Elvis: Long live the King

In 1956 Elvis signed on to star in the film “The Reno Brothers.” In interviews leading up to the shoot, the rock-and-roll superstar declared that it was an acting-only role, and that he wouldn’t be singing. Not that he minded, in fact that’s what he preferred. As much as he loved singing, in his heart Elvis was an entertainer and more than anything, he wanted to be a movie star.

By the time filming began on “The Reno Brothers” the movie’s title had been changed to “Love me Tender” and the burgeoning actor went from “no singing” to “singing the title song”  to “singing in a musical.” In the end, four songs were used and the tone of the movie was softened considerably. Elvis was disappointed that he would not be considered a straight-actor, but the success of the movie (and, more importantly to his handlers, the soundtrack) proved that the real money was in Elvis shooting musicals, not serious dramatic roles. The Love Me Tender 45-single ended up going “gold” (selling at least 500,000 copies) before it was ever released; a music-industry first.

After Love Me Tender came Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and then King Creole, movies built from the ground up to be musical-vehicles for the man who, by 1957, would be the biggest music icon in America. After his short stint in the army Elvis returned to the recording studio to cut a brilliant album (Elvis is Back!) and numerous hit records (It’s Now or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight, and others), but his manager, Tom Parker, knew the real money was in movies. His recording career was put on the backburner while he continued filming thin-plotted musical after musical. By 1963 he had stopped recording studio albums entirely, and (with only a few exceptions, such as 1963’s “Devil in Disguise” 45-single) was strictly a soundtrack-only performer.

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The performer who defended his energetic, hip-shaking style, as “When I sing…I just gotta move” spent the rest of the 1960’s in movies doing anything but. By 1969 Elvis had filmed thirty one films, and unless you’re a hardcore Elvis fan, I doubt you can name more than five of them. Who remembers Kissing Cousins? Tickle Me? Wild in the Country? When he started his movie career he was on top of the music landscape, by the time he finished, the music industry had passed him by. His movies were laughable, his soundtracks were poor, and his influence in either field was next to nothing.

Between 1963-1968 Elvis only had two top-ten hits: Devil in Disguise (from a recording session for an album that went unreleased) and Crying in the Chapel (which was a holdover from a 1960 recording session). Other than that, he stepped back into the studio to release (and win one of his only two living Grammy’s for) the Gospel album “How Great Thou Art.” For a man who had spawned hit after hit after hit from 1956-1962, this was more than a rough patch; the mid-60’s were a barren wasteland for Elvis.

Finally, after his movie career was finished, the decision was made to restart his music career. In 1968 he recorded a TV special for NBC (which later would be dubbed his “comeback special”) which was a huge success. Desiring to get back in the studio to record real music, Elvis enlisted the help of legendary Memphis-producer “Chips Moman.” Moman’s “American Sound” company produced the “From Elvis in Memphis” LP, the recording sessions from which also spawned hits such as “Kentucky Rain” (#1 hit on the Country charts) “In the Ghetto” (#10 hit on the Pop charts) and “Suspicious Minds” (#1 hit on the Pop charts). The great reviews and success of the album and singles led Elvis into the 1970’s with plenty of momentum.

Unfortunately, for many, that’s where the story of Elvis largely ends. Most of the casual fans of the King know of his great string of hits in the 1950’s, his many many movies in the 1960’s, and his late-60’s comeback. After that, there’s the Hawaii concert in ’73 and his death in ’77 but the years in between have fallen through the cracks. Many people wonder how the slim and energetic Elvis from the NBC special:

elvis-1968-show

could become the bloated and vocally weak Elvis from the 1977 CBS special:

elvis-1977-cbs

The sight of him draped in Red, White and Blue in the 1973 worldwide Hawaii special didn’t help matters, as—from a distance—he looked almost as good as he did in ’68.

elvis-aloha-from-hawaii

How did he have such a drastic drop-off in health?

The 16th of August, 2015 marked the 38th anniversary of Elvis’ death. He died at age 42 in his home in Memphis. He was drug-addled, overweight and overtaxed, a victim of many circumstances that—in hindsight—seemed destined to rob him of his life.

The answer to how he fell so sharply in health can be found in four media events: two movies and two TV specials. These four events, filmed between 1970 and 1977, reveal the bad decisions and steady decline that led to the demise of Rock-and-Roll’s king.

