< PART TEN: HELLO AND GOODBYE

2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the sudden death of Elvis Presley. The singer, movie star and globally-known entertainer had been a mainstay in popular culture since he burst onto the scene over twenty years prior. Known for his southern charm, his manic on-stage gyrations, his many cookie cutter film roles (with accompanying soundtracks) and countless hit records, Elvis is considered by many the greatest entertainer ever to live. Numerous outlets hailed him as the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century, despite only operating for a fifth of the century and only living for less than half of it. The acclaim is deserved, not only for the work he did between 1954-1977, but also for the impact he continues to have on the world today. “Elvis” today is no longer just the name of a singer/actor. “Elvis” is an icon. “Elvis” is an institution.

Elvis is the king, transcendent above other singers, actors or otherwise-entertainers.

As fellow Memphian and legendary musician B.B. King quipped, “Elvis is worth more dead than he was when he was alive.” Today, in the fortieth year since his death, his life and legacy remain a source of great interest to longtime fans as well as neophytes. A look back on his history as a musician, an actor, and just as a man pulled in every direction by the rapid winds of fame, is proper on this anniversary year.

You can read the previous installments in this series here:

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 1970’s, 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-catalogue 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.

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’ 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’ 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’ estate. The Graceland den (today 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’ 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’ 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.

“Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall” is a song about crying. So…not exactly a rousing start. It earns points for the catchy wordplay (“bitter” instead of “bigger”) but overall it’s too plodding to stir up any strong feelings. Elvis’ reaches for some big notes but he mostly fails to nail them, instead relying on the harmony vocals to cover him. As the first song recorded in the Jungle Room, it shows the strength and weaknesses of the set-up. The microphone quality is substandard with quite a bit of reverberation and echo on the vocals, but Elvis’ backing vocalists probably hadn’t been that nicely-mixed since the 1969 American Sounds session.

“She Thinks I Still Care” is a country music staple that’s been recorded by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis, to Merle Haggard, to George Jones (who took it to #1 in 1962). There wasn’t much to be done to modernize it, nor was Elvis in much of a mood to play around with it. Several takes were recorded, and the second is the most lively. It has a pleasant, moderate tempo and Elvis’ vocals are strong. It was not the master, however. The master was slowed down and stripped down considerably. It’s a far worse take and it’s baffling as to why it was chosen, especially when so much of the rest of the session was somber and dreary.

“The Last Farewell” is easily either the worst or the second-worst recording of the session, depending on how much you can stomach “Solitaire.” First of all, the lyrics, which describe a sailor leaving his beloved on a ship bound for England, are sung against an overly-shmaltzy, terribly-overproduced arrangement, with strings and horns playing something more befitting the Yellow Submarine cartoon than an Elvis record. It drones on and on for four agonizing minutes and when it’s over you’ll have already forgotten it.

And then there’s “Solitaire,” a song Elvis recorded as a favor to his dad who loved the Neil Sedaka original. For nearly five minutes Elvis laments his lot in life in a slow and pathetic version of a song that was already slow and pathetic enough. Much like “My Way” reached through the speakers and grabbed hold of Elvis’ thoughts of career-accomplishment, “Solitaire” also captivated the singer as a musical autobiography of his isolation. I’m sure some hear the song and think of tragedy, but really it’s just a pity party. Elvis and the band worked on the song for the entire second night of the session and failed to improve on the first complete recording in any way.

