Remember When: Elvis’ Pelvis Offends/Arouses the Nation on ‘The Milton Berle Show’

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

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The ad-libbed ending of the Leiber & Stoller classic “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956, caused…a bit of a stir, we’ll say. It had been slowly building for several months, but the bump-and-grind gyrations transmitted across the airwaves that night pushed a nation over the edge as they watched a nice-looking young Southern singer express himself as he felt the music he was playing.

Elvis Presley started as a long-haired (for the mid-1950s) ball of nervous energy who drove a truck and was fond of crazy (for the mid-1950s) clothes. The boy with the funny name walked into Sun Records, hoping someone would notice him. Someone did (namely Sun’s Sam Phillips), and then the whole world did.

Harnessing the Madness

With his earlier successes, Presley had learned the power of radio. His first releases failed to chart, but after traveling around with his two backing band members playing high school gymnasiums and anywhere else they could, Presley’s fourth and fifth Sun releases hit No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.

Colonel Tom Parker was now managing the young singer and orchestrated a buyout of Presley’s contract from Sun by RCA Victor. Parker also arranged for six national television broadcasts on CBS. Presley’s debut was on January 28, 1956, on Stage Show with The Dorsey Brothers. It was one day after the release of his debut RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” but Presley chose to perform “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “I Got a Woman.” It’s a mystery why he would not take the opportunity to plug his latest release on his first chance to reach a national audience. 

[RELATED: 10 Unforgettable Elvis Presley Moments]

Presley was paid $1,250 for each of the six appearances. The following week, he performed “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “Tutti Frutti.” Again, not plugging his new release. 

If they had learned the power of the radio a couple years earlier, they were soon awakened to the massive power of television. In the third week of the six-week engagement, Presley performed “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins. His version would not be released as a single for eight more months. Appearing on national television was certainly helping to secure his brand, but it is interesting to think about the chosen song selection. The second song Presley sang that night, though, was, finally, “Heartbreak Hotel.” 

By the time of his fifth TV appearance, that song was approaching the top spot on the charts. This time, Presley delivered the song with more confidence, and the wide overhead camera shots enhanced it during the instrumental breaks as the singer gyrated, shook, and swung his hips to the audience’s delight. “Heartbreak Hotel” would sell 2 million copies on its way to becoming Presley’s first gold record.

The Uncle Miltie Moment

Colonel Parker struck a new deal for Presley to make two more TV appearances, this time on NBC, on The Milton Berle Show. On April 3, 1956, he performed on the deck of the USS Hancock with an audience consisting of military personnel. There were still screaming girls, but not as many as in his previous appearances—you could actually hear the guitar solo this time, in other words.

The second Berle appearance, then, was the one that brings us to the big controversy. 

Berle addressed the audience on June 5: “I want to tell you something. Incidentally, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that Elvis Presley is the fastest-rising young singer in the entertainment industry today.” 

He then presented the singer with his second gold record award for “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” And then it was time to sing “Hound Dog.”

Presley delivered the song with all the passion and fire he had previously delivered on the “Heartbreak Hotel” performances. As the song ended, Presley went into a slowed-down, bluesy ad-lib that played up the “bump-and-grind” energy that cut to the core of what made the girls scream. 40 million people were watching, and the parents amongst that audience were not happy. And TV critics were brutal. 

Steve Allen Neuters “Hound Dog”

Presley’s upcoming NBC appearance on The Steve Allen Show was in jeopardy. Negotiations went back and forth, but in the end, the promise of monumental ratings was just too great. The show would go on as planned—with one slight adjustment. Allen feels it would be funny for Presley to wear a tuxedo and sing “Hound Dog” to a Bassett hound wearing a top hat. 

Allen opened the show with, “Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago on The Milton Berle Show, our next guest, Elvis Presley, received a great deal of attention, which some people seem to interpret one way, and some viewers interpret another. … And at this time, it gives me extreme pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley.”

Presley walks on camera sheepishly and bows to the crowd. The dog is revealed, and the song begins. When the break comes where Presley normally gyrates to the drum fill, he freezes and gives the audience a knowing look. He still dances around the dog a bit, but it’s a truncated version, and they certainly don’t do the added slow-grind ending. 

The following day, “Hound Dog” is recorded, and it was released 11 days later.

During this time, Presley fans were divided between the “old Elvis” and the “new Elvis.” Either way, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” after it both hit the top of the charts. 

And Then, the Future King Meets the King of TV

From the beginning, Ed Sullivan had vowed not to have this obscene hooligan from Mississippi on his show. But Presley’s star was too bright. Again, the promise of ratings trumped Sullivan’s wishes. This time an estimated 54 million people tuned in on September 9 of ’56. Presley again rolled out “Hound Dog”—this time to deafening screams and with the go-ahead to gyrate at will—and his performance of “Love Me Tender” sparked advanced orders of over 1 million, leading to Presley’s fifth gold record. 

On January 7, 1957, Presley made his third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The singer was only shown from the waist up as there were too many complaints about his earlier TV appearances. This would end up being Presley’s last television appearance until he returned from the army in 1960; and at that point his focus (thanks to the insistence of Colonel Tom) shifted toward the movies. 

Whether from the waist up or in a wide shot, be it the “new Elvis” or the “old Elvis,” Presley was destined to become the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a title he’ll no-doubt hold for all time.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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