From 1948 to 1971, "The Ed Sullivan Show" provided an open window on popular American culture, where rock-and-rollers and rhythm-and-blues stars mingled freely with circus acts, comedians and pop singers of earlier eras. Just about everybody who was or would become somebody appeared there -- people seldom write about Elvis Presley or the Beatles without mentioning their breakthrough performances on the Sullivan show (in 1956 and 1964, respectively). What's surprising is that few of the 9,000 performances have ever been commercially available outside the occasional documentary.
Now the TVT label, which previously mined the tube for three volumes of "Television's Greatest Hits" (theme songs) and one of "TeeVee Toons: The Commercials," has begun a massive 25-volume collection drawn from the 1,001 "really big shows" Sullivan aired during 23 years. The first three volumes of "The Sullivan Years" are already out, titled "The British Invasion," "The Mod Sound" and "Louis Armstrong."
Happily, you get Sullivan's classic introductions (lots of "right here, live on our stage" and "let's hear it for ... ") and the requisite screaming, particularly with the Brit acts. The Beatles and Rolling Stones aren't represented because of problems with clearances, but may show up on future sets; for now, you have to live with 16 tunes from the likes of Billy J. Kramer, Herman's Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Searchers and Peter and Gordon. Sullivan insisted on live performances -- no lip-syncing a` la "American Bandstand" -- but most songs closely follow the recorded versions.
"The Mod Sound" compiles 17 performances by such '60s acts as Spanky and Our Gang, the Mamas and the Papas, the Fifth Dimension and perky vocalists Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Jackie DeShannon. Armstrong was a Sullivan favorite, as the 18 cuts here suggest; he was also one of the few artists given a free rein in performance; the accent is on latter-day Satch, the singer-personality, rather than Armstrong, the jazzman.
Hearing these performances, you can't help but think that what the Sullivan legacy really deserves is a boatload of videos, and since the archives are now owned by film producer Andrew Solt, that may well be the next step.
Lightweights and Legends
Despite its title, CBS Special Products' five-CD "Rock Goes to the Movies" hardly provides any kind of overview and the label might as well have reissued the soundtracks to "Zabriskie Point" and "The Strawberry Statement" (10 and eight cuts, respectively, are drawn from these '60s counterculture "classics"). But then no one would have looked twice at these budget-priced collections, which are further burdened by their playing time of 30-35 minutes apiece (the 57 songs easily could have fit on three CDs). The approach is scattershot: a Treniers cut from the 1957 "Girl Can't Help it," but not the better cuts by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent; some incongruous theme songs (Ray Charles's "Cincinnati Kid," the Hollies' "After the Fox"); songs "inspired" by films (Johnny Horton's "Sink the Bismarck"); an emphasis on '60s films no one's likely to remember (six cuts from "Get Yourself a College Girl," only two from "Easy Rider"). This set, which should have been called "Rock Goes to Some Movies," would have been better served by the folks at Rhino, who continue their stellar historical services.
Two cases in point: five new volumes of "Have a Nice Day: Superhits of the '70s" and the first five volumes of "Legends of Guitar," a venture with Guitar Player magazine. The new "Have a Nice Day" volumes cover 1973-1976 and have a wealth of awful one- and two-hit wonders: Terry Jacks's "Seasons in the Sun," Golden Earring's "Radar Love," Jim Stafford's "Spiders and Snakes," Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" and Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died." Of course, some songs are actually good: Billy Swann's "I Can Help" and Ace's "How Long" among them. Most of these hits have been out of circulation since they were originally released but still have residual power that is likely to get you, whether laughing or sighing (or shaking your head at how well you suddenly remember them).
With another 15 volumes on tap, it might be a good time to invest in the 424-page "Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders," written by Wayne Jancik. The book ($19.95 from Billboard Books) lists the 625 artists who placed one, and only one, song in the magazine's Top 40 between 1955 and 1984 (later one-hit wonders are being given a grace period to avoid being included in Vol. 2). It begins with Joan Weber's 1955 No. 1, "Let Me Go Lover" and concludes with ex-Styx man Dennis Young's 1984's offering "Desert Moon" (No. 10). Many of the names won't ring any kind of bell, even if they hit No. 1, but the list includes a number of current or sure-bet Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers: Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins, Phil Spector (as a Teddy Bear), Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and Bo Diddley, each of whom had the same number of hits as the Nutty Squirrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Singing Nun, Lorne Greene and Wink Martindale.