THAT’S THE WAY IT IS: Revived to a half-life

“That’s the Way it is” is more than another Elvis movie. It is more than an Elvis documentary. It is a soundtrack (one of Elvis’ best), part studio-recording and part-live on stage. It is a media experiment (combining Elvis’ leading-man persona and his music artist persona into a more “real world” feature). It is a filmed examination of the planning, rehearsing and performing of a Las Vegas show (at a time when such shows from top-music acts were rare). And it is—in hindsight—a look at Elvis at the beginning of the end. He is lean, focused, creatively motivated and eager to embrace the new challenge that awaits him. After this, he would be none of those things.

The documentary movie follows Elvis as he signs a deal to be the lead attraction of the “International Hotel” in Las Vegas (later “the Hilton”). His 1968-1969 comeback gave him the opportunity to be taken seriously as an artist once more, but instead of returning to Chips Moman he returned to the lesser producing talents of Felton Jarvis. Jarvis had been the producer on Elvis’ albums starting in he mid-60’s. Whereas Moman stood up to Elvis and demanded the singer take the work seriously, Jarvis frequently “settled” and allowed Presley to dictate the pace of the recording sessions. The song-selection (with the exception of a brilliant country album released in 1971) was noticeably lesser compared to Moman’s Memphis-based recordings, with many of the songs recorded by Jarvis in 1970 being throw-away filler barely worthy of release.

Still, this was a brief window of time when Elvis’ passion for singing was as strong as it had been since 1960. He could have made the material work if his focus had been given entirely to it. It wasn’t, however. Instead of working in the studio throughout the day and relaxing at night, Elvis’ Las Vegas commitments required concerts from 8pm until well into the next morning. His nights became days and his days became nights. To cope, Presley turned to uppers in the evening and downers in the day, the beginnings of a drug-addiction that would eventually claim his life.

The look that would come to define his 1970’s “character” is solidified here. Sure he had the high collars in the ’68 special, but that was a full-body leather suit. Here the suit is pure white, 100% cotton, with bits of dangling bling added for good measure. He gyrates to the beat of his background band in a mixture of karate moves and what can only be described as “unbridled wiggling.” Most think of “Elvis in the 70’s” as an overweight, out of breath singer, squeezed into embarrassing white jumpsuits, but the slender sight of Elvis in 1970 should squash that misconception (for at least part of the decade).

“That’s the Way it Is” shows a singer in peak form, belting out then-modern pop songs with perfect command of his audience. Elvis was back in the spotlight he had vacated for a decade in favor of half-baked movies. Unfortunately it was a revival with a cost. This was the beginning of the beginning of the end.

ELVIS ON TOUR: The parade of hangers-on

Only two years later and it’s striking how different Elvis looks. Is he still slender? Yes but there’s a…puffiness to him. You can see it in the neck and under the eyes. His speech in the interview segments is more slurred than those featured in the 1968 or the 1970 specials. His outfits are more outlandish, with bright primary colors, jewels of varying sizes plastered all over him, a cape—a literal cape—draped over his shoulders (a feature that would only last a couple years as fans kept grabbing the thing, and once almost dragged him down into the mob). His hair is bigger, his theatrics are bolder and his stage presence is grander (1972 would feature the first usage of the intro song so synonymous with an Elvis concert: Also Sprach Zarathustra). Gone is much of the banter that made the 1970 shows so enjoyable. Gone also is the strong, almost gravelly, baritone that defined his first Las Vegas run. In its place is a very rehearsed performance, with a lead voice that sounds strong in the ballads and newer material but bored and rushed when covering the older song selections. When motivated—as in the concert at Madison Square Garden—he could electrify. Other times he was reading lyrics from podium and barely engaged.

The most striking part of the “Elvis on Tour” documentary is what is going on the background, or more specifically “who” is going on. The whole gang is featured: Red West, Sonny West, Billy Smith, Jerry Schilling, Charlie Hodge and Joe Esposito. Not included is Radio DJ and frequent Elvis Radio (the SiriusXM channel) contributor, George Klein, who was totally Elvis’ best friend for real ya’ll, trust him he’ll tell you so. They were the bestest of friends, honest.

These guys aren’t painted in a bad light in the movie, but they are ever-present.  You see them singing back up, following behind him backstage, talking much but saying little. These are the enablers. These are the yes men. These are the—as Elvis’ dad called them—“parasites” who leeched Elvis’ money, fame and success for whatever they could. As Presley fell deeper into prescription drug addiction these were the spaghetti-spined nobodies who never spoke up, never challenged him to find treatment. He was the gravy train and they had to keep it rolling.

