The present-day studio where the Late Show with David Letterman is located at on 1697-1699 Broadway between West 53rd and West 54th in Manhattan, New York City was the longtime home to the longest-running variety show in television history. CBS-TV Studio 50 later became known as the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1968. It was named for the show’s host on its twentieth anniversary. Ed Sullivan was the host of this iconic show that became an American cultural phenomenon when families gathered around their television sets across the country every Sunday night at 8pm. It would also serve as a critical link for the Baby Boomer generation, those born shortly after World War II. The Ed Sullivan Show was their only way of seeing the latest pop/rock music acts of the day during the ’50’s and early ’70’s on live prime time television.
For another subsequent generation a new cable television network devoted exclusively to music called MTV, or Music Television, would feature the latest pop/rock artists in something called music videos. These were short films based on the running times of their songs. They were either filmed “live” in concert or most often by acting out their lyrics or the perceived theme of the song. In other words, the solo artists or bands were actors in songs. Some musical artists thrived in this medium while others did fairly well or not at all. If you did not have a music video on MTV during the ’80’s and ’90’s you were not going to have a successful career in music. The same perception was true with the music acts on the Ed Sullivan Show. If you did not appear on this show of shows your chances of a career in pop music was extremely slim to virtually none.
Without question both of these diametrically opposed shows each had a profound impact on music, the music industry, and pop culture. Each of them had unforgettable slogans such as “I Want my MTV” or Ed Sullivan would always say “For All You Youngsters Out There” whom he was referring to the Baby Boomer generation or his famous “We have a really big shoe for you tonight.” He always “shoe” instead of show. There is no question in anyone’s mind the Ed Sullivan Show and MTV have been and are still referenced in numerous films, books, TV shows and by musicians. They have literally become legendary in their own rights. Here is a breakdown of each show and the contributions they’ve made to the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X or Gen-X.
The Ed Sullivan Show
Originally the show was called “Toast of the Town” when it premiered on the CBS television network in June 1948. At the time so many people and those in the media kept referring to it as the Ed Sullivan Show. Finally the show’s producers finally changed it to the name of its famous host in 1955. Ed Sullivan was a former box and sportswriter who later became a theatre columnist for a number of New York newspapers covering the Broadway scene. Sullivan became extremely well-known amongst celebrities for his writings. Eventually the network hired him to be the host of a variety show since he was known for having a knack in spotting talent.
That incredible gift carried Ed Sullivan for over two decades on his show where he had a number of future mega superstars as his guests. The first was Elvis Presley who later caused a lot of controversy with his naughty hip action where they had to film him from the waist up or so goes the myth. A second major musical act that was causing a frenzy with young tweens and teen girls all across the country and around the world was none other then The Beatles. Another eventual superstar in the making was when Ed Sullivan had the Jackson 5 on which featured an adorable young tween as the group’s lead singer who had talent, wisdom and charisma oozing out of him unlike any of the other cloned teen idols. Sullivan welcomed with open arms numerous other African-American performers, especially the Motown artists when many other prime time shows shied away from it.
Ed Sullivan Show was in every sense of the word a truly bona fide variety television show. It was like watching the circus on TV, because he had countless circus acts like jugglers, trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns, you name it. Also featured were Broadway actors performing scenes or singing musical numbers from their shows. Stand-up comics, opera singers, ballerinas and of course the popular music acts of the day such as the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Mamas and The Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and many others from that era rounded out the show. They always saved the pop/rock acts for last. I never got to watch this show very much while growing up, because I was either living overseas or I only saw the first half of the show since my bedtime didn’t allow me to see the rest. I loved the little puppets they had on their. My favorites were the ballet dancers. It was this show that inspired me to take ballet lessons. Sadly, the Ed Sullivan Show ended abruptly in June 1971. Three years later Ed Sullivan passed away in 1974 from esophageal cancer at the age of 73.
Ten years after the end of the Ed Sullivan Show on August 1, 1981 was a historic date in music history with the launch of MTV or Music Television. This cable television network featured a number of VJs or music video disc jockeys who would introduce the videos, talk about music news, interview some of the artists music like a disc jockey does on the radio. The first VJs of MTV were Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter. The show aired music videos around the clock in rotation based on the song’s or video’s popularity much like that of the Top 40 radio stations.
There were two artists that literally were a match made in heaven for MTV. They were none other than Madonna and Michael Jackson. Whose to say what their careers would have been like if MTV had not come along? MTV had to deal with a huge controversy in its first couple of years. There were very little African American or other Black artists featured on this TV music network except for Tina Turner, Eddy Grant and Donna Summer. They refused to play the video by Rick James’ Super Freak and other Black artists. Ironically the head of Talent and Acquisition at MTV, Carolyn B. Baker, who is African American, wondered why the network was too narrow in its definition of music. Michael Jackson’s airing of his stellar breakthrough music video Billie Jean was also the video that broke the color barrier at MTV. Later on other artists such as Prince, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston became successful as a result of MTV.
By the 2000s the 24-hour music video airplay was slowly waning due to the rise of the internet when music videos are available at the click of a mouse. Now it has become a network filled with reality shows and other pop culture broadcasts such as films and drama/comedy series. With the launch of MTV in the early ’80’s its franchise has grown to other MTV networks overseas as well as other sister stations such as MTV2, VH1 and Nickelodeon. When MTV first came out my area did not have cable TV, so I ended up watching it at a friend’s house or elsewhere. In all honesty I was not and still am not a fan of music videos. You could say I am a music purist. I prefer the music over the theatrics many of the videos provided. Sometimes I felt the videos absolutely made no sense or weren’t in line with the lyrics. Some of them were just plain bad. Nevertheless MTV was here to stay and it has, but now in a lesser format. There have been memorable moments such as the premiere of the Thriller video by Michael Jackson.
Come Together & Conclusion
As you can see The Ed Sullivan was a sort of precursor in a way to MTV with its introduction of new musical acts. The major difference between the two they catered to different generations in very different mediums. One featured either live performances or on stage lip-synching (a very common practice back then). The other used the revolutionary music video format as a replacement of the old school variety shows from the ’50’s on through the ’70’s. Both were lifelines in finding out the latest musical acts. They also brought people together who love music.