1976 was not a good year for Elvis Presley. For obvious reasons, 1977 would not be any better, but 1976 marked The King’s final full year of life on this earth. There was a certain symmetry to it, as it started the same way it ended: With a New Years concert, but whereas the 1975/1976 concert was a disaster, the 1976/1977 show would be a tremendous success…the final one of his life.
Let’s back up.
Elvis started the 1970’s with a renewed passion for his work. The 1960’s had likewise started with great excitement as he had just returned from the Army and found his star had not faded in his time away. Initially RCA was satisfied releasing Elvis’ studio recordings alongside his various soundtrack works, but as the decade progressed the sales of the movie albums far outpaced his more creative and fulfilling studio material. Presley’s manager, Tom Parker, made the decision to stop releasing non-soundtrack work in 1963, cancelling an album that had already been completed, and putting Elvis’ focus on promoting his many movies. By the end of the decade, Presley was burned out making one B-movie after another and, after returning to the studio with acclaimed albums How Great Thou Art and From Elvis in Memphis, Presley left his movie career behind to start the 1970’s as a full-time concert performer.
He signed a deal to become the premier entertainer for the International Hotel in Las Vegas (later The Hilton). Today it’s passe for a musician to do a show in Vegas but Elvis was a trailblazer in that regard. During his first two years the Elvis Presley show regularly received rave reviews, with people in love with his excited—almost manic—gyrations to each tune. By the end of 1971, however, his marriage had crumbled and as it did his mood soured. Presley’s divorce from Priscilla was finalized in early 1972 and, despite a big nationwide tour and accompanying documentary, he failed to find the drive and passion for his work that had been there as recently as two years prior.
The November ’72 Concert at Madison Square Garden offered a challenge and something to take his mind off his depression, as did the January ’73 Aloha from Hawaii show, but once those were in the rear-view mirror and all that remained was Vegas and studio recording sessions, Elvis reverted to a despondent state. He spent the rest of 1973 and all of 1974 in a fog of prescription drugs and sadness.
In 1975 Elvis turned 40 and slipped further into depression. He nearly died of an overdose two days after his birthday and had to spend time at Memphis’ Baptist Hospital to detox. He turned to big spending, both as a coping mechanism and also as a way to keep his girlfriend(s) happy. By the end of the year he had bought a literal jet, a whole new wardrobe and lavish Christmas gifts for his posse. As a result of the year’s careless spending, Elvis approached 1976 completely broke. He had spent every possible cent he—the greatest and most successful entertainer of all time—had to his name.
To recoup his financial losses—and avoid the PR-nightmare of a bankruptcy announcement—a concert was booked for New Years Eve, 1975, that would see Elvis perform at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan.
This was significant for a few reasons. For one, Elvis rarely ever did concerts in cold weather months, and certainly not in cold weather towns. For another, the Silverdome was a much bigger venue than where Elvis’ concerts typically took place. His previous shows in Detroit took place at the Olympia Stadium (capacity, 15,000). The Silverdome held 80,000. This was necessary because Elvis was counting on a big gate in order to make as much money as possible.
The show ended up being a disaster, however. Right off the bat Elvis was angry because the stage design placed him on an elevated level with the band and backup singers below him. Elvis was always paranoid about falling off stage (which he almost did a few times over the years) and especially liked being able to turn around and make eye-contact (and humorous barbs) at his band. The ill-tempered Elvis cursed and shouted angrily as he took the stage but quickly slipped into “performer-mode” for his opening number, C.C. Rider. During the song, the overweight Elvis split the pants of his jumpsuit and had to retreat backstage for a backup pair. Throughout the night his singing was lethargic, his mood dour and his song selection uninspired. He rose to the occasion on a few numbers, but overall the concert was a terrible display.
Naturally the crowd loved it.
In fact, the New Years 75/76 show would go down as his most profitable concert ever and recouped the entirety of the fortune he had squandered in the previous year. As a result of its success, plans were immediately put in place for another New Years show in late 1976.
Unfortunately, the year of 1976 was not much better for him than 1975 had been. His weight had gotten worse; his mood too. Members of his posse either left or were fired, with some turning to the tabloids, exposing some of Presley’s well-kept dark secrets in grocery store magazines and tell-all books.
By the summer, his weight was no longer just ungainly, it was a serious health concern. The man who opened the decade looking like this
celebrated America’s bicentennial, just six years later, looking like this
As the 1976 New Years Eve concert approached, this time to be held in Pittsburgh, none of The King’s various handlers (who had spent the better part of four years failing to get a handle on him or his various abuses) had any hopes that the concert would be a success. Throughout the year, Elvis’ concerts had ranged from adequate to nearly career-threatening. If the wrong mood struck him it was no longer out of the ordinary for Elvis to hurl insults at the crowd, or go off on a tirade against his ex-wife or some other trouble in his life. His mood could change so quickly the man could be in high spirits in the lockeroom and then totally foul by the time he stepped onto the stage.
But when the lights went down for the final show of 1976, Elvis stepped onto the stage and, inexplicably, put on a show with more passion and joy than he’d done in years.
For one thing, Elvis—in his black and white phoenix jumpsuit—had lost a lot of weight. That, combined with optimism for a better 1977 than 1976 had been, lifted his spirits and propelled The King to a more energized and jubilant show than any thought possible. For almost two hours, Elvis played nearly thirty tunes and rang in the new year with a stadium-wide rendition of Auld Lang Syne. He was focused, not scattered brained. He was happy, not snipping at the crowd. He was energized, not lethargic. He was reflective of his career and his hopes for the future (having just recorded an album-and-a-half worth of songs) and treated the audience to songs usual to his concerts as well as numbers he rarely if ever did live.
The most shocking moment came near the end of the show.
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The above is a home video recording of (parts of) the concert, spliced with audio taken from the master tape (no official concert album was ever released, though bootlegs have been circulated for years). Skip ahead to 43:20 in the video to watch Elvis surprise everyone including his band with a rendition of Rags to Riches.
The song was first recorded by Elvis in 1970 and released as a single in early ’71. It failed to chart at the time, and in fact was his first single of the 1970’s (out of six released to that point) that was unable to appear on any music charts upon release, but the song was a sentimental favorite of Elvis’ and he would occasionally piddle with it on his Graceland piano during downtime. It never appeared in any concert, however, nor was it ever even rehearsed.
But then suddenly, near the end of this magical concert, Elvis sat down at the piano and told the audience he wanted to play something for them. Knowing the band was out of the loop, Elvis walked them through the proper key, both before and even during the song, and then took off with the tune, belting the high notes with the kind of vigor and life he had not shown for nearly half a decade. After that he closed with his typical final numbers and ended the show, grateful to the audience for their love, and satisfied with the performance.
Eight months later he would be dead.
His health and energy would fall like a rock almost as soon as this show was ended. Six months after it, he did a summer tour that was captured by CBS’ cameras for a TV special they were planning to air that Christmas. Instead, Elvis died in August and the special was bumped up to October to capitalize on the news. The material CBS recorded, however, was so terrible, it’s likely the whole project would have been scrapped (or at least, re-filmed) had he not died. Elvis is depicted in the worst shape of his life—both physically and mentally—meandering, glass-eyed around the stage, singing the same old tunes in a sleepy slur, barely able to coherently string together two sentences in between each performance. It would be the American public’s final look at their generation’s greatest showman.
If only the cameras had been rolling on that New Years Eve show, now 40 years ago, when Elvis found his passion again, one last time.