1972 was a critical year in Elvis’ final decade. He was divorced from his wife, which—despite his numerous (perhaps “nightly”) affairs—devastated him. He returned to New York for a four-show event (his only live concerts in the capital of the media world), recorded a #1 hit (Burning Love) and signed a deal to take a trip to Hawaii for what would be his most famous concert of them all. But 1972 was also the hear when, documented for all to see, the cracks in the armor of the king began to show. Elvis was not in good health, and would not get any better as the years rolled on.

ALOHA FROM HAWAII: One last hurrah

Elvis had been nervous about performing at Madison Square Garden in late 1972. He was afraid the tough New York crowd would not enjoy his “hillbilly” style or old fashioned songs. Instead he electrified. As soon as it was over the plans for the Hawaii show kicked into high gear. The show, to be held in January of ’73, would be recorded and simulcast live—via satellite—to a “worldwide” audience (except in the US, who would watch it in April).

As nervous as he was to be performing in front of one tough New York crowd, that was nothing compared to the eyes of the whole world. Immediately he worked to get in shape, going to some unnatural and unhealthy extremes (including, among other things, a protein injection taken from the urine of a pregnant woman) in order to look his best. In terms of his size, it was the best he had looked since 1970, but the years of late night Vegas shows, concerts on tour and prescription drug abuse had already taken a great toll.

The “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, better than any other performance (on video or on vinyl), highlights this dichotomy. From a distance, standing still, he looks the part. His beautiful star-spangled outfit did exactly what Elvis intended: To be a visual representation of the USA. Unlike his recent suits of powder blue or fiery red, this one was stark-white, covered in red, white and blue stones, and adorned with an eagle in front and back. It looked stellar, and from a distance so did he. But when the camera cuts in closer, you can see it in his puffy face, in his eyes, and in his stiff movements: He was not alright.  Listening to him is likewise a two-sided coin. On long sustained notes, his deep baritone bellowed like an opera singer. But when singing faster lyrics, or even just introducing the members of his group, his voice is weak and shaky and noticeably slurred.

And yet, despite knowing all the physical turmoil he is going through, you can’t help but be amazed at the show. More people—said to be upwards of a billion—tuned in to watch him than any other single person in human history (and more people in the US watched the special than watched the moon landing a few years earlier), but despite that he never misses a beat. His only major flub came early in the show when trying to sing Burning Love (then a very new song) from memory, but he powers through it and laughs it off with his trademark half-smile. In terms of energy, the 1972 film has it in spades, but here it is muted. In terms of raw intensity, this concert doesn’t compare to the ones captured in the 1970 film. What you get with the Aloha special is a performer no where near his peak and in fact very close to having the bottom fall out, yet still skilled enough as a pure entertainer to convince you—even if for a moment—that he was at the top of his game.

ELVIS IN CONCERT: Self-parody

Sure enough, after the huge hit that was the Aloha concert, there was no where to go but down. Even though he had been steadily going that way for years, the Hawaii show offered a temporary reprieve and a bit of fool’s gold to those closest to him. Elvis, of course, was oblivious (and entirely in denial) to his own failing health. His weight fluctuated wildly throughout in 1974-1975 until it finally settled into a constant, bloated state. His hangers-on tried half-heartedly to wean him off of the drugs he was abusing, but they never gave much effort for fear of being cut out of his inner circle and also because they themselves simply didn’t want to be cut off from his supply of narcotics.

These were the days before the Betty Ford clinic. There was no discrete place for someone of Elvis’ stature to go in order to quietly sober up and clean himself up. He would regularly cancel tours and spend days in Memphis’ Baptist Hospital, with an entire wing on the 16th floor reserved for him. The press would be told it was because Elvis was battling “an infection” but really it was a detox cleanse. He would be treated until he was well enough to leave, but would then return home to his pill bottles, continuing the cycle.

He continued to tour, out of financial necessity more than desire. He lost all of his money in late 1974, going totally bankrupt except for filing the paperwork. He then made it all back after just two shows. That was how he was living. Not paycheck to paycheck, but concert to concert. In December of 1975, Elvis performed at the Silverdome in Michigan, to bone chilling temperatures. A winter concert was unheard of for him, but he did it because he was entirely broke. The show itself was a disaster: He forgot lyrics to regularly performed songs, shouted obscenities at the band (who were placed awkwardly on a lower level than Elvis, instead of his preferred arrangement of having them directly behind and beside him) and even, due to another sudden weight gain, split his pants when bending over to say hello. And yet the show earned $800,000, making it the then-single biggest one-night gross for a concert in US history (beating out the Beatles’ Shea Stadium show from a decade prior). Elvis pocketed half of the money himself, and had it almost entirely spent by the time Christmas had ended.

