On September 9, 1956, Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, an American TV variety show, (after earlier appearances on shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, and Steve Allen) even though Sullivan had previously vowed never to allow Presley on the show. According to biographer Michael David Harris, "Sullivan signed Presley when the host was having an intense Sunday-night rivalry with Steve Allen. Allen had the singer on July 1 and trounced Sullivan in the ratings. When asked to comment, the CBS star said that he wouldn't consider presenting Presley before a family audience. Less than two weeks later he changed his mind and signed a contract. The newspapers asked him to explain his reversal. 'What I said then was off the reports I'd heard. I hadn't even seen the guy. Seeing the kinescopes, I don't know what the fuss was all about. For instance, the business about rubbing the thighs. He rubbed one hand on his hip to dry off the perspiration from playing his guitar.' "
Sullivan's reaction to Presley's performance on the Milton Berle Show was, "I don't know why everybody picked on Presley, I thought the whole show was dirty and vulgar."
Elvis mythology states that Sullivan censored Presley by only shooting him from the waist up. Sullivan may have helped create the myth when he told TV Guide, "as for his gyrations, the whole thing can be controlled with camera shots." In truth Presley's whole body was shown in the first and second shows.
At the time, Presley was filming Love Me Tender, so Sullivan's producer, Marlo Lewis, flew to Los Angeles to supervise the two segments telecast that night from CBS Television City in Hollywood. Sullivan, however, was not able to host his show in New York City because he was recovering from a near fatal automobile accident. Charles Laughton guest-hosted in Sullivan's place.
Host Laughton wrongly introduced the singer as "Elvin Presley".Once on camera, Elvis cleared his throat and said, "Thank you, Mr Laughton, ladies and gentlemen. Wow", and wiped his brow. "This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There's not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now..." "Don't Be Cruel", which was, after a short introduction by Elvis, followed by "Love Me Tender".
Elvis's second set in the show consisted of "Ready Teddy" and a short on-air comment to Sullivan, "Ah, Mr Sullivan. We know that somewhere out there you are looking in, and, ah, all the boys and myself, and everybody out here, are looking forward to seeing you back on television." Next, Elvis declared, "Friends, as a great philosopher once said, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog...,' " as he launched into a short (1:07) version of the song.
Although Laughton was the main star and there were seven other acts on the show, Elvis was on camera for more than a quarter of the time allotted to all acts. The show was viewed by a record 60 million people which at the time was 82.6 percent of the television audience, and the largest single audience in television history. "In the New York Times", however, "Jack Gould began his review indignantly: Elvis Presley had 'injected movements of his tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful.' Overstimulating the physical impulses of the teenagers was 'a gross national disservice.'"