“Elvis has left the building“ is a phrase that was often used by public address announcers at the conclusion of his concerts in order to disperse audiences who lingered in hopes of an encore.
“Well, the image is one thing and the human being another … it’s very hard to live up to an image.” – Elvis, on being asked by a reporter if he was satisfied with his image.
“Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight-up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain. Motherfuck him and John Wayne” – Public Enemy, “Fight the Power.”
Elvis spent two years in the army, 1958 – 1960. In August 1958, his mother was diagnosed with hepatitis. Elvis was granted emergency leave to visit her. She died of heart failure on August 14.
This hit Elvis incredibly hard as they were extremely close, even using pet names for each other. There were three other important developments in Elvis’ life during his army years – he got turned on to amphetamines; he started to learn karate. And the 24-year old met 14-year old Priscilla Beaulieu and immediately became smitten with her. (Priscilla’s father was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force.)
Lest you think Presley’s career stalled during his Army stint, using previously unreleased material he had no fewer than ten Top 40 hits including “A Big Hunk ‘O Love,” and one of my favorites, “One Night With You.”
When he got out of the Army in early 1960, Elvis came back strong. (His train was mobbed by crazed fans the likes of which were only repeated when ME was in a band.) He hit the studio and created the classics “Stuck on You,” “It’s Now or Never,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But the bluesier, rockin’ stuff was either gone or relegated to deep album cuts. His next album was called – what else – Elvis is Back!
As mentioned in the previous post, with most of the early rockers either dead, in jail or disgraced, the Top 40 of 1960 was, was, well, interesting. There was still great stuff (Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino), pretty good stuff (Brenda Lee, Ricky Nelson) and What the Fuck? (“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”)
In that year, Frank Sinatra – who you will recall effectively called rock and roll a big pile of useless shit – apparently had some sort of epiphany and had Elvis on his show. They sang each other’s songs, Ol’ Blue Eyes doing “Love Me Tender,” and Elvis doing “Witchcraft.” It’s worth the price of admission to hear Sinatra do Elvis’ song “his way.”
Elvis next did a Pearl Harbor benefit performance in Hawaii which was to be his last public performance for eight years. Because two things happened – one is that Colonel Parker decided his boy’s time was best spent making movies in which he could not only play the leading man but also sing songs. In fact, Elvis made 27 movies in the Sixties, a few of which were actually not crap.
And the second thing that happened was, of course, the so-called British Invasion which pretty much obliterated everything that came before it and rendered performers like Elvis passe. (The irony, of course, is that bands like The Beatles, Stones, etc. were initially doing not much more than playing American rock and roll and blues. So it goes.)
Speaking of the Beatles, the Fab Four famously met their hero in August of 1965 at Graceland. According to the Guardian, John Lennon got straight to the point. He “asked what had happened to the old rock’n’roll Elvis. He was ‘half-joking but he meant it.’ Presley laughed off the comment, but the conversation remained stilted until Presley ordered guitars to be brought into the room.
“They all started jamming and that is when the party took off,” press guy Tony Barrow said. “With words, they didn’t have much to say. But as soon as they got into the music the conversation began to spark.” John later said it had been about as exciting as meeting Engelbert Humperdinck. Someone else wondered if Elvis was stoned out of his mind, and George Harrison just said: ‘Aren’t we all?’
I think we can fairly well skip over most of the Sixties in regards to Elvis. True he still had his diehard fans. But while his music was a wellspring for much of (at least) early Sixties music, he was by now seen as a show-biz relic from another generation, turning out one movie “masterpiece” after another. (A young awestruck Tom Petty’s brief experience of meeting Elvis on a movie set is well worth reading here.)
Elvis and Priscilla had married in 1967 and in 1968 their daughter Lisa Marie was born. (Ironically, the daughter of the King of Rock and Roll would one day marry the King of Pop.) By 1968, Elvis’ career had pretty much flatlined. He hadn’t performed live since the 1960 Hawaii benefit show, his movies and record sales were tanking. The Colonel, perhaps wisely in retrospect, turned his sights to television.
