By the end of 1955, Elvis Presley had nearly 18 months of nonstop touring behind him and two dozen singles already under his belt, though his only hits were on the Country and Western charts. He was a hardworking and hard-to-categorize up-and-comer, but the next six months would make him a superstar. It was his debut single on RCA/Victor, his new label, which propelled Elvis to the top of the pop charts. But if “Heartbreak Hotel” is what made him the king of the radio and record stores during the spring of 1956, it was television that truly made him the King of Rock and Roll. And if any one moment might be called his coronation, it was his appearance on The Milton Berle Show on this day in 1956, when he set his guitar aside and put every part of his being into a blistering, scandalous performance of “Hound Dog.”
This was not Presley’s first television appearance, nor even his first appearance on Milton Berle. Between January and March 1956, Elvis made six appearances on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, and on April 3, he appeared for the first time with Uncle Miltie. But every one of those appearances featured Elvis either in close-up singing a slow ballad, or full body but with his movements somewhat restricted by the acoustic guitar he was playing. It was on his second Milton Berle Show appearance that he put the guitar aside and America witnessed, for the very first time, the 21-year-old Elvis Presley from head to toe, gyrating his soon-to-be-famous (or infamous) pelvis.
Reaction to Elvis’ performance in the mainstream media was almost uniformly negative. “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability….For the ear, he is an unutterable bore,” wrote critic Jack Gould in the next day’s New York Times. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway. The gyration never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn’t.” In the New York Daily News, Ben Gross described Presley’s performance as “tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos,” while the New York Journal-American‘s Jack O’Brien said that Elvis “makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance.” Meanwhile, the Catholic weekly America got right to the point in its headline: “Beware of Elvis Presley.”