Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

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.

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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.


Reconsider Baby: Elvis Presley and the Dangers of the Posthumous Album

 

 

Elvis-Presley-Elvis-In-Concert

 

In June, 1977, just a couple of months before his death at the age of 42, Elvis Presley released his last non-posthumous album.  Moody Blue was a strange mish-mash of songs that had been recorded in various locations over the last three and a quarter years.  The six studio cuts had been recorded at Graceland in February and October 1976 and, with it proving impossible to get Presley back into the studio to complete the album, producer Felton Jarvis took a four-track recorder on tour, hoping to capture on tape decent performances of songs that Elvis had not recorded before.  He knew this was unlikely to happen (Presley’s live performances had become erratic and often lifeless by this stage) and Jarvis would “discard virtually every recording he had out of fear that releasing performances this poor could only be detrimental to Elvis’s career” (Jorgensen, 1998: 407-8),  but still managed to record three “new” Elvis songs.  The album was completed by transposing a recording already issued in 1974 onto the new record.  Moody Blue was ultimately a strangely compelling record and while Presley is clearly heard to be an artist in decline, he comes across over the ten tracks as a man who was down but not yet out.  Two months after the release of Moody Blue, Presley was dead and, later that year, the seemingly never-ending stream of posthumous records would begin.  However, if Felton Jarvis, his record producer, had struggled to release material of good enough quality during Presley’s lifetime, how would the world’s view of the artist be changed in the decades to come as literally hundreds of hours of unreleased outtakes, private recordings and live concerts made their way into the market place, and would Presley’s name and legacy be damaged or changed as a result?

The first posthumous album was also, arguably, the most damaging.  During Presley’s last tour in June 1977, he was filmed for a CBS TV Special.  That special, Elvis in Concert (Dwight Hemion), would air in America in October 1977 and was accompanied by a double album of material from the two shows that were edited together to make up the TV special, including material which was deemed unfit for broadcast.  Presley’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, describes the footage from the first of the two recorded shows as “almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror” (Guralnick, 1999: 638).  The album itself is poor, with Presley clearly struggling both for breath and for vocal tone, but it is the television special that has lived long in public memory, showing as it does an overweight, struggling, often seemingly-disoriented Elvis.  It’s worth noting that the album release (pictured at the top of this post) used no pictures from the special, but images of a healthy looking Elvis from a few years before.  The special has never been repeated or issued officially on home video, although small sections have found their way into documentaries.  Even so, those images have never been forgotten.  Photographs from it have appeared in books to represent Elvis in his last years, the show has been bootlegged many times, and it is available in complete form on Youtube.

Other posthumous releases of “new” material followed over the next two decades, all of them more flattering than Elvis In Concert and mostly made up of live material, alternate takes, private recordings (often in poor sound), rehearsals and, occasionally, forgotten master takes of songs that had never been released before.  In the late 1990s, a new label was set up specifically for collectors.  It was called Follow That Dream (FTD), named after a Presley film of 1962.  Since its inception, the label has issued over a hundred releases (some of them double CDs) and nearly all containing a large percentage of officially unreleased material.

Many of these releases have been in the “Classic Album” series.  These are double disc sets, featuring the original album in its original running order, followed by bonus material, mostly made up of alternate takes.  To class many of the albums released in this series as “classic” seems something of a misnomer.  For example, Love Letters From Elvis, released in 1971, was arguably his weakest non-soundtrack album to date, is made-up of leftovers from a mammoth recording session the year before which had already yielded two albums, and is memorable less for Presley’s singing than for the peculiar overdubs which makes the album sound as much like elevator music as an album by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Despite these shortcomings, the album has been treated to the “classic album” format in which a number of the songs are heard in five or six different alternate takes each.  A minor album in Presley’s legacy is therefore being elevated to “classic” status within this series – but does this in turn skew our view of Presley’s really classic work?  While a reissue such as this is clearly intended for fans and only sold through selected outlets, these CDs still make their way into the mainstream through second-hand items being sold on websites such as Ebay or Amazon Marketplace or even through illegal downloads such as torrents.  What is intended solely for the fan domain does not necessarily stay there.

If the treatment of the studio albums complicates our view of Presley’s legacy, then FTD’s endless stream of live recordings from the 1970s does so even more.  Ernst Jorgensen, the man primarily responsible for the label’s releases has stated: “We will eventually release a show from every Vegas or Tahoe season, and most tours – of course limited by the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t have”.[1]  This has resulted in a number of concerts being released that find Elvis in less than stellar form.  An example of this was the 2003 release of Dragonheart, a soundboard recording of a concert from October 1, 1974.  One fan wrote of the release: “one of the weakest concerts of 1974… I was surprised how flat his singing was, listen to Bridge over troubled water, he heardly [sic] can hold a note, it seems he is running out of air”.[2]  Another fan writes that “the songs on this CD show Elvis’ erratic behaviour he’s trying too hard a lot of the time and it’s not working, his voice is all over the place [sic].”  This is not to say that all fans felt the same way, and a number were quite defensive, with one writing:  “I love the new Dragonheart release, and if you don’t… fair enough, but keep your crappy comments to yourself.”

But Dragonheart was the tip of the iceberg.  Since then a number of other concerts showing Elvis in even worse form have seen the light of day officially.  New Haven ’76 comes from what one reviewer calls a “dreadful” tour and features a moment where “Assesing [sic] his own poor state Elvis says he’ll do a medley of his records next, but whether he can or not is a different matter” (McDonnell, 2009).  Similarly, a fan says of the 2011 release of Amarillo ’77 that “Elvis should have been in a hospital … In other words: Elvis should not have stepped on stage in 1977. Then we would not have had this album and, that to say it mildly, that would not be such a great loss”.[3]

FTD is in a no-win situation.  The vast majority of the concerts that it has access to were recorded during Presley’s final few years and so those years are going to be over-represented.  On one hand, many fans will continue to lap up every second of new Elvis material but, on the other, how are these releases affecting the way we and future generations will view Elvis and his recorded legacy?  While the FTD releases are aimed solely at the collector and even the poor performances can be seen as filling in part of the Presley story, with today’s technology these recordings are not staying solely within the fan domain.  Many have found their way onto Youtube, for example, and remain there in complete form.  Just because fans are clamouring for every second of Elvis that survives on tape (and the record company in turn is clamouring for their money), does that mean that his every utterance, every flat note and every dreadful on stage performance should be at their disposal? The effects that these releases will have on how Presley will be viewed in the future is something we are unable to gauge at this stage, but we can start debating the rights and wrongs of them.  The Elvis Presley story is a tragedy, but are these releases slowly but surely robbing him of his dignity?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Guralnick P (1999) Careless Love.  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.  London:  Abacus.

Jorgensen E (1998) Elvis Presley:  A Life in Music.  The Complete Recording Sessions.  New York:  St Martin’s Press.

McDonnell G (2009) Review – Elvis: New Haven ’76 FTD CD.  In: Elvis Australia. Available at:  http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/reviews/review_elvis_new_haven_1976.shtml


[1] From an interview for the For Elvis CD Collectors website, date unknown.  http://www.elvis-collectors.com/askernst4.html

[2] These comments come from the very active For Elvis CD Collectors forums:  http://www.elvis-collectors.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2135&hilit=dragonheart