I can’t speak for other countries but here in America there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that we love better than the comeback story. Sinatra did it in 1953 winning a Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity. (Any horse’s head references are totally on you.)
Parker signed a deal with NBC that called for a Christmas special. And given Elvis’ recent output, it was easy to expect that it would be somewhat on the level of a Perry Como special. In fact, what Parker handed director Steve Binder was a bunch of Christmas songs advising him that ‘This is what NBC and I have decided the show will be.’
Fortunately, Elvis met alone with Binder and both agreed they wanted it to be the real Elvis and not some phony show biz shit-show. They decided to set it up so that it’d be Elvis performing live and sweaty in front of an adoring (largely female) audience. And another segment would have Elvis jamming with (yeah!) Scotty Moore and Bill Black. They even dressed him up in black leather like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a movie Elvis totally dug.
The results were dramatic. Elvis had been nervous about this comeback but he looked and sounded great. They even wrote a new song for him, the inspirational “If I Can Dream.” Expecting, well, not much, some 42 percent of the viewing audience tuned in. “Dream” made it to Number 12 on the charts.
But I love the opening number, “Trouble.” Elvis was, indeed, back:
Elvis’ next album was From Elvis in Memphis which included the socially conscious if a bit heavy-handed “In the Ghetto.” But those sessions also produced one of his best songs – and a personal favorite – “Suspicious Minds.”
Thanks to his newly (re)found fame, Elvis signed on to play Las Vegas. His first show was on July 31, 1969. (Just two weeks before Woodstock where the 44-year old Mr. Presley was neither invited nor even considered. They had to make do with Sha Na Na.)
Per Wikipedia, “Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and the Jordanaires declined to participate, afraid of losing the lucrative session work they had in Nashville. Presley assembled new, top-notch accompaniment, led by Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton and including two gospel groups, The Imperials, and Sweet Inspirations.”
“Backstage before the show, Elvis was a nervous wreck. I can remember Elvis sitting on a couch,’ bassist Jerry Scheff recalled, ‘his knee going up and down like a piston, his hands dancing like butterflies.’ ‘You could see the sweat just pouring out of him before he went on stage,’ said his friend and road manager Joe Esposito.
‘He was always nervous before a show, but he was never nervous like that again.’ Everybody tried to keep him calm. ‘If you get lost, just turn around and we’ll start playing louder,’ guitarist John Wilkinson reassured him. “Don’t worry about it, your friends are here.”Elvis’ friends needn’t have worried. The King totally blew away the celebrity-studded audience.
As to that title, at a press conference after one show, when a journalist referred to him as “The King”, Presley gestured toward Fats Domino, who was taking in the scene. “No,” Presley said, “that’s the real king of rock and roll.” But the title stuck.
In one of the more bizarre incidents of that era, Elvis met President Richard Nixon. Elvis was by no means a hippie, in no way a member of the counterculture. In fact, he told Nixon in a letter that “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.”
By an in-depth study of drug abuse, it’s not clear if his “studies” involved being a walking pharmacopeia. But his friends later indicated that he was speaking about illegal drugs vs. legal drugs. (Hint – doesn’t matter, Elvis. Drug abuse is drug abuse.)
From this point to his death in 1977, Elvis released thirteen studio albums (one a documentary, one Christmas) and four live albums. He continued to work throughout the decade, his popularity never waning, at least among his fans (who were – and are – numerous. I count myself as one.) Rolling Stone called Presley “supernatural, his own resurrection.”
In 1971, the city of Memphis renamed the road Graceland was on Elvis Presley Boulevard. In 1972, Elvis released the tune “Burning Love” which was to be his last Top 10 hit in the American Hot 100 or pop charts. Love this song:
As time went on, Elvis and Priscilla had affairs, drifted apart and in late 1973, wound up getting divorced. One friend said the failure of Presley’s marriage “was a blow from which he never recovered.”
In 1976, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt famously jumped the gate at Graceland hoping to meet their idol. Alas, security turned them away as Elvis was out of town. And plus, who were they anyway. Apparently the security guards had never seen Newsweek or Time magazines on both of whose covers Bruce had appeared. (Graceland seems to have some magical hold on rockers. In that same year, a drunken Jerry Lee Lewis crashed his brand new Lincoln Continental into the front gates and got busted for his efforts.)
