Recording at Graceland had accommodated Elvis during his worst period, but Felton was confident that it had been a phase and that he could get Elvis back in a proper studio in 1977. He booked the Nashville Creative Workshop for January and collected enough material to fill out the still-developing album. Elvis actually made the trip to Nashville, but never left his hotel room. He sulked for a few hours and then returned to Memphis, never to record in studio again.

Nevertheless, the album needed to be completed somehow, and after Elvis refused even to step into the Jungle Room and record vocals to songs that were all but finished (the song “Fire Down Below” had been completely recorded by everyone except Elvis himself, but he couldn’t be bothered to take half an hour to record the lyrics), Jarvis had to try an alternative method in order to secure the final tracks needed to finish his album: He followed Elvis around to every concert, hoping he would suddenly sing something he hadn’t recorded before.

Fortunately for Felton, Elvis did have a few new ones up his sleeve.

“Unchained Melody” is one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, with over two-hundred artists recording their own takes on the song. For the first decade of the song’s existence several different artists tried singing it with very different styles, but when the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 take was released, the way to sing it was solidified: Soft, sparse and sanguine. When Elvis started playing it on tour in 1977, he lacked the ability to sing softly, he lacked the mood to sing sanguinely, and though the big production that accompanied him on stage rarely allowed for a “sparse” performance, there were times when Elvis would sit at the piano—as he had done on that magical New Years concert months before—and play something that felt like it was from the heart. That was how he approached “Unchained Melody.”

Elvis’ version is wholly different from the silky-smooth Righteous Brothers version and all of its copycats. It’s bold, and operatic. Felton Jarvis of course ruined it with overdubs for the album version and unfortunately the other live performance of the song (featured on the CBS show later in the year) was a far weaker vocal performance. If you can cut through the artificial orchestration in the album version, Elvis’ passion and ability—limited though it was in 1977—can be found.

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“Little Darlin'” wasn’t all that new to Elvis. Though he had never officially recorded it, either live or in studio, he started tossing it out there in a live setting here and there just for fun. Unfortunately, the version Jarvis captured is barely worthy of consideration. Elvis only half sings it, forgets the words and drops it in less than two-minutes. It was in no way worthy or even appropriate for official release, and Elvis obviously was not singing with the intent that it would be released, but Jarvis was desperate to find something “new” to put on the record.

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Another recording of it, from 1975, recently surfaced, and it was superior (as “superior” as a throwaway can be), but it’s possible Jarvis didn’t have access to it at the time.

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“If You Love Me Let Me Know” was another Olivia Newton-John record that Elvis was smitten with, just as he’d been with “Let Me Be There” (the OLJ song he recorded in the Memphis, 1974 concert). He’d perform it live and would bounce along with the melody, enjoying the moment, but the recording that Jarvis captured for the album shows just how much Elvis was forced to rely on the other singers and musicians on stage to carry him through the performance. It’s a very busy recording, with the horns, guitars and drums all turned-up, along with the backing and harmony singers; together they completely swallow up Elvis’ vocals to the point where it’s hard to notice when Elvis isn’t singing (and there are several moments when he just drops out, not being able to sing and move at the same time anymore, and allows the harmony singers to carry on without him).

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With those three live recordings captured, Jarvis now had nine songs, one shy of RCA’s minimum for a full album. Desperate to finish the record he scooped up “Let Me Be There,” from the aforementioned 1974 Memphis concert, and called it a day. It’s unclear why that song was selected; maybe it’s just that they were both Olivia Newton-John songs. On the other hand, the back cover of the album (to be titled Moody Blue) lists in the notes that the song was “recorded in Memphis” along with the Jungle Room recordings as “recorded at Graceland” so maybe the thought was there would be symmetry to another song recorded in the singer’s home city. But that’s a poor reason; the other live songs weren’t recorded in Memphis, and who really pays attention to where the songs were recorded on the back of the album anyway? There were other songs to choose from: Elvis had not had “America” released on an LP yet, and the 1975 live recording of the song had already been mastered for single release. There was also the unfinished studio recording of “My Way” dating back to 1971 that could have been inserted. More than anything it was laziness that put the retread song on the record; laziness and an urgent need to get the album completed, no matter what.

