You can read the previous installments in this series here:
- Part One: 1954-1955 (In the Beginning…)
- Part Two: 1956-1957 (Peak Presley)
- Part Three: 1958-1959 (Out of Sight)
- Part Four: 1960-1962 (Tug of War)
- Part Five: 1963-1964 (Ten Years In…)
- Part Six: 1965-1967 (When it Rains it Really Pours)
- Part Seven: 1968 (Coming Back)
- Part Eight: 1969-1970 (Alive)
- Part Nine: 1971-1972 (Peaks & Valleys)
PART TEN: HELLO AND GOODBYE
The momentous success of the Madison Square Garden concerts the previous June was a distant memory by the time Elvis turned the calendar over to 1973. The singer’s regular Vegas diet of uppers in the night and downers in the day had become an every-day sort of diet, as his body had developed a dependency on prescription drugs. The malaise and despondency that would consume him in his final years was not yet evident, as he was relatively happy with live-in girlfriend Linda Thompson, although in the year to come—as his divorce date approached—his mood would sour considerably. Things seemed okay for the most part, but it was a mirage; the foundation was cracked and the house of cards was ready to fall.
The success of the New York City shows, though supremely satisfying to Elvis, was immediately dwarfed by the monumental event scheduled for the middle of January. Madison Square Garden had gotten a monkey off the singer’s back that he had only imagined was there. As it turned out, New York loved him as much as the rest of the world. Now he would be tasked with performing for the rest of the world, in a special concert held in Honolulu.
The idea of hosting a benefit show for Hawaiian singer-songwriter Kuiokalani Lee came late in the development; initially, the show was all about Elvis. Colonel Parker promoted it as a global concert for all those across the globe who couldn’t get to the states to hear the king of rock and roll in person. That might raise the question: Why didn’t Elvis ever fly to England or Italy or Germany or Japan or anywhere and host an international concert? The reason is simple, despite occasional suggestions by Elvis, his manager always shot the idea down for one reason or another (poor overseas security being the biggest excuse) because “Colonel” Tom Parker was actually Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, an illegal immigrant from Holland. Despite numerous offers for big big money, the kind Parker normally would never turn down, he rejected all offers for an overseas tour because he feared being exposed and deported. Traveling overseas meant acquiring a passport and acquiring a passport meant filling out an extensive questionnaire which certainly would have revealed his illegal status. Not even Elvis knew his manager was living in America illegally and despite occasional inquires, Presley was never the kind to argue about business decisions…which was arguably his worst flaw as a businessman.
Parker was inspired by Richard Nixon opening United States relations with China and saw a golden opportunity for Elvis, not only to reach the eyes and ears of fans around the world but also to make new fans (and thus new record buyers) at the same time. A satellite broadcast of this magnitude had never been attempted before. The closest comparison was the “Our World” TV special that aired across Europe in June 1967. An estimated 700 million people watched that broadcast, but the difference between it and the special Elvis would host boiled down to one significant detail: Elvis was a one-man show. The “Our World” broadcast featured artists from nineteen different countries, who performed their talent from various studios across Europe (the most famous of which was The Beatles’ premiere of “All You Need is Love”). Those various segments were controlled and directed by the hub station at the BBC’s headquarters in London. Elvis’s special would not be one segment of nineteen; it would be Elvis and only Elvis for the duration. It was the same sort of groundbreaking significance that happened with the 1968 TV Special (the first of its kind to star only one performer) only on a far grander scale. Never before would so many televisions be tuned in to see one man.
The event was to be a showcase of Elvis’s global celebrity, but on New Years Day, Elvis was in no shape to be seen by anyone, much less the world.
Elvis had gained considerable weight in the months following the New York shows, but as he had done to get in shape back in June, he went on an intense diet and exercise regiment in order to look his best in mid-January. The timetable was contracted however, so Elvis was forced to try alternative forms of weight loss procedures. One such procedure involved daily injections of protein taken from the urine of a pregnant woman.
It sounds crazy because it is crazy.
By the time he landed in Hawaii he looked even slimmer than he had in June. He was tanned and rested, and looked more energized than he had in months. However despite conflicting reports that say he had taken a break from prescription drugs, his eyes still had that perpetually-glassy look that signified over-medication, and his speech was slurring worse than usual in an interview he gave as soon as he stepped off the helicopter. All signs pointed to Elvis’s pill bottles taking the flight with him.
The concert’s director-producer was Marty Pasetta, a veteran TV director with multiple Academy Award Ceremony broadcasts and TV gameshows under his belt. To prep for the event, Pasetta attended a typical Elvis concert but found it to be, in his words “boring.” The biggest problem was that Elvis kept within a small radius around the mic stand and didn’t offer much from a TV production side that would captivate a viewer for the length of a whole broadcast. That’s his opinion, and he’s welcome to it. Nevertheless, he sat down with an art director and mapped out some designs for the stage, including mirrors that reflected the audience, giving the TV viewer a shot that made it seem like Elvis was playing to a sea of people that stretched endlessly, as well as a big screen behind the stage that spelled out Elvis’s name in light in all the different languages of the countries receiving the broadcast. He also had an idea to get Elvis near the edge of the stage (which would be only six feet above the ground), allowing him to interact more directly with the audience; Pasetta envisioned beautiful Hawaiian ladies draping flower leis around his neck throughout the concert.
Pasetta approached Col. Parker with his laundry list of suggestions, eager to sell him on what might make for a more appealing broadcast. Parker, ever the stick in the mud, dismissed his plans by saying that he didn’t like any of them and that Elvis wouldn’t want to do them. The lights were distracting, Parker said. The mirrors were unnecessary, Parker said. He didn’t want Elvis near the people. When Pasetta said the stage would be wide enough that Elvis could approach the people or not at his own discretion, Parker said no, his boy would not get close to them.
So Pasetta pulled a Steve Binder and went straight to Elvis.
And as Steve Binder discovered in 1968, Pasetta found out that Elvis was more receptive to new ideas than his manager said he was.
Pasetta went to Elvis’s Las Vegas hotel room, accompanied by what he dubbed “Elvis’s goons” (Red West and Jerry Schilling), who escorted him to a black square table with four chairs. Pasetta was instructed to sit on the south end while the goons sat east and west. After ten minutes of waiting, Elvis appeared, decked in a big overcoat (in Las Vegas) and a feather hat, and sporting sunglasses that covered half his face. Presley sat down at the north end and said not a word. Pasetta decided it was now or never so he launched into his spiel. He told Elvis his ideas, and why he thought they would work, but first he said “I saw your show last week. Your music is amazing, but your stage presence is boring, I don’t know what to do with you for ninety minutes, so I have a few ideas…” and as he reached down to grab his sketchbook, the goons each produced a silver handgun and placed it on the table. Ignoring them, Pasetta said, “if we do this, we’ll put on a performance that will show people why everyone flocks to you.”Elvis remained quiet throughout the whole presentation and didn’t move until Pasetta dropped his last bomb, saying “oh and by the way, you’re gonna have to lose weight. Like twenty pounds.” At that, Elvis leaped from his chair, threw his hat across the room like Oddjob and grabbed Pasetta in a bear hug, saying “you’re the first person who’s been honest with me! You want me to lose weight, I’ll do it!”
He ended up losing twenty-five pounds, in fact.