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 and Valleys)
- Part Ten: 1973-1975 (Hello and Goodbye)
PART ELEVEN: LEAVING A LEGACY
For Elvis, 1976 began in Detroit, a city he didn’t want to be in, performing a concert he didn’t want to do, on a stage he didn’t like, in a suit that didn’t fit. For years, Elvis had it in his various contracts that he would not be available to work between the week of Christmas and his January 8th birthday. The primary reason was it allowed Elvis a set-in-stone vacation time every year, around which he could spend time with his family. Additionally, in the 1970s, it kept Elvis away from having to tour northern states in the coldest time of the year. Elvis still toured in the winter, but for the most part, kept out of the cold parts of the country in the cold parts of the year.
And yet, both of those rules were broken here, as Elvis played in Detroit, Michigan for a special New Years’ Eve concert. The reason was purely financial; Elvis had squandered his capital over the past few years and though he made a lot of money with each concert, he was managing to spend even more than he was bringing in, and even was forced to borrow from the bank with Graceland itself as collateral. Selling his back-catalog to RCA had created a one-time influx of cash, but that almost-six million was burning fast and new income was needed.
A special concert, designed to kick off the new year, was therefore booked. Detroit was chosen because the Silverdome had just opened a few months prior and it was a state of the art facility with a seating capacity of 82,000, making it one of the largest venues available in the US. In early December, The Who would hold a concert with an attendance of 76,000. Elvis was going to be the first “one-man” show and the expectation was for a large gate (referring to the amount of money brought in) and an attendance record one way or another. If they couldn’t outright beat The Who, they would at least be able to claim the largest crowd on hand to hear a single performer. Elvis generally preferred not performing in stadium venues, despite two shows at the Houston Astrodome, because the acoustics are different and the crowd is so far away from the stage. The only reason to play here was, again, the money involved. Regular seats for the show ranged from $5-$15 depending on your location, which meant even 3/4 of a sell-out would net almost a million dollars. All that Elvis needed to do was show up, play his Vegas set, sing “Auld Lang Syne” when the moment came and he could go back to Graceland with a big check in his pocket. What could go wrong?
Everything that could go wrong went wrong.
For starters, Elvis was in a foul mood. The cold weather probably played a big part in that. He didn’t feel like doing a walk-through of the new Silverdome and assumed the stage set-up would be comparable to the Houston Astrodome concert from 1974. On that occasion, Elvis stood on a cramped circular platform in the middle of the field (no audience on the floor), surrounded by his band and backing singers. Here, however, the stage was two-tiered, with the backers placed on a lower level accessible by a rickety-looking stairway. Elvis, having skipped rehearsal, did not know about the change until he walked out onto the stage to sing the opening number. He looked around, while bowing to the audience, trying to find the rest of his band, and then when he discovered where they were, he shouted obscenities (all the while, the opening refrains of “See See Rider” was playing, ready for Elvis to take the mic and start singing).
His appearance was ghastly as well. Pale and flabby, lacking any semblance of the curved figure he once sported, Elvis looked like an out of shape, out of work man in a terribly unflattering white getup. To the fans in the upper-decks he looked like a nondescript white blob. His movements around the stage, once frenetic and full of life, were now reduced to a slow walk from one end to the other, with the occasional karate thrust used to punctuate an end-note, looking all the more ridiculous due to his excessive weight.
His voice was tired, almost bored, with little enthusiasm even for songs that previously would stir up big performances. His “I Got a Woman/Amen” spiel, where he would call for JD Sumner to sing the last note lower and lower was meandering and boring, with anyone in the audience who had never heard it before no doubt left completely bewildered as to what was going on. Elvis’s slurred and mumbling voice did a poor job explaining that he was challenging Sumner to try again and do it better. It just came off as a parody of his former—better—live shows.
And then he split his pants.
Doing little more than leaning on a leg, Elvis split the seam of his pants. He pressed on for half the show before turning the mic over to the Stamps Quartet to change. He played it off with humor and the audience of course cheered him like crazy, but it was still another source of embarrassment for a show that seemed doomed from the outset. The singer’s frustration could not be hidden the whole night, as he occasionally paused to complain about not being able to see the whole audience, and wondering if they could even hear him. He stopped halfway through “My Way” to chastise the band for playing too quietly. Part of that was the intense cold inside the Silverdome; the string instruments kept going out of tune and the brass players (in overcoats) couldn’t even hit high notes. Playing correctly was hard; playing loud and correctly was almost impossible.
By the time the show was over and Elvis was on the way home, 1976 had arrived and it had not come gently.
Yet, despite the show being a disaster in almost every way, it was a success in the only way that mattered. The 62,500 who attended broke the world record for a single performer and achieved an $800,000 gate. It was the largest gross ever, topping the money the Beatles brought in for their legendary concert at Shea Stadium.
The short term gain, however, did not hide the obvious warning signs flashing as they entered the new year. RCA expected new records and the last time Elvis stepped into a studio was the previous March, an energetic session that nevertheless produced only ten masters. There was nothing left in the can, no more albums waiting to be released, and no more excuses to give. Elvis had avoided bankruptcy in Detroit, but if he didn’t get back in a studio he’d be facing a lawsuit from RCA.
When a trip to Nashville was suggested, Elvis shot down the idea entirely. Elvis hadn’t recorded there since the massive, thirty-plus marathon session in 1971. He passed on going back to Hollywood, where he had recorded in 1972 and 1975, and going back to Stax—as he had done in 1973—was also nixed. What Elvis really wanted was to record as much as had in 1974, which is to say “none at all.” He was tired of the grind, tired of the work, tired of the albums flopping and the singles going nowhere. There were no more movies to make, Las Vegas held no challenge anymore, touring was no longer thrilling. The man was tired.
But work had to be done.
A compromise was made, inspired by the hasty recordings that Felton Jarvis put together in the fall of 1973; Needing a few more tracks to finish up the Raised on Rock record, Jarvis flew a few band-members to Elvis’s Palm Springs home and set up a mobile recording studio to accommodate the singer who had refused to return to a proper studio. Jarvis convinced RCA to set up another mobile studio for Elvis, this time in the back yard of Graceland, so that Elvis could waltz down the stairs into his den and record at his own leisure. RCA agreed, fearing it was the only way they’d get any new material out of their reclusive singer.
Things started out poorly as the recording truck RCA was sending to Graceland broke down just outside of Jackson and had to be towed through the gates of Elvis’s estate. The Graceland den (today it’s affectionately known as “the jungle room”) needed heavy curtains nailed to the walls to help with the acoustics, the band was cramped inside, and the speakers RCA brought were too puny to use, forcing Elvis’s bedroom system to be dismantled and brought downstairs. When all was said and done, however, Elvis was excited by the set-up and, in a prescient moment, said he intended to keep it that way and never record anywhere else.
Over the course of a week, Elvis and his band produced twelve masters, enough for a complete album with two songs held off for future release. It is here where Elvis’s late-1970’s reputation for being obsessed with sad songs originates. Of the twelve songs recorded, ten of them are slow, depressed and gloomy, sung by a man all too happy to let his frustrated and glum life pour out onto vinyl on RCA’s dime.