Elvis continued performing throughout the Seventies and remained a major star. But his health, drug use, and weight – reportedly 350 pounds (158 kg) at death – got consistently worse over time. Per Wikipedia, “Twice during 1973, he overdosed on barbiturates, spending three days in a coma in his hotel suite after the first incident. Towards the end of 1973, he was hospitalized, semi-comatose from the effects of pethidine (opioid meds for pain) addiction.
If you hear any of the recordings from this time or watch any videos, you will see and hear a performer who has slumped a long way from his late Sixties comeback. He forgets lyrics, slurs his words, laughs inappropriately in the middle of songs, performs karate moves. All while wearing outrageous “King” (or something) outfits.
Elvis’ final release (June 1977) was a pretty good song called “Way Down” which in this era of punk managed to make its way to number 1 on the Country charts as well as the UK:
Elvis’ final show was in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. And while he wasn’t the peak Elvis, there’s nothing to indicate he was on his last legs.
“By this point, he suffered from multiple ailments: glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, each magnified—and possibly caused—by drug abuse.” Several of his ex-employees published a book in early August called Elvis: What Happened? which detailed his drug abuse. Rumor has it that that is why they were fired but in fact, the book has largely stood the test of time.*
On August 16, 1977, Presley’s fiancee, Ginger Alden, found him on the floor of his bathroom at Graceland. He was unresponsive. “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position directly in front of it. He was taken to Baptist Memorial hospital where doctors unsuccessfully tried to revive him.”
And on August 16, 1977, at 3:30 pm, at the age of 42, the King of Rock and Roll from Tupelo, MS was pronounced dead. Elvis had left the building way too early, this time for good.
For those who recall the worldwide outpouring of grief when David Bowie and Prince died, those were nothing compared to this. Eighty thousand people lined the processional route to Forest Hills cemetery where Elvis was buried next to his mother. (Vernon lived for a couple more years and all three are now buried at Graceland, right out front. I’ve been to Graceland. It’s quite the thing. You should go.)
Was Elvis guilty of what we now term cultural appropriation? You could say that. You could also say he was a great performer who connected with millions of fans worldwide. But for every Little Richard or Al Green who said “he opened the door for black music,” you have detractors such as Ray Charles. And how can you not respect Ray’s opinion which he delivers succinctly here. (Note – not a fan.)
But there is no argument about Elvis’ legacy. Presley is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music with sales estimates ranging from 600 million to 1 billion. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, blues, and gospel.
Presley is credited with the record for the most albums charting in the Billboard 200 – 129 – way ahead of second-place Frank Sinatra’s 82. He has 146 million certified album sales in the U.S, third all-time behind the Beatles and Garth Brooks. He holds the record for most gold albums, more than twice as many as Barbara Streisand, most platinum albums, and most multi-platinum albums.
Graceland is the second most-visited house in the U.S. after the White House, with over 650,000 visitors a year. In death, Elvis has continued to earn. His net worth has risen to an estimated $300 million. Forbes cited his 2016 earnings at $27 million. There is a 24/7 Elvis channel on Sirius XM.
The King is Dead. Long live the King.
*In 1980, Dr. George Nichopoulos was indicted on 14 counts of overprescribing drugs to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and twelve other patients. The district attorney ruled out murder charges because of the conflicting medical opinions about the cause of Presley’s death.
In the first 8 months of 1977 alone, Nichopoulos had prescribed over 10,000 doses of amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, laxatives, and hormones for Presley. Nichopoulos claimed he had tried in vain to reduce Elvis’ dependency, even going so far as to manufacture one thousand placebos for Elvis, but to no avail.
The jury concluded that he had tried to act in the best interests of his patients. He was acquitted on all counts but permanently lost his license in 1983 over similar charges.
The very first Elvis impersonator goes all the way back to 1954. This picture is from a convention of ’em. I saw one in Vegas. He was pretty good. The ladies mobbed him. So it goes.
Sources: The Elvis Years series; Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show; Wikipedia