This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.
Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable. Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.
At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so. Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities. He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat. I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.” Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat. Not just overweight, but F-A-T.” Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.” The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.” Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits. According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful. The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.
For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis. Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well. On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.” It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine. In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes. It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent.
Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak. Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity. Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.” Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude. Program has remained basically unchanged for years. Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.” Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.”
Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time. Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:
“There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show. Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?”
There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier. For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings.
Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition. Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance. The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet. In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.” Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review. However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said. One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert. We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.” Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.” Such comments must have been worrying. Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.
The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months. The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year. In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show. In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.
One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age. Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older. “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal. Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.” Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties. Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him.
If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977. There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone. However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred.
With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire. Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.
Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months. The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert. The finished recording is stunning. It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period. The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top. However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process. The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged. For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.
Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds. While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up.
The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John. Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material.
All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977. Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier. It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years. Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.” Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.” Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently. Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album. It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”
Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic. A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier. Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance. Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless. Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times
His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews. Fans, however, still stuck by their man. Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded). He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.” He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”
The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.” It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.” Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”
This, however, wasn’t enough. A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans. One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor. Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.” Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.” Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.” Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.
Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming. After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote:
“The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over. He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake. He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage. And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.“
Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.