The album released in July, with special blue vinyl to match the album’s title and artwork (which again featured a terrible, out of date picture of Elvis—from 1972—in concert). On the strength of good “Moody Blue” and a good-enough “Way Down” single releases, the album performed well, and would easily have been another top-40 record, much like the previous Jungle Room record had been. Of course there’s no way to know how his 1977 releases would have performed without the circumstances of his death. Having said that, Elvis did secure another gold record award for Moody Blue just before his death, so maybe it would have been a stronger release than recently (he hadn’t had a gold studio record since He Touched Me in 1972). There’s no way to know.

On June 1st, Elvis signed a deal with CBS for the network to air a special highlighting Elvis on tour in the United States. CBS planned to film Elvis at two shows and the compile the footage into a special to be released in the fall. CBS was the first network to air Elvis Presley on television when the singer made an appearance on Stage Show in 1956. He would make several appearances on the show, in fact, and would more famously appear a trio of times on the network’s Ed Sullivan Show. When he returned from the army his TV appearances were nixed so not to compete with his many film releases. Elvis only appeared on TV twice in the 60’s: He appeared on the “Welcome Home Elvis” special on ABC at the beginning of the decade, and on the “1968 Comeback” special on NBC at the end of the 1960’s. NBC also broadcasted the Aloha from Hawaii special. Other than those three, he hadn’t appeared on TV since the 1950’s.  Just taking the three post-army specials together, a picture is painted of a confident, slender, captivating bundle of musical talent.

In 1960, he sported a trim tuxedo and crooned on stage with Sinatra, looking ready to usher in a second coming of rock super-stardom. Clad in the black leather of 1968 he looked like a feral panther finally let out of his cage, ready to reconquer the musical world that Hollywood had kept from him. His red white and blue jumpsuit of 1973 showed off a singer who had reached the absolute pinnacle, playing a concert to a literal global audience. What would CBS’ special present?

The unmaking of a superstar.

The first concert that CBS’ cameras captured was such a disaster almost none of the footage was usable and the network threatened to cancel the whole endeavor. Elvis had put on some lackluster shows before, even terrible ones, but they had usually been confined to a Las Vegas setting. There’s a big difference between a bad show in front of two-thousand people and a bad show in front of a nationwide audience.

Before the CBS show, the previous big events where people had gotten a good look at Elvis were the Aloha concert where he, though glassy-eyed and slurring, was at least fit and certainly looking worthy of such a huge moment. Before that was the Elvis On Tour feature film, where he was a little flabby in the face and neck, but still full of life. Of course he looked perfect in That’s The Way It Is, and better than perfect in the 1968 Special. Though he had toured in almost every major city from sea to shining sea there was still a huge segment of the population that would be seeing the man for the first time in four years, and the sight of him would be shocking. Once the shock of his look faded, the sound of him would be just as remarkable. The Elvis that stepped onto stage in the summer of 1977 was a rambling, incoherent mess of a man, meandering around the stage, mumbling through his lyrics, drenched in sweat, and forgetting words to songs he’d been singing for decades. His performance of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is often pointed to as an example of how far he’d fallen.

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Going back to 1970, however, there’s plenty of recordings of the song where he plays around with the lyrics, but here he doesn’t just change the words, he stumbles over them and then abandons them. He squeezes his eyes shut, laughs nervously and tries to find the right lyrics in his mind but can’t. He does his best to shrug it off but it’s clear he’s not playing around, he’s saving face. It’s a sad sight. He laughs and smiles in the end, and you can still see that classic Elvis smile, but it’s half-concealed under so much extra skin it’s like a younger, healthier man wearing special Hollywood makeup.