“Moody Blue” was a revelation, however. Yes the drum beat is very “disco” but that was what was dominating the radio, so it was smart for Elvis to give it a try. The lyrics are catchy—written by “Suspicious Minds” scribe Mark James—the energy is fun, and unlike most everything else recorded in the Jungle Room, it felt like it could be a hit. RCA certainly thought so, as they held the song off the album and released it as the second single from the session. It only reached #31 on the Hot100 but it did top the Country Charts, his first “country” number-one since “Jailhouse Rock” topped everything (Hot100, Country and R&B) in 1957. It was also his first single to top any chart since “My Boy” hit number-one on the Adult Contemporary board in early 1975. Clearly it was a winner, but unfortunately it was also the exception to the rule. Only one other song would come close to replicating its fun…

…and it sure wasn’t “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” The song was a hit for Tom Jones almost a decade before, but it has to have the most unsubtle, “sad sack” title ever conceived. Tom Jones made it famous, and sang the melodrama with tongue firmly in cheek. Jones sings the like it’s an exaggeration; of course he’ll fall in love again, it just doesn’t feel like it is all. That’s not Elvis’ take on the song; he sings it straight, like this is the end and if he’s going to go down, he’s going down crying. It’s sad, but not necessary moving.

“For the Heart” is the only other up-tempo song Elvis attempted for the week. Written by Dennis Linde, who gave Elvis big hits and fun rockers in the past (“Burning’ Love,” “There’s a Feelin’ in My Body”), the song wasn’t new (Teressa Brewer released the first version in 1975) but Elvis’ take was much more rock and roll inspired, as opposed to Brewer’s straight country style. Listening to the multiple takes are interesting to hear how Elvis’ confidence grew as he practiced it. The first take is slow and almost sleepy while the next is very much R&B flavored. After that they figured out how to approach it, and it only took a couple more takes to nail the final version. Elvis tears into the melody and everyone in the band gets a spotlight; it may not be as easily-recalled as “Burning Love” or “Promised Land” (or “Moody Blue” for that matter), but it’s one of the better rockers of the decade for the king.

“Hurt” may be yet another ballad in a session overstuffed with them, but this one at least had some commercial appeal. It was another old song that Elvis wanted to tackle, this one dating back to 1954. It’s interesting that the song was as old as Elvis’ recording career; even though Elvis was far from the eager young singer he had been, there’s something magical about this recording that is reminiscent of some of his early hits like “Anyway You Want Me” or “Don’t Ask Me Why.” RCA was smart to select this as his first single to release from the session. It was paired with “For the Heart” and it would reach #28, besting either single released from the 1975 recordings.

“Danny Boy” is a famous folk song whose meaning is shrouded in mystery. Some argue the words are about a parent calling their child home to their bedside before death. Others say its about a man gone to war, leaving behind a love who longs for his return. It’s the right kind of sad song and Elvis gives it the right touch, with not too much opera. Jarvis’ production is solid too, as he avoids overdoing the arrangement like he’d done on many others from this session. The master that was included on the album is solid, but it’s what wasn’t included that is so sad. Elvis calls for the song to be tried in the key of D, but when he failed to hit the first high note early into the song, he apologized to everyone and asked it be lowered to C, saying meekly “I have too much crap in me. I’ll do it better in C.”

His defeated recognition that his body was no longer able to keep up with his musical ambitions, largely as a result of his abuses, is the saddest part of this whole somber-soaked session.

“Never Again” is almost generic enough to be listened to once and instantly forgotten, but one moment will etch it into your memory: Near the end of the song, at about the 2:12 mark, Elvis moves in for the big finish, and sings the title “never…ever…never…again” and the wobble in his voice is so distracting, so poor and so out of tune it’s the single worst note the man ever recorded in his career.

Jerry Chesnut had given Elvis two songs in the 1975 session, a strong rocker “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and an insulting ballad “Woman Without Love.” Unfortantely he only had one contribution this time, and even more unfortunately it wasn’t a strong rocker. It wasn’t an insulting ballad, though, so it was at least an improvement on “Woman Without Love.” Actually, “Love Coming Down” is far from the worst song Elvis attempted during the week. It isn’t as slow and depressed as many others and Elvis’ voice is stronger here than on the previous song. The lyrics are nothing special, about a man realizing his love is about to abandon him and how he regrets being too caught up in the hustle and bustle of life to see that “love” was “coming down.” Obviously Elvis scooped up the seemingly autobiographical words and gave it as much as he had to give. The end result is an okay song but not much more than that.