1976 was no better.

His manager, Tom Parker, had sold the rights to Elvis’ music (recorded between 1954 and 1974) for a cool $6 million. Holding on to the rights would have yielded more long term money, but Parker was greedy (and desperate) to find cash, so he took the short-term fix. Later, Elvis and RCA restructured their recording contract, which meant the company was to put out three new Elvis albums per year. Some of that could be sustained by re-releasing older material, but some new songs needed to be done. Trouble was Elvis hadn’t recorded since early 1975 (which spawned the better-than-average “Today” album) and was in no mood to record. The studio, his manager, his dad, everyone tried to coax their overweight, drug-addled gravy train into a recording studio, any studio. But Elvis wasn’t having it. Finally RCA packed up a quarter of a million dollars worth of recording equipment and set up shop in the den of his Graceland estate. They managed to squeeze a dozen or so, mostly sappy and sloppy-written, songs about love lost and depression out of him and then left him to wallow in his misery.

By 1977 Elvis was taking some combination of twenty different uppers, downers and pain killers per day. Still in denial about his health, he nonetheless continued to go on crash-diets in order to look the best he could for his tours. In between shows, however, he was eating too much and taking too many pills. He signed a deal with CBS to air a TV special highlighting an upcoming summer tour. CBS recorded material from two concerts in June, with the intent to air the special that fall. Elvis lost a little weight—enough to fit into a jumpsuit he wore in 1974—but he could only do so much to hide the rest of his fallen state.

The CBS show was a disaster.

Of course, it aired only a couple months after his death, with the height of nostalgia clouding everyone’s judgment. Looking back with enough time having passed, however, it’s clear the man was in no condition physically or emotionally to be anywhere but in a hospital bed. His voice was weak, his body was bloated, his “act” had become a comedian’s take on an Elvis concert, except the audience wasn’t laughing; it was too blinded by adoration to notice.

The video above was chosen for a reason: Despite better-sung songs available from the “Elvis in Concert” show, this one works to summarize everything that had gone wrong over the years and how all the bad decisions had come to a head in this TV special. Elvis tossing his scarf into the crowd used to be a natural reaction in his performances. His shakes and gyrations would work the scarf loose and Presley would rip it off from around his neck and launch it into the crowd. It was never “a thing;” it was an involuntary reflex. Fast forward several years and now he’s too out of shape (and out of his mind) to do much of anything. He just lazily wanders the stage, throwing scarves at people, while lackey Charlie Hodge follows with another thirty draped over his arms. He keeps the stock well-supplied, as he drapes a new one over Elvis’ neck as fast as the king can toss them. The silk barely has time to collect a drop of sweat before it is handed off. I’m sure they’re worth a lot on Ebay though.

I checked. They go anywhere from $200 to $1000.

Two months after this footage was taken, Elvis would be dead.

_____

His legacy became frozen at that point and thanks to some skilled marketing and a bit of rose-colored memory-making, everyone’s image of Elvis is either of the striking 1950’s young rocker/crooner, or of the sleek, leather-bound 1968 rocker/blues singer.  The idea of “Elvis in the 70’s” has been cast aside, and because of that, it is often considered the years where he quit caring, got fat, and started wearing embarrassing white jump suits. That’s a superficial and misunderstood take on the last decade of his life.

Elvis in the 70’s is not to be dismissed. Was he out of shape? Was his voice weaker, and his speech slurred? Did he lack most of the fire that made him such a star in the first place? Yes to all, but he didn’t start out that way. He began the decade as “alive” as he had ever been. Released from the creative shackles of mindless movie soundtracks, he was free to be a live performer again, which he was always born to be. A combination of bad decisions, selfish hangers-on, a broken marriage and an addiction to drugs in an era where treatment was not available for men of his celebrity, all played a part to bring about the downfall of the King of Rock and Roll.

And yet, cutting through all the weights that dragged him down, there is still, at the center of it all, a natural entertainer, a kind soul and a brilliant singer. His legacy is etched in stone, for good and for ill, and even knowing how sad the fall was, we remain in awe of the peak he reached.

 

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  • Brian Quinn

    Elvis at his peak in the 1970’s was every bit as good as Elvis at his peak in the 1950’s.

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