The other memorable performance was of “Unchained Melody,” which had been recorded for the Moody Blue album already but had not yet been released. Elvis’ performance here would be the first time anyone in the arena had heard it. It’s a different performance from the one Felton recorded and toyed with back in April. This one is more raw, less polished perhaps but no less powerful. Elvis sings it as the second to last song of the night on his second—better—concert. He starts by announcing to the audience what he’s doing in a long and rambling speech about how its an old song that’s not yet out yet (the Moody Blue record would come out about two weeks after the performance). He incorrectly says it’s a song called Unchained Melody “from an album called Unchained Melody” and then proceeds to belt out the lyrics while playing the chords on piano. You can see him struggle to hit the big notes, the notes he once belted out effortlessly. He even sinks into the background during the final note, allowing the harmony singers to finish the song while he grinned and banged on the piano.

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The performance is as beautiful as it is sad. When the concert special was agreed upon, Elvis tried to get back in shape like he had done with the Aloha show but he just couldn’t pull it off anymore. A combination of being too far gone and too apathetic to change had swallowed him up.

The CBS footage showed that 1977 was the year he had moved past the point of no return. He was a man who had lost his way and had he not died this year he would have died the next year, or the year after. Despite only being a man in his early-forties he was in the twilight of his life. At some point in the near future all his mistakes and demons would have claimed him. It was almost destiny. Though the second show was an improvement over the terrible first, CBS was still waffling on whether or not to postpone the special until additional material could be recorded, preferably in a few months time. Maybe the hope was to give him another opportunity to get in shape and sober up, but if he hadn’t gotten in shape for the first try he wouldn’t for the second. Elvis needed a challenge, and just having a few cameras pointed at him while he sleepwalked through his same old concert was no challenge at all.

You can see from the CBS footage what his live show had devolved into. A performance of “Love Me,” from the first show, features Elvis lazily walking around the stage, flicking scarfs at screaming loyalists. It’s a display that goes to show just how far into the realm of self-parody he had fallen. 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. It’s an empty gesture; it’s the pointless act of doing a thing just because “it’s expected.” I’m sure they’re worth a lot on Ebay though.

(they go anywhere from $200 to $1000)

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Two months later he would be dead.

Publicly, at least initially, his death was only attributed to heart failure, and any insinuation to drug abuse was denied by Elvis’ estate. In time, what was a badly-kept secret just came to be acknowledged as an understood fact. Elvis lived in a time before there were Betty Ford clinics or places for image-conscious celebrities to go to find help. His was a generation before the words “there’s no shame in admitting you have a problem” were acceptable. He had a problem, but generational pride prevented any possibility of his ever truly finding help. Longtime associate/lackey Red West wrote of a story in his “Elvis: What Happened?” tell-all, how Elvis accidentally nearly-killed a girlfriend when they spent a quiet evening together in Palm Springs knocking back shots of Hycodan cough syrup (laced with codeine). The girl was hospitalized for almost a week but of course Elvis never received so much as a stern warning from anyone with authority. No one had the guts to tell him his lifestyle had become reckless, dangerous and fatal. He once turned to Red West’s wife Pat and said “I’ve tried every kind of medicine there is, and believe me Dilaudid is the best out there.” Elvis took that particular drug to “help him sleep.”

It’s intended to be given to terminal cancer patients as a final painkiller.

His life was out of control and in hindsight it’s no surprise at all that it ended the way it did. The day before his death was mundane; plans for the next tour were made, some time was spent on his in-house racquetball court and then he and girlfriend Ginger Alden went to bed. She fell asleep some time around 4am while Elvis was still sitting up reading. Ginger awoke on August 16th at about 9am to find Elvis still awake, telling her he couldn’t sleep (a byproduct of the cocktail of pills he took every day, multiple times a day). He then told her he was going to use the bathroom, which she knew meant he was going to take some “medicine” to help him sleep. In his bathroom he had a miniature pharmacy as well as several hypodermic needles full of whatever he needed for whatever occasion. The later autopsy would show that he had at least ten different drugs swimming around his body at the time of his death. Those drugs did a number on his internal organs too. When Elvis sat on the toilet, he strained and strained and produced nothing but a coronary. Struggling and hindered by his recent intake of drugs, he staggered forward and fell onto the floor where he died.