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is another classic country song. It’s been covered by so many legends of the genre you could almost write a history of country music just by listening to Roy Acuff’s first version (accordion accompaniment and all), then Hank Williams’ 1947 take and finally Willie Nelson’s version from 1975.

Elvis version doesn’t even attempt to add to the legacy; instead Felton Jarvis arranges it like it’s every other late-70’s Elvis song. By and large, Jarvis favored a uniformity to all of Elvis’ music, so that songs from one year could be played next to songs from another and the untrained ear would not know the difference. In an era where artists were using their LPs to experiment with new sounds, styles and themes with every release, Elvis was firmly entrenched in the past. He came from the era when LPs were considered afterthoughts; where songs not worthy of single release were slotted. By 1976, however, singles were released to push sales of the album, not the other way around.

No one involved with Elvis’ recordings—not RCA, not Felton Jarvis or Colonel Parker, not even Elvis himself—ever reasoned out that a big contributor to his slumping LP sales (in an era where LP sales were climbing higher every year) was the lazy approach given to them. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” deserved better than the “usual Elvis” treatment. It’s a fine cut of a classic record, but it—like so much of Elvis’ other 1970’s output—could have been much more.

With twelve songs finished and two songs held off for later use, Jarvis had enough material for one LP. He had hoped to push Elvis to record all twenty songs needed for the year’s quota, but an aborted attempt to record a master of “America” had soured Elvis’ mood enough that it would be no use trying. Jarvis penciled him in for another Graceland recording in the fall, and left Elvis to return to Las Vegas and touring.

When he stepped onto the Hilton stage for his next Vegas “season” he did so with more weight than he’d ever carried before. He was approaching three-hundred pounds with cheeks that seemed to be constantly pressing his lips together like a fish and his eyes kept in a permanent squint, peeking out over his ever-large cheekbones that now carried a lot more extra baggage than they did in the mid-50’s. His voice was terrible, in large part because he was so winded from what little moving around the stage he did. Fans were still turning out and were happy to pay the ticket price to see him live and in person, so to that end the Colonel was content, but there was only so much Elvis’ hardcore fanbase could take before they broke. His live shows were his financial firewall; his LP sales had been in steady decline throughout the decade, and even though he could be counted on to sell a lot of records every year compared to other artists, his floor of support—from those same hardcore fans—was eroding slowly but steadily. After they were gone, the ticket-buyers would be next.

And yet, nothing was done in 1976 to shake things up. Status quo reigned as Elvis toured with the same band, the same jumpsuits (which, now that he was overweight, simply made him a walking punchline, looking like a man in his pajamas), the same corny stand up comedian warm-up act, followed by the same performance by whatever backing group was with him at the time (either Voice, or the Stamps, or the Sweet Inspirations, or some combination of the three), the same twenty-something songs, starting with “See See Rider” and ending with “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Nothing was changing and nothing could convince Elvis that change was needed.

In July, Elvis’ father, acting on behalf of the man himself, fired longtime associates Sonny and Red West under the auspicious of what he called “cost-cutting measures.” Red had gone to school with Elvis and had served as bodyguard, driver and confidant from the beginning of his career. Sonny (Red’s cousin) had been with him since 1960, when he returned from the Army. A third associate, Dave Hebler had been working security alongside Sonny since 1972 and was fired along with them.

According to those close to Vernon and the future Elvis estate, the trio were actually fired for getting a little too rough with rowdy spectators at live events and Elvis was worried about getting sued. Considering his fragile financial situation that’s a fair worry. On the other hand, the trio claimed that they were let go because they stood up to Elvis regarding his prescription drug abuse. What should not be lost in the back and forth is the fact that Vernon had long disliked the men who were ever-present at his son’s side. He called them blood-sucking leeches at one point, and was no doubt frustrated to see his son shower them with such lavish gifts despite his sometimes-precarious position with the IRS.

