As all of us know,six weeks before Elvis's untimely death in 1977, the CBS television network videotaped two complete concert performances on June 19 ( Omaha ) and June 21 ( Rapid City ). The world didn't realize it at the time, but these would become the last professionally documented performances of Elvis Presley's long and illustrious career. He had not been seen on network televison in five long years and despite recent health issues,things were going ahead as planned.
You would think such footage would be worth it's weight in gold today,right? I mean,this guy still pulls number one hits and he's been dead for almost thirty years.
Alas,over the last three decades,the controversy surrounding this footage has reached stigmatic proportions. The original special was hurriedly assembled and aired the first week of October, barely six weeks after Elvis Presley's funeral. The final one-hour broadcast, " Elvis In Concert ", featured just over 20 minutes of actual Elvis footage! Only a few numbers from Omaha made it to the broadcast special, ( How Great thou Art, Early Morning Rain and Teddy Bear/Don't Be Cruel) , the bulk of the show coming from the Rapid City date..Amazingly, some of best performances were not included in the televised special, and in a rush to broadcast the show as soon as possible,hasty post-production failed to make use of the most flattering camera angles.The result was somewhat anti-climatic.
In the late 90's, the raw footage for the two complete June concerts reached the collector's market and spread like wildfire.Today, anyone who wants them can obtain the broadcast special and both live concerts.
The reason Omaha was used sparingly in 1977 is evident looking at the complete concert. Surely, Elvis was beyond nervous about facing the cameras for the first time in five years. It is reported he made the statement " I might not look good onstage tonight,but I'll look good in my coffin " around this time. In his personal life, Elvis was facing the imminent release of a tell-all book he was sure would cause many of his fans to abandon him.
" But through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out "
In spite of all these pressing anxieties, Elvis,as he had so many times before, said a prayer and headed onstage into the glaring spotlights. A man of less humility would never have subjected himself to such potential public humiliation.
In retrospect, viewing the footage today, it is amazing at how many excellent performances were left off the 1977 broadcast, nor have they ever been utilized in all the years since. " Fairytale "," If You Love Me, Let Me Know "," It's Now Or Never "," Trying To Get to You " to name a few. The Rapid City show was very strong, and both concerts had moments of absolute brilliance. Couldn't...in fact shouldn't ...these numbers have been used in the original special? Or in some of the many documentaries and specials made since? One unseen gem, " Unchained Melody " thankfully has been used, and it is arguably one of the mosty moving performances he ever gave on camera.
" I faced them all and I stood tall and did it my way "
Much of the reason these tapes have been " swept under the rug " for the most part is that they are widely viewed as visual documentation of Elvis' decline and fall...the tragic end of a once great star,a visual used to dramatically illustrate his failing health.This is unfortunate and irresponsible.
One reason for this misconception is the video clip of " My Way " , usually sourced from the 1981 documentary " This is Elvis ". Many versions of " This Is Elvis " circulating in those days featured a poor looking video-to-film transfer of the CBS footage. In the transfer from tape to film ( the CBS footage was shot on videotape,not film stock ) , the picture has been highly distorted, creating an unflattering, ruddy-looking Elvis, not accurate of his true appearance. This one clip, more than any other, is habitually used to depict Elvis " right before he died " in countless news stories, documentaries and media clips since the early eighties. There is a distorted-looking Elvis on the screen, sweating profusely, mascara running from his eyes bellowing the cryptic lyric " and now the end is near ". It is a clip that, taken out of context, has done much to cement the " fat Elvis " illusion that has now become a pop culