Elvis In Concert ’97

August 16, Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis

By Pat Daly

It was the fall of 1972. The youth of Chicago’s suburbs were neck deep in kid stuff, which in my case consisted mainly of brutal pickup football games. For those of us tuning the radios in our parents’ station wagons to Super CFL, Looking Glass and Three Dog Night were rocking our world. But one north suburban Catholic school had a little something extra going on: its very own playground Elvis. The boy had secured 45s of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” in an effort to tease a fellow classmate about his mom’s taste in music. Once the needle was in the groove, however, the youth was transformed into a rabid follower of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His bizarre approximations of Presley’s hip-centric dancing provided a unique recess entertainment for several weeks. I was that youth.

It was against this backdrop that Elvis Presley, completely out of the blue, released “Burning Love,” a record that heralded his return to rock ‘n’ roll. After a string of middle-of-the-road hits a few years earlier, the pumping piano and driving backbeat (not to mention the “sweet song of the choir”) spilling out of Super CFL through the tiny station-wagon speaker were thrilling almost beyond my comprehension. Had I somehow willed Elvis back to his roots? It hardly mattered: the King was back. And his return was to be commemorated by an even more earthshaking event: a satellite broadcast of Elvis’s upcoming concert in Honolulu. Televised rock of any kind was pretty rare at the time, making the King’s appearance even more exciting. Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii introduced me to the King’s current image–a heroically sideburned, fist-swinging, wide-stanced tower of sweat–putting me even more in awe of him than I was already.

On the downside, the show exposed my classmates to some fundamental flaws in my playground efforts. I had no sideburns. I had no jumpsuit. I didn’t know martial arts. My impersonator career ended shortly thereafter, but my fascination with Elvis had only begun. The great rock thinkers (primary source: Rolling Stone magazine) would eventually guide me back through the ’68 comeback to “Little Sister” (helping me skirt the movie years) and further back to the Sun sessions, telling and retelling the story of Sam Phillips and the white boy with the Negro sound as if it were a letter from Saint Paul to the Corinthians.

In these articles Elvis’s 70s career didn’t merit even a footnote. When I was old enough to afford LPs, I didn’t even bother checking out Elvis’s 70s albums, and my earlier commitment to the jumpsuit era became something of a skeleton in my closet. By the end Elvis could not have been more out of step with his times, a bejeweled Vegas atrocity still perfecting his boogaloo while Pete Townshend was airborne over fifty million Who fans in football stadiums around the world and Johnny Rotten was modestly proposing eating one’s elders. Elvis’s death under an avalanche of prescription drugs was the unthinkable but inevitable end to Chapter One of the rock era. That a cottage industry and famously idiosyncratic cult could spring from this image was a source of amusement and bewilderment to an apprentice cynic like me. But my fascination lingered. Nineteen-ninety-seven was the year that I would finally face the music. I was going to Memphis.

From a distance Elvis Week seemed another opportunity for the true believers to renew their pledge to the inescapable iconic image–the sideburns, the sneer, the bell-bottoms, the cape. A mind-boggling agenda of seminars, Memphis Mafia reunions, book signings, and musical tributes marking the 20th anniversary of the King’s death, Elvis Week would be capped off by perhaps the most ghoulish gambit ever attempted by a performer’s posthumous keepers–“Elvis in Concert 1997.” Inspired by Natalie Cole’s onstage duets with her late dad, the concert featured a bona fide all-star lineup–Elvis’s TCB Band (including James Burton on guitar), background singers from every phase of his career (including the Jordanaires, the Sweet Inspirations, and others), and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra–assembled on the stage of the Mid-South Coliseum to accompany the King via the miracle of video technology. His 50s combo would be represented by its surviving members, the legendary Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana. For those of us schooled in Elvis’s early work, the event seemed destined to chronicle the lengthy descent of a once-great talent, heavy on the hero worship, heavy on the cheese. By the end of the night, though, “Elvis in Concert” would reveal a deeper truth. Evidently I hadn’t shed my jumpsuit-era fanaticism as completely as I’d thought.

The evening began with Elvis’s original casino comedians painfully re-creating the stale and offensive “comedy” they’d used to warm up his Vegas audiences. Then the lights at the coliseum dimmed. Screams rose in an early nod to the night’s nostalgia, and an actual limousine (long and black, natch) drove through the crowd into the backstage area. The MSO swung into their overture, which, echoing a hundred Elvis shows, climaxed with “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” reminding us that we were going where no fan had gone before. I got goose bumps; my cynicism began to crumble.

