March 2022 – By John Apice
GROOVES & CUTS – ED SULLIVAN CONSERVATIVE OR JUST SMART?
It’s easy to whip out a word like Conservative when discussing the 50s. But what it really was in this era was in essence the Eisenhower years. All the TV shows on the 3 networks bowed to conformity. There was no choice. That middle-brow-to-aging audience wasn’t going to tolerate much. Their Almighty Dollar that sponsors were addicted to was powerful. The airwaves had to be careful about what they said, broadcast & represented. Their entertainment & message was going into millions of homes in that era. The sponsor (cigarettes, detergents, toothpaste, gasoline companies) — ruled the programs. They paid for them.
You could see how upset the men got when Alice & the other women on The Honeymooners wanted to simply learn to mambo. TV was in its infancy.
Soft-sell artists like Perry Como, Dean Martin, the Lennon Sisters, Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Robert Goulet, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, & the wildest of all Johnny Ray were “approved.” Though even Ray, a precursor to R&R, was considered risqué since he “cried” & over-emoted while singing his hit “Cry.”
Elvis Presley sang to an audience of teenagers tipped off about his appearances. His demand was building, it wasn’t overnight. The majority of the audience on Sunday nights who watched Ed Sullivan’s Show was there for Kate Smith, the McGuire Sisters, Judy Garland, some European circus acts, comedians, scenes from the latest Broadway shows, & Signor Wences.
So, when Elvis finally knocked the wall down with his 3 Sullivan appearances – it was genuinely historical. A wall today’s young artists forgot existed. Yes, bands that followed may have had to change lyrics to their songs on Ed’s show but that was the standard CBS policy. Even a folk singer like Pete Seeger came under scrutiny on The Smothers Brothers Show in the late 60s. Sullivan didn’t want to lose his sponsors or viewership numbers. He personally didn’t approve of Presley – he said so — “unfit for family viewing.”
But Presley appeared with success elsewhere. Sullivan got hammered in the ratings & he wasn’t the first with Elvis. Three TV programs featured The Pelvis first — swing brothers Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show (who also backed Elvis with their 40s big band), The Steve Allen Show & Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. All 3 had Elvis before Sullivan & Ed’s show was more prestigious.
So, despite his misgivings — Sullivan was brave, courageous & relented. He should be in the R&R Hall of Fame as an innovator. After Elvis, Ed went on to introduce 85% of the biggest rock, folk & country artists we know for over a decade. There was no MTV or VH1. In short, no music industry. It was leisure music.
Elvis had in his corner a very shrewd manager in Colonel Tom Parker which the Sullivan people didn’t expect. Sullivan paid an unprecedented amount for Elvis’ appearances. Then his show peaked at over 61 million viewers. 61 million. In the 50s.
The first 3 TV programs didn’t understand Elvis. They were showbiz-oriented. The Dorsey orchestra didn’t follow the Elvis rock songs well. Despite Steve Allen’s contributions to jazz & jazz artists (he worked with Jack Kerouac), his TV show was mostly schtick. Allen dressed Elvis up in a tuxedo to sing to a hound dog. Milton was comedy & parodied Presley before surrendering the stage to Elvis. Years later in interviews, both Milton & legendary singer Bing Crosby complimented Elvis’ singing ability. Bing even went as far as to say Elvis had a great vocal range & always sang in tune.
The more strait-laced Sullivan had to answer to the ultra-conservative executives/sponsors at CBS. He ran defenses for all the rock singers & wasn’t going to allow his stage for political stands, sexual messages, or people on their soapboxes. What he did was simply run a tight ship when TV was gaining popularity.
Ed should be congratulated for at least giving bands like The Doors, the Rolling Stones (despite their obnoxious appearances) an opportunity to play a show with that kind of demographic. Bob Dylan was scheduled to appear but because of his politics at the time CBS censors disallowed his choice of songs & walked off. CBS did not go after him. Some say Dylan didn’t need Sullivan. But they forget Ed didn’t need Dylan either.
