Ed Sullivan's Rock 'N' Roll Classics
By Brian Jacks
For over two decades, Ed Sullivan entertained a nation. Every Sunday night at eight, the aptly named “Ed Sullivan Show” broadcasted a true hodgepodge of variety acts. During the course of a single hour, one might see a risqué comedian followed by a sword swallower followed by a musical group. Stars like Bob Hope and Dean Martin made their television debuts on Ed’s stage, and millions of viewers tuned in every week.
While not the most refined TV host around, one thing Ed knew was how to capture an all-ages audience, and this owed in great part to his ability to stay on top of the latest and hottest bands. Sullivan was the first to introduce American television to The Beatles, and people still talk today about appearances by The Doors, Elvis, and the Stones. If you liked music, you watched the Sullivan Show. No other program came close. And now cult-publisher Rhino is releasing a DVD box set with many of the show’s greatest performances. Rejoice.
Spread across an almost-intimidating nine discs, the Sullivan collection features dozens of yesteryear’s (and even today’s) most memorable groups. Among those featured are The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beach Boys, The Doors, The Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Temptations, Janis Joplin, James Brown, The Animals, Santana, Steppenwolf, and Buddy Holly, among many others. All told, a massive 144 acts are included, subdivided into categories such as “Motor City Magic,” “Top Hits of 1969,” “British Invasion,” and so on.
Among the collection’s many performances are some of the show’s most memorable. This counts, of course, the many performances by The Beatles, consisting of songs from their first television appearance as well as those from later dates. Also included are The Doors’ playing “Light My Fire,” which subsequently saw them banned from the show for the use of the word “higher” during the song. Likewise, the Stones first outing to the Sullivan Show is included, one that saw them banned as well, although for Mick and the boys it would be temporary. Most of the show’s Elvis segments are on the discs, unseen pelvic thrusts and all.
The set is not above criticism, however, although much of it is personal opinion. Prior to each song there’s a brief narrated video that’s well worth watching. However, the video is before the song’s chapter stop, thus if you select a song from the menu you must hit rewind to see the video intro for the selected performance. Beginning each chapter at the start of the video would have been preferable. Also, a few of the song choices are debatable. Do we really need two separate performances of Tom Jones singing his “It’s Not Unusual?” Especially when incredible bands like The Drifters are nowhere to be found. And why use Smokey Robinson’s version of “Yesterday” instead of Paul McCartney’s? Those minor quibbles aside (and they are minor), in the end, whether you groove to John Phillips or rock to John Kay, chances are there’s something here for everyone.
Ed Sullivan’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Classics is presented in its original broadcast 1.33:1 aspect format. Video quality varies significantly depending on the era of the performance. Bobby Darin’s 1950s set looks considerably worse than Creedence Clearwater’s segment from the late 1960’s. There’s not much that could be done to improve most of the shows, so with that said, the quality seen on the Rhino discs is probably as good as can get.
The audio, on the other hand, is rather remarkable. Rhino delivers the collection in the typical Dolby 2.0 format, but also in a completely remastered Digital 5.1 track. Never have scenes from the Sullivan show sounded as encompassing and clear as they do here. For instance, during The Beatle’s debut, the screaming of adolescent girls drowned out much of the music. The Rhino release, however, puts the screams in the background and brings the Fab Four’s music to the forefront where it belongs, making it much easier to enjoy this historic event. And it’s not just on The Beatle segments where the remastered audio shines. On every song, there’s a sharp contrast between the 2.0 and 5.1 tracks, and it’s really quite incredible. Rhino did a great job and deserves a giant kudos from audiophiles everywhere.
Not content to just deliver some of the greatest musical performances to ever grace the small screen, Rhino has also saw fit to include a supplement package, albeit a rather limited one. First up is a interview with the private Ed Sullivan and his wife, Sylvia. It’s from the late 1950s show “Hy Gardner Calling,” where Gardner calls his subjects and they talk on the phone, shown split-screen. It’s a rare opportunity to hear from Sullivan is a more relaxed environment, so it’s noteworthy in that regard, even though almost half of the relatively brief interview is with Sylvia, who has little to say. The second featurette, a half-hour interview with “Ed Sullivan Show” director John Moffitt, is much more interesting. Moffitt has story after story to tell, and he’s very eager and excited to do so. Whether it’s stories about The Beatles or The Stones, or simply reminiscing about how everything just seemed to work right for those twenty years, Moffitt provides viewers with a glimpse inside one of television’s most celebrated shows. The last supplement is a gallery consisting of a dozen or so photographs of Sullivan on the job, both on and off the stage.
The Show: A. How could anyone not like performances from some of the greats?
The Look: B-. Considering what Rhino had to work with, it’s impossible to complain.
The Sound: B+. A digitally remastered soundtrack makes this collection really worth listening to.
The Extras: C+. The brief interview with Sullivan is a nice touch, but the Moffitt piece shines.
Overall: A. Viewing this collection is a stroll through rock ‘n’ roll history. Count us in.