Let’s be fair to the stooges and say they tried once or twice to warn Elvis that the drugs were becoming “too much” but let’s also consider the very reasonable assumption that Vernon was looking for a chance to sack them—especially Red and Sonny—and money was as good a reason as any. The fact that Hebler was also canned, despite not being part of Elvis’ inner circle and merely being a security goon, lends credence to the idea that their tactics at live events might have scared the Presleys into worrying about a lawsuit one day.

Whatever happened, the trio started immediately on a tell-all book, to be entitled “Elvis: What Happened?” They claimed money was not their goal with the book, but rather it was designed to be a wake-up call for Elvis. They claim their hope was that all of Elvis’ fans would read the book (ergo “buy” the book, but I digress) and shower Elvis with love and concern and push him to sober up for good.

Elvis had, in the past, fired employees in a flash of anger, but would almost always bring them back after he’d cooled down and forgotten what happened. That might have happened here had the book not prevented it. It is interesting that the trio started on the book (which would release the next year, only a few weeks before Elvis’ death) almost the day they were fired; what that implies, one way or another, is left for the reader to decide.

Around the same time, Elvis had a falling out with Dr. George Nichopolous, the man who kept Elvis stocked with drugs and who kept his addiction afloat. There is a common argument that, if “Dr. Nick” hadn’t been the guy, Elvis would have found someone else to dope him up. And while there’s truth to that, it’s not a complete picture. After Elvis and Dr. Nick split, he sure enough found someone else; a Las Vegas doctor named Elias Ghanem. The future chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission was flown to Elvis’ Palm Springs home, where Elvis had been hiding after the fallout from firing Red and Sonny, where he served the king his regular cocktail of uppers, downers and all-arounders. Again, those who say that “Dr. Nick wasn’t evil; he was just doing a job that someone was going to do” forget what happened after Elvis split with Nick. He left Palm Springs for a show in Houston that turned into a disaster: Ghanem had over-medicated him, and Elvis, so loaded up on sleeping pills and anti-depressants, collapsed in the dressing room minutes before he was set to take the stage. He was found slumped over a chair, completely unconscious.

As people frantically tried to revive him, Colonel Parker was asked if they should cancel. He said that under no circumstances would the show be called off (which would have brought about a refund of the night’s earnings) and that Elvis would be on that stage one way or another. With a final shout of “The only thing that’s important is that that man is on that stage tonight.  You hear me? Nothing else matters! Nothing!” he slammed the door and left the staff to tend to “his boy.” After literally dunking his head in a bucket of ice water, Elvis recovered enough to stumble onto the stage and perform a lethargic and zombified concert.

The performance is heartbreaking to listen to. Elvis talks in slurred, slowmotion. He’s unfocused, clearly confused, and even—for the first time ever—being led from song to song by the cues of his band, instead of the other way around. He sounds like a man whose just been shot up with morphine before surgery but whether the crowd realized something was wrong or not didn’t matter (and judging by all the happy squeals they didn’t seem to notice). They paid, they saw, and Elvis survived another day. Dr. Nick was flown back in, with fences mended, and returned to his work of carefully balancing all of Elvis’ many drug-intakes.

It apparently was a fine art that only he could do so well, though that doesn’t make him any less criminal.

Dr. Nick claimed that he was really the unsung hero of Elvis’ story; that he, while he administered drug after drug, was also stressing the need to take it easier! He would give Elvis “Sparine” (for depression), but the side effect of it was extreme lethargy and a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure. To counter that, Nick gave him “Donnatal” (which is intended to treat irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers), all the while telling Col. Parker that the drugs would kill him without a lighter touring schedule. Elvis was in a perpetual state of medication, but he was especially loaded-up when he performed. Performing is where Elvis made the real money (with Parker taking home nearly half of it), and his manager had him performing an insanely rigerous schedule. Elvis sometimes would perform five shows in two days. There was no other singer in the world touring as much as he was, but they needed the money.