Death has a way of changing public perception about a celebrity. Michael Jackson was a punchline in 2009, loved only by his most loyal fans, but the moment he died, out of the woodwork came scores of people claiming “I always loved him!” The same thing happened when Prince died in 2016; he went from being the artist whose records were being ignored by the masses to being instantly remembered for what he always was: one of the greatest ever, whose records were suddenly worth listening to again. Elvis’ life was not even a joke in 1977; it wasn’t important enough to comment on to joke about. He was beyond a punchline. He was forgotten.

Then he died.

Suddenly everyone wanted to pay homage. Suddenly everyone wanted to protest how much they always loved him. Suddenly everyone wanted to buy his albums and buy his posters and buy his lunchboxes. Suddenly it no longer mattered that he died overweight, drug-riddled and just…sad in a variety of ways. It no longer mattered because Elvis was no longer “present.” He was “past.” And that means you’re free to look at the totality of his life and career and examine it in hindsight, not in real time.

And hindsight has been very good to Elvis Presley.

Today Elvis is a global brand worth millions. He earned over twenty-five million in 2016, in fact, and sold a million records. That brand wasn’t established in 1977, however. Vernon Presley held control of the estate but he was elderly and would be dead himself within two years. He appointed a trio of custodians to oversee the estate: The National Bank of Commerce in Memphis (to whom Elvis was their biggest customer), Joseph Hanks (Elvis’ longtime accountant), and Elvis’ ex-wife Priscilla. Though they were five years divorced, they had remained on good terms and she was the mother of Elvis’ only heir, Lisa Marie. The first hurdle they had was to survive bankruptcy. Graceland cost half a million dollars a year to maintain, and Elvis had not left much behind for his benefactors to spend.

He left behind a concert tour for August of 1977 that would have seen him perform around New England and then in the southeast, ending with two shows in Memphis. He left behind a mound of debt that a bewildered father and new custodians of his estate had to manage. He left behind a nine year old daughter as heir to his estate, too young to make any major decisions. And he left behind a manager without a cash-cow to feed his massive gambling addictions and debt. When Parker was given the news of Elvis’ death his first words were “oh my boy” and then “okay…it’s just like when he went to the Army. We can control his image.” Parker cornered Elvis’ father Vernon immediately after the funeral with papers in hand for Vernon to sign an extended agreement with Parker. It would be almost five years before the truth of his terrible management came to light.

When Vernon died in 1979, the estate fell to Lisa Marie. Since she was a minor, a court-appointed attorney was tasked with representing her interests. The attorney discovered that the agreement Parker had compelled Vernon to sign (again on the day of his son’s funeral) entitled the Presley estate to 20% of all future earnings of Elvis Presley merchandise and record sales. Another 20% was set aside for various business partners, and the remaining 60% went to Parker. In the aftermath of Elvis’ death, his fame skyrocketed as a flood of nostalgia washed over baby boomers. But though Elvis’ name was selling like crazy, it was only Parker that was making any money. Elvis’ estate was bringing in only around a million a year, but again: half of that was being spent on upkeep and whatever modest efforts they could think of to push the Presley brand.

The estate was encouraged by the judge overseeing the case to file a suit against Parker for mismanagement, which caused Parker to counter-sue. A 1983 settlement was eventually reached and with two million dollars in “go away” money in hand, Tom Parker finally walked away from Elvis, six years after his death.

Around the same time, Priscilla had the idea of converting Graceland into a museum and turning it into a tourist destination. The move solved the two biggest problems the estate was facing: how to stay afloat financially and how to preserve and push a carefully-crafted image of Elvis into posterity. Within days of Elvis’ death, the strip mall across the street from Graceland had turned into a carnival-like hub of Elvis souvenirs and memorabilia, sold by any “rando” huckster looking to make a buck. Elvis’ estate quickly purchased the mall and over the course of several years converted into a carnival-like hub of Elvis souvenirs and memorabilia, sold by “Elvis Presley Enterprises.” In years to come the site expanded to include Elvis’ “Lisa Marie” jet and car collection, the “Heartbreak” Hotel, and the recently-opened “Guest House” hotel.