Elvis took the stage on an enormous video screen; flanking it were two smaller screens onto which images of the live show were projected. The band slammed into “C.C. Rider,” lifted to ecstatic heights by the Sweet Inspirations’ yeah-yeah-yeah’s, and hauled us through Elvis’s 70s stage show. Footage from several concert videos (including my baptism, Aloha From Hawaii) was intercut to include the various jumpsuits, hairdos, and cover versions that characterized the latter-day shows. The King’s love of all things pop was showcased in a fairly amazing amalgam of bayou choogle (“Polk Salad Annie”), campy rock ‘n’ roll (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”), and cheap-seats emo-schmaltz (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). Instinctively the TCB Band locked in, and the effect was eerily realistic. Some audience members yelled out requests. I might even have shed a tear during the heart-wrenching rendition of “I’ll Remember You.”

I’m not one to take issue with Elvis’s 70s sound. His band was loaded with highly regarded pros–Gram Parsons, among others, hired them for his albums–and for better or worse, their sound was a few years ahead of the curve. Willie Nelson and Family and to a lesser extent the Grateful Dead would make decades worth of hay with a similar approach. It’s clearly rock ‘n’ roll, albeit low-key and unlikely to incite any riots.

Elvis, for his part, looked like he was liable to burst out laughing at any moment. The sneer was played for laughs, the pelvis was played for laughs, and so was the animal magnetism (which, judging from the aerial assaults by Vegas babes in the videos, was a force to be reckoned with). Elvis’s sense of humor has been the target of satire (notably Nicolas Cage’s “Tiny Elvis” on Saturday Night Live), but from the footage it’s pretty clear that all of this was Elvis’s inside joke. He literally had to shake himself out of the (amphetamine-induced?) giggles before launching into the deadly serious “In the Ghetto.” Was it funny that a 30-something mutant hillbilly in a Captain Marvel Jr. costume was seducing fat cats’ wives in the front row of a Honolulu auditorium while performing souped-up Simon and Garfunkel songs and executing karate-inspired dance moves? Elvis seemed to think so. The first half of “Elvis in Concert ’97” delivered a rare and somewhat unexpected quantity: fun.

If I was to be brought back in line with the early-Elvis cognoscenti, it wasn’t going to happen at the Mid-South. Apparently Elvis Presley Enterprises (the keeper of the image, headed by Priscilla Presley) has sanctioned two performers to convey the 50s Elvis to the masses: Ronnie McDowell and one Terry Mike Jeffrey, both of whom took the stage for the second half of the show. McDowell issued one of the early Elvis memorial singles in 1977; he appears to have insinuated himself into the corporation’s good graces since then, because his talent for evoking the Sun Records and 50s RCA magic is wispy at best. This left Scotty Moore to generate the excitement, and hearing him thrash away at the “Jailhouse Rock” solo or pick out the intro to “Don’t Be Cruel” with the Jordanaires falling in behind him was one of the evening’s high points. Otherwise Ronnie and Terry Mike evoked the spirit of 50s Elvis just a little less successfully than Pat Boone evoked Little Richard in his cover of “Tutti Frutti,” but between songs they showed an impressive talent for kissing Priscilla’s ass. When our host, Memphis-DJ-turned-Hollywood-game-show-host Wink Martindale, asked how we liked the 50s portion, the fans’ hoots, whistles, and heckling said it all. For their efforts they were rewarded with a bizarre Natalie Cole-esque duet of “Don’t Cry Daddy” between video Elvis and his daughter Lisa Marie. It just about popped their collective cork.

The Vegas King strode across the video screens and reclaimed the stage. The 50s and the ’68 comeback had been dispensed with, but not before the corporation had set the stage for a new era in Elvis merchandising. Gone are the velvet paintings and shampoo; here to stay are the restaurants and foxy T-shirts with the postage stamp image. After the dozens of tell-all books that followed Elvis’s death, the jumpsuit image has come to be equated with all manner of unwholesome behavior related to jailbaiting, pharmaceutical cocaine, and esoteric culinary cravings. While one might argue that these aspects of his life in combination with his love of rock ‘n’ roll make Elvis a kind of postwar American everyman, rhinestone Elvis is about to be pushed to the periphery of the souvenir trade for a while.

Which might be fine for those who missed the big finale in Memphis. “Hound Dog” was delivered at warp speed, tossed off in a minute and a half as novelty kid stuff, a wry commentary from beyond the grave on the burgeoning 50s revival. “An American Trilogy,” the ideologically complicated musical free association that has become Elvis’s personal anthem, dropped like a bomb behind the apocalyptic salvos of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. “My Way,” boldly hijacked from the apex of cretinous goon Frank Sinatra’s Vegas set, had us thinking of pharmaceutical cocaine and esoteric culinary cravings again. Ronnie Tutt of the TCB Band tapped out a kind of funeral march rhythm, arms swayed in the audience, and Elvis belted out the throaty climax. Then it was over. “C.C. Rider” was reprised as the King flashed the TCB hand signal from the video screens. As he disappeared into the darkness, we strained to see the last jewel flicker. There was no telling when we might see this King again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Marty Perez.