In part because Parker was over a million in debt from a gambling addiction.

After the tours were ended, Elvis returned to Graceland in October and, after only one day off, entered the Jungle Room to record for a much more demanding audience: RCA. In May the first album from the Jungle Room recordings was released, entitled From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. Erroneously, the album cover had a subtitle reading “recorded live,” perhaps to indicate that the songs were cut outside of a traditional studio, but it only gave the impression (along with yet another generic picture of Elvis in concert) that the record was a “live album.” The record eventually reached #41, the best for a studio album since 1971’s Love Letters, and it also went gold with sales exceeding 500,000 copies, but much of its success came in the second half of 1977, when Elvis’ death produced a record store goldrush with buyers eager to buy anything with Elvis’ name on it, in case it might be worth something in the future. While Elvis was alive the album was as much of a disappointment as the TODAY album had been in 1975, or Promised Land before that.

Felton Jarvis only had two songs left over from the previous Jungle Room session, so at least eight would be needed to finish the follow-up album. Unfortunately, after only two days of recording, Elvis had nothing left in the tank, and Felton was left with only four masters finished, barely half of a record.

“It’s Easy For You” was written specifically for Elvis by acclaimed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his frequent collaborator Tim Rice. The inspiration was Presley’s breakup with Priscilla, the seeming-loss of control happening in his life and how it was easy for Priscilla to walk away, but not so easy for Elvis…

You may not mind that it’s over
But I’ve a different point of view
Even though I am shattered
It’s easy for you

You don’t have to face the music
You don’t have to face the crowd
Just go back where you came from
You ain’t even proud

I had a wife and I had children
I threw them all away
And now you tell me, you dare to tell me
I should go back to them
What do you think I should say

I found it hard to leave them
Saddest thing I ever had to do
My problems haven’t started
And it’s easy for you

I had a wife and I had children
I threw them all away
And now you tell me, you dare to tell me
I should go back to them
What do you think, what on earth do you think I should say

If you ever tire of the good life
Call me in a year or two
I’ve got no choice, I’ll forgive you
‘Cause it’s easy for you

You only have to call me, it’s easy for you

The lyrics are haunting and though Elvis’ voice isn’t nearly as strong as it was in the February session, he delivers the words with pained, passionate conviction. The song ended up being the album-closer on the final record of his life.

“Way Down” would be the last rocker the king of rock ever recorded, and though the singer was clearly engaged with the material, it demonstrates why the so-called king was no longer equipped to be a “rock star.” The fast-spitting lyrics require precision in the delivery, or it becomes a jumbled mess. The 1975 recordings had shown that he was still capable of being a strong singer but when his voice was drug-addled there was nothing much he could do except slow-delivered ballads. That’s the problem here; while the band sounds phenomenal, the first verse is almost incomprehensible as Elvis slurs and mumbles his way through the words. He recovers slightly in the second verse and bridge, and though the song would be a hit on the country chart (reaching number-one), within the rock and roll community it was met with a shrug. Before Elvis’ death the song was falling off the charts rapidly; his death reversed its direction however and it ended up peaking at #18.

Interestingly, RCA chose the third take as the master, despite it being weaker than later cuts where his voice was more confident and where the band was experimenting with a livelier arrangement.

“Pledging My Love” was another old school country ballad that reached back to the beginning of Elvis’ career. After the Johnny Ace version 1954 was a hit, a few covers popped up throughout the rest of the 1950’s before the song mostly disappeared. It was eventually recorded by Canadian band Billy Thunderkloud & the Chieftones in 1975 who turned it into a top-40 hit, but it was the recently-released Delbert McClinton version that served as the inspiration here. Elvis’ version is a little less flashy, as he bleeds his heart out for almost three minutes. The original cut ran for over five minutes, as Elvis repeated the lyrics over and over, eyes closed, in the zone. The song isn’t lightning in a bottle, but it does pack a lot of soul, which is more than can be said for much of his later recordings.