After graverobbers nearly succeeded in stealing his body from the Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, the estate ordered his remains exhumed and moved to its permanent resting place on the Graceland grounds.  Elvis’ mother Gladys was also moved and Vernon joined them in 1979. The tombstones were placed next to a small round pool in an area dubbed “the meditation garden” where fans can walk around with provided-headsets that play “If I Can Dream” while they stare at the stone marker whose name reads “Elvis Aaron Presley.”

Elvis’ middle name came from a friend of Gladys’ whose name was Aron. Elvis grew up spelling and writing his middle name with only one “a” but as an adult he sought to legally change his name to the more traditional “Aaron.” Upon doing so he discovered that his birth certificate had featured a typo and his middle name had always been listed as “Aaron.” That didn’t convince conspiracy theorists, however, who claimed that the “Aaron” on Elvis’ gravemarker is proof that he’s not really dead.

Why the Elvis estate would lie about his death but not lie about the spelling of his middle name apparently escapes such people, but there you go. In the United States alone seven percent of the population believes Elvis faked his death. If you ask them, Elvis merely grew tired of the touring, the recording, the commitments, the fame, and walked away from it all through an elaborate hoax featuring a fake body and a gullible media. If you ask them, Elvis flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 17th, the day after he supposedly “died.” An airport employee claims a man who looked a lot like Elvis bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires under the name “John Burrows.”

That happens to be the name Elvis’ entourage used whenever they would make hotel bookings for him.

Then of course there’s this:

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And this…

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Checkmate.

Honestly, it’s not surprising that so many people refuse to believe he’s gone, or at least that he died in 1977. A fanbase as loyal and zealous as his—they called him “the king” for crying out loud—would naturally have a hard time accepting that his life ended so unceremoniously, so unspectacularly, so…uncinematically.

But it did…

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He died with a whimper, but his legacy has only grown.

In 1984 he reached a milestone of one-billion combined records sold worldwide, a record for a single entertainer. In 1986 he entered into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1998 he entered the Country Music Hall of Fame, and then the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2001. And despite never playing a single show in the UK, he was inducted into the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame based solely on his remarkable success in the country (second only to the Beatles during his life). Elvis is the only musician (solo or band) in UK history to have fifty top-ten albums.

In 1992 the US Postal Service took the unprecedented step of asking the American people to vote on their choice for the style of artwork to be used on their upcoming Elvis Presley commemorative stamp. Over a million ballots were returned, with the winner being a portrait of 1950’s era Elvis (the other option was a 1973 Aloha from Hawaii depiction). The stamp went on to be the most widely-used in the history of the Post Office and is the top-selling commemorative stamp of all time. Demand was so high that the USPS printed 500 million copies (the typical order is around 150 million).

In 2001 a remix of his 1968 single flop “A Little Less Conversation” jumped to #50 on the Hot100 (the highest chart-placement for an Elvis single since 1981). The single went on reach number-one in a variety of international markets, including the UK and Canada, giving Elvis his first number-one hit since “Way Down” reached the top shortly after his death. RCA capitalized on the song’s success by featuring it on their 2002 album Elvis: 30 #1 Hits. The record became the first Elvis album to reach #1 since 1974, making it the longest gap ever between chart-topping albums for a solo artist.

In 2011 Elvis’ Christmas Album was the first record ever certified “diamond” by the RIAA, an award given for surpassing ten million sales.

In August of 2017, on the fortieth anniversary of his death, fans all over the world flocked to Graceland to pay homage, to listen to songs they have memorized, to reflect on movies they know are silly but don’t care, to stare at images they’ve seen a thousand times, and to say goodbye all over again to a singer, actor, performer, entertainer, and all-around American icon; a man whose legacy grows with each passing year like ancient myths, a man whose rags to riches story still inspires us, whose sudden decent to ruin still frustrates us, and a man whose passion and love for the art of music still captivates us, forty years later.

Thank you, Elvis.

Thank you very much.

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