Conservative? Just a label. Nobody knew what was going on in those days, didn’t know what would be acceptable or not. They had the McCarthy hearings in the 50s. There was a Red scare. They played it safe…or as safe as they thought they needed to be.
Ask Lenny Bruce, ask Elvis (who played it smartly since he got Ed’s approval on live television & his career soared). Without that approval from Ed folks, all those other rock artists would’ve never appeared on the Sullivan stage. Not even The Beatles. It would’ve been show tunes & circus acts for another 20 years.
If Sullivan said don’t do this or that — there was a reason. I would’ve loved to have seen Jagger sing “let’s spend the night together,” instead of utter “time together.” But at that time the audience would have turned their sets off. It WASN’T a Rolling Stones concert or audience. (How do I know? I worked for a major TV network for over 10 years. I’m familiar with machinations of the entertainment politics & mindset of sponsors.
TV sponsors are the original cancel culture. It existed up to The Smothers Brothers Show (Pete Seeger was banned for a long time) because their successful show was canceled (1969) due to many of these issues.
The Ed Sullivan Show casts a long shadow over the R&R & soul music industry.
Little steps get you closer to your objectivity. Let’s try & not so much set the record straight as get the perspective right.
Photo courtesies: Sullivan B&W – John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images/B&W – Ed with Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show/Facebook.
Ian Lake – What It Is
Independently released on March 18 this lovely poignant single by singer/guitarist/pianist Ian Lake is quite good. He has a clear resonated emotional voice accompanied by his lovelorn “Fishing For Promises,” on his grand piano & cello (Kevin Fox) – quite compelling. Lake’s powerful voice never loses its soul or becomes over-emotive & bombastic. His other single “Easier,” is more blue-eyed soulful with a durable female chorus.
He may not quite be as dramatic as the late Bobby Hatfield (“Unchained Melody”), but he has the tools. I only heard a few songs but what Ian does possess is a diversified delivery exemplified by styles such as the silky late English singer Black (“Wonderful Life”), dreamy Slim Man & even Lee Feldman (“On the Moon”). What he lacks is a more swing-base such as the likes of the legendary Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife,” “Beyond the Sea”). Lake has a great vocal, is quite good but needs to spread the wings just a bit. Roll the dice. Recorded in Toronto, Canada. CD photo courtesy: Justine Nelson. https://www.ianlake.com/
Jeremie Albino – Past Dawn
This is a bit of a shame because Albino sounds quite cool, energetic & the song “The Night Was Young,” is a delightful romp. But it’s poorly recorded. They may be going for nostalgia & retro, but my mono records scratched with an old needle on the turntable never sounded this prickly. The song is 1 of 6 on a new EP Past Dawn, that’s still worth checking out. Available April 1-Good People Records.
If this is considered good production in 2022 some rethinking’s required. Jeremie has GOOD memorable songs, a great vocal tone for rock n’ roll & explores themes covered effectively by The Del-Lords, Beat Farmers, Dave Alvin & Steve Earle. He needs to reconsider the manner in which he creates his work. Don’t go for the effects when he’s a rootsy artist. Roots, as in pure. It deserves better production. I didn’t say pristine production.
Maybe he needs a producer like Dave or Phil Alvin, or Eric Ambel who understand the limitations of “recreation.”
Earlier Albino sang a duet with a female singer Cat Clyde “Been Worryin’” & that was so incredibly good. Don’t lose her with her Mary Hopkin-like vocals that complement Albino’s whiskey-drenched vocal perfectly. Theirs is an excellent showcase, wonderfully recorded here & Albino himself has a presence with the spare instrumentation.
Albino is a worthy artist – likable with good material. It’s just the recording production that needs tweaking. If they want to go retro just record in an old-fashioned analog studio & drink chocolate milkshakes with Marlboros. http://jeremiealbino.com/
Nate Bergman – Metaphysical Change
If this guy recorded this a few decades back he would’ve had a monster hit. He treads the line between progressive rock & pop melodies. His aggressive vocals & fiery guitars are like a current running down a prairie wire on a hot desert day.
I like his (“Just Like Dylan Said”) but I’m not sure who buys this music today. No matter – there are people who still like that dramatic rock program as originally professed by Planet P (Tony Carey).