The first three songs of the session had all been knocked out on the opening evening, so Felton Jarvis was confident he was on pace to finish the album properly with just a few more nights’ work. Unfortunately, “He’ll Have to Go” was the only song they completed the next day, and it has the distinction of being the last song Elvis recorded “in studio.” It’s an old Jim Reeves hit that reached number-one on the country chart and #2 on the Hot100 in 1959, making it yet another out of date country song; the kind of material that Jarvis would have scrounged up merely as a way to get Elvis to record anything to fill out the record. Presley came downstairs in no mood to record, however. While the band was warming up a rock-number called “Fire Down Below” and trading jokes and laughs, Elvis entered the Jungle Room den, scolded them for being unprofessional, turned on his heel and went back up stairs. He came back a few hours later but only to brood over “He’ll Have to Go;”

“Fire Down Below” was never finished.

Elvis recorded “He’ll Have to Go” only half-heartedly, skipping over the second verse and instead opting to repeat the opening lines. The slow place, repetitive lyrics and long run-time make it an ill-fitting finale to the man who had produced such magic in recording studios for the past two decades.

Part of the reason for Elvis’ extra depression lately was the deterioration of his long-term relationship with Linda Thompson. She and Elvis began dating only a few months after the separation with Priscilla and she quickly moved in after Priscilla moved out. Though Elvis had enjoyed several girlfriends on the side, Thompson was the closest thing he had to the all-important “wife to come home to” that he coveted so much. His drug addiction and constant touring had taken its toll and she craved a “normal life.” After months of dancing around the inevitable, Thompson finally ended the relationship around Christmas.

Much like with Priscilla’s separation, however, Elvis was in a worse mood in the months before the breakup than he was after it. His spirits lifted around Christmas time, as his early-December Las Vegas run indicated. He had already found a new sweetheart, twenty-year old Ginger Alden, and had lost a tremendous amount of weight. He was now able to fit back into outfits made for him in 1974, including the Black Phoenix suit that he wore to his second New Years Eve concert.

Despite the disaster of the 1975/1976 show in Detroit, it had brought in a lot of money, and Col. Parker envisioned it as a new tradition. The the sequel, the show would take place in a more traditional arena, without the multi-tiered stage set-up or—thanks to Elvis’ recent weight-loss—wardrobe malfunctions. Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena hosted the show this time and what a show it was.

When the lights dimmed and Elvis stepped onto the stage, the crowd almost gasped at the man standing before them. Reviews of many previous concerts had been scathing, with Elvis’ lackadaisical delivery, bored mannerisms, bland set-list and of course massive girth taking up the bulk of the complaints. The Elvis who appeared in Pittsburgh, however, was slimmer, livelier, more vibrant, and put on a show with more passion and joy than he’d done in years.

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 and treated the audience to songs usual to his concerts as well as numbers he rarely if ever did live.

Home video recorders managed to capture a big chunk of it, and tech-savvy YouTubers have synced it up to the soundboard recording that was released in 2004…

The most shocking moment came near the end of the show when Elvis (at 43:00 minutes into the above video), sat down at the piano and called out for the band to play “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 failed 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. The man who had to apologize to his band for falling short of the high note in “Danny Boy” was here hitting the big ending to “Rags to Riches” like it was the old days. After that he closed with his typical final numbers and ended the show, grateful to the audience for their love, and satisfied he’d given his best performance since Madison Square Garden.

Unfortunately, the high that ringing in the new year had brought him did not last, and soon after returning home, the usual demons grabbed hold of him once more. His weight climbed back up, his mood fell back down, and the wondrous New Years 1976 show would remain only a brief respite.

Eight months later he’d be dead.

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