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Coming On strong

Southern Label 6977 (Released 1999)

(West Palm Beach, Florida, Feb. 13, 1977)
Little sister (incomplete)
You gave me a mountain
Blue suede shoes
O solo mio/ It's now or never
My way
All shook up
Teddy bear/ don't be cruel
And I love you so
Fever
Blueberry Hill
Hurt
Hound dog
Jailhouse rock
Can't help falling in love
(Montgomery, Al Feb. 16, 1977)
You gave me a mountain
O solo mio/ It's now or never
Little sister
Teddy bear/ don't be cruel
My way
Polk salad Annie
Hurt
Hound dog
Where no one stands alone
Unchained melody
Can't help falling in love

From the light to the dark, new label Southern Style presents its second issue of exclusive, unreleased Presley material, a collection of superb mixing desk cuts from his first tour of 1977. Musically, it's a long way from their initial offering, 'Finding The Way Home,' which contains two CD's worth of outtakes from the now-classic American Studios sessions in Jan/Feb'69.

Presley in 1977 is not the Elvis of 1969, or even the Elvis of 1975. He is tired and the lack of energy, of spark, shows in his voice. However, many of his best performances may be traced to this first tour, a ten gig adventure that begins on February 12 in Hollywood, Florida and runs ten consecutive days. Other 1977 soundboard tapes have surfaced in recent years, among them the February 21 closing show in Charlotte, North Carolina (Fort Baxter's 'Moody Blue and Other Great Performances') and in Ann Arbor on April 24 (RCA overdubbed three tunes from here for inclusion on 'Moody Blue' that June). This release may be the best of the group.

'Coming On Strong' contains most of the Elvis Presley show from February 13 in West Palm Beach, Florida and the bulk of his set three days later in Montgomery, Alabama. The modest two-toned front cover image is coupled with a few others inside all from February 1977. For some strange reason the back cover is an inappropriate shot from August 1976 and the unfortunate Southern Style "mammy" logo continues as the disc imprint. Dump the racist icons, please. Keen Presley collectors will note four cuts from the Montgomery show slipped out on the afore-mentioned 'Moody Blue and Other Great Performances' but this CD has those tunes and more.

If Elvis' life has withered down to a series of one-nighters, he makes the best of it. It's evident that the 7,000 in West Palm Beach are having a ball seeing Elvis in concert. "Let's do something silly," he suggests, and the band kicks into "My Way"! It's a decent rendition, though not as poignant as the 1977 single taken from his last-ever tour in June. Presley belts his Roy Hamilton-informed "Hurt" to show-stopping effect, too.

"Fever" drives everyone wild, as usual, though Presley plays around with it. The producers of 'Coming On Strong' don't play around with the two solo Sherril Neilsen spots ("Danny Boy" and "Walk With Me") requested by Elvis in West Palm Beach, though. According to their back cover notes these "had to be left out due to bad distortion ... who cares" although both are heard distortion-free, albeit mis-credited as St. Petersburg, on CD 4 of Fort Baxter's 'A Profile - The King On Stage.'

Pianist Tony Brown, now a hugely successful Nashville record executive, is put to trial as Elvis apparently calls for Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," a classic Brown barely knows. The piano figure he attempts is a brave failure; Elvis cuts it short after a verse and a half singing "that's enough of that song, Tony, you're on your own son." The next evening in St. Petersburg (mis-credited as West Palm Beach on CD 4 of Fort Baxter's 'A Profile - The King On Stage') Elvis slides Brown off his piano bench and plays the trademark Domino triplet himself, good-naturedly terming Brown's second attempt "warped."

Presley heads out of West Palm Beach revising the first verse of "Can't Help Falling In Love" as "Wise men know, when it's time, time to go, but I can't help falling in love with Joe." Road manager and buddy Joe Esposito must love the quip, but Presley re-uses the "time to go" change a month later in Virginia. Is he trying to tell us something?

In Montgomery the excellent sound quality goes up a few more notches. Luckily, Elvis is better this evening; his vocals are just that much sharper, his audience repartee brighter. Someone hands him a pair of shiny red pants made for his nine year-old daughter and he tries to fob them off on soprano Kathy Westmoreland! "Try it, anyway," he pleads. The band kicks into a New Orleans, stripper-like instrumental until Presley quotes Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau (from 1964's "A Shot In The Dark," a perennial Presley favorite) with "enough, Kato, you fool!"

Poor Tony Brown stumbles on the introduction to "Teddy Bear," a set regular, and Elvis stops the music to rib him. "I can't let him get away with that ... you froze on me, your fingers locked!" Brown plays it at a slower tempo afterwards, which may've been to tease Presley, but it sounds much better! That's one arrangement they should've kept. The fifties numbers in both cities are all treated like dirty laundry and dispatched as quickly as Presley can manage to run them down. What a shame.

Perhaps the tour's pinnacle comes in Montgomery, with solo-at-the-piano performances of "Where No One Stands Alone" and "Unchained Melody" that are at once magnificent and darkly tragic. The former, which Elvis cut in 1966 for his second gospel album 'How Great Thou Art,' is the only time it's ever been played live, as he duly tells the crowd. "I have to play the piano because, uh, you know, I know the chord changes." The lyric, about a king in a palace who, despite his riches, has lost his soul, is devastating in retrospect. "Unchained Melody" is as Peter Guralnick terms it, "a moment of transcendent spirit and grotesque self-abandon," despite a missed chord change and Neilsen's "helping" vocal at the conclusion. Two soul-baring numbers in five minutes really gives all 10,928 something to remember forever.

He would never be back.

Johnny Savage
January 2000

Sound rate ****