However, on a tune like “Ode to Manchester,” Bergman graces a more rootsy ballad style. He goes from bombastic to beautiful. The guitars chime nicely with the fiddle.
This is for select appetites, but it’s rich – the production on this CD is heavy. Everything is performed with acute authority. The 13-songs (Velocity Records-Drop May 20) & for many this is either going to be a huge discovery sonically or a nostalgic trip back to the days of Planet P’s “Pink World.”
It does lack a bit of the cognitive Americana-folk idiom but listening closer Bergman does have moments where he runs a finger across the rim of this genre. “Goodbye Munich,” isn’t European at all but a lovely acoustic guitar-driven tune with “strings” sweetening Nate’s near-Steve Perry vocals. Done well. https://www.natebergmansings.com/about
Alice DiMicele – Every Seed We Plant
Another reliable wonderful vocalist is Alice who returned with her 16th LP in a 3-decade career (Alice Otter Music–Dropped March 11). Though some tunes are gut-wrenching they’re performed with expertise & tonality that’s hard not to pay attention to.
Alice always displays her multi-octave voice in such a controlled manner that it never comes off as showboating or bombastic. Her melodies are enticing, her voice powerful, her words equally strong. Her instrumentation is subtle & soothing.
The lead-off cut “For Granted,” is a winner. Anyone who enjoys the likes of late-career Joni Mitchell, Beth Nielsen-Chapman, Cris Williamson, Carrie Newcomer will find a wealth of music from this talented chanteuse. Great artist. Worth keeping close to the speakers.
Color image courtesy of Alice’s website. https://www.alicedimicele.com/
Diane Patterson – Satchel of Songs
Different from Alice is the intriguing vocalist Diane with her sometimes reggae-oriented vocalizing of “Roots Heart Rhythm,” which shaves off the political edge of reggae & makes it listenable for the curious who enjoy good melody & danceable beats.
This CD was released on March 8. Delightful from start to finish. 10-cuts of acoustic mystical Americana flavors that make for an entirely different roots music approach. Creative & atmospheric.
The title track is held down solidly with what sounds like the deep bellows of a cello accompanied by string harp notes that trickle like a cold waterfall. Patterson keeps it all a journey of musical expression seldom found in such a smoothly produced collection. Produced quite well by Mike Napolitano. The majority of the songs were recorded in New Orleans.
Color image courtesy of Diane’s website. https://www.dianepatterson.org
Jesper Lindell – Twilights
From Sweden comes Mr. Lindell who duets with The Band’s late Levon Helm’s daughter Amy Helm on the beautiful “Twilights,” (the original is on The Band’s 1977 LP “Islands”) with some enchanting lead guitar.
It’s Jason’s 2nd Americana/vintage rock LP (Dropped March 18). It features the obscure Band track & some blue-eyed soul along with roots music performed richly by his 6-member band. The single premiered by PopMatters is a soulful cover & solidifies Lindell’s place in the genre. Some genuine effort – listenable & introduces a spirited vocalist.
Color image courtesy of Emilia Vicenta. https://www.jesperlindell.com/
Jessica Willis Fisher – Brand New Day
Anyone who can’t get enough of Alison Krauss will find a wealth of good music & vocals from this young fiddle player. Ms. Fisher explores country, bluegrass & despite her own dark history, she adds her own sweet personality to allow everything to be an antidote for anyone feeling blue or challenged.
It’s uncanny that she doesn’t exactly sound like Krauss but mine the same vein with such expertise that I have to refrain from saying she’s imitating. She isn’t. There’s an innate quality in her showcase.
Her music is slightly different, her approach is sincere. “Gone” is a wonderful song & Brand New Day, is her solo 10-song debut (Drops April 13). Produced by Ben Fowler the song & the LP is excellently captured with all the refinement of true country feeling.
Considering the hard life Fisher experienced it’s amazing her voice is so filled with brightness & beauty. She provides uplifting & mature songs filled with joy, courage & optimism. https://jessicawillisfisher.com/
All CDs are available as noted or on the artists’ website.