how he presented Presley. "Elvis was not at ease in front of an audience unless he was singing. Dorsey brought out the best in him because he gave Elvis a quality that many people never realized Elvis had. At the same time, he legitimized Elvis … There was a lot of betting going on that it wouldn't last, it wouldn't work. But Dorsey knew where talent was going. Elvis was so exciting … I think the key point here is that people don't realize that this was the jumping-off place for Presley."