Joel Goldenberg: Elvis in Concert

Elvis Presley singing Unchained Melody in June 1977, with Charlie Hodge holding the microphone.

At the time of writing, there is a very lively (and sometimes raging) debate taking place on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum, on a nearly 300-page thread concentrating on the merits of Elvis Presley's 1970s albums and singles.

The thread not only contains Elvis's then-new studio and live albums, but LPs of previously released and unreleased material, including the budget Camden releases and the first album to gather, in one place, all the master takes of his pioneering Sun Records material.

But the album being discussed on the day I'm writing this is Elvis In Concert, a 2-LP set released in October 1977 to coincide with the CBS television special that was broadcast about two months after Elvis died.

Some facts about the set first — though the sleeve notes imply it was recorded at several concerts during what turned out to be Elvis's last tour, it was only recorded at two shows: Omaha, Nebraska on June 19, 1977, and Rapid City, South Dakota on June 21.

The Omaha show was considered to be very bad, and thus very little was used for the show and the LP. The Rapid City show was better, but that's in relative terms. In actual fact, the quality of the performances ranged from horrid and sad, to transcendent, all within the same show.

Elvis' poor condition — he was heavy and his face was very bloated — accounted for some of his limitations. But when he latched onto a song he liked, he could still blow the roof off the arena.

As someone who has listened to numerous Elvis concerts via YouTube and the FTD label series of soundboard releases, I can attest there were some even worse concerts, especially one in Houston, Texas in the summer of 1976 (the bootleg is appropriately called Houston We Have A Problem) and the notorious College Park show in late September 1974, where Elvis sounds stoned throughout.

I remember hearing about Elvis's death in summer camp, and when the Elvis In Concert TV special was announced, it was generally expected some of the reasons for his passing would be evident. And the evidence was there, in spades. As mentioned, his face was bloated, he moved slowly, he seemed incapable of opening his eyes completely, and sideways shots of him were not at all flattering due to some weight gain. Mercifully, for some camera angles, there were glimmers of Elvis's once handsome features.

I have heard CBS was horrified at the footage, and wanted to shoot some more for the tour that was supposed to start in mid-August. But Elvis died, and now the network had exclusive footage of Elvis's deterioration. But after apparently two network showings, it was locked up, never to be officially shown again except for clips as part of documentaries, and unofficially via YouTube where you can see the special, or the entire Omaha and Rapid City shows.

The accompanying album was an act of deception — the photos of Elvis on the cover, gatefold and back cover were most certainly not from the concerts in question, and not even from 1977.

The album was also strange — it interspersed performances with comments from Elvis fans, at least on the Sides 1 and 2. Those comments were from the TV special, but edited down for the LP. Some of the comments were eerie — that he still looked good, just older. Um, no. He was also wished success "for many years to come." That was true, in terms of continued sales, but Elvis himself could no longer directly benefit.

As for the performances, when Elvis went through the motions, such as the one millionth rendition of the I Got A Woman/Amen medley with the sequence featuring J.D. Sumner's low notes, or the dispiriting Love Me, or the dull Teddy Bear/Don't Be Cruel medley, the album was depressing.

But there were also moments of real energy, such as Elvis's climactic bellow during How Great Thou Art (surprisingly recorded in Omaha), a supercharged Hound Dog that makes you think Elvis is going to pop a vein, a very rousing treatment of his Sun-era classic Trying to Get to You and the definitive treatment of the Frank Sinatra standard My Way, which featured plenty of emotional resonance. Not included on the album was the classic Unchained Melody, just featuring Elvis and his piano playing. The footage, later released as part of the documentary The Great Performances, is horrid to look at, but Elvis soars vocally.

The debate on the Hoffman forum pertained to whether the Elvis in Concert album is a complete disaster or has many redeeming moments. I vote for the latter, with a caveat — the redeeming moments are not too plentiful.

It's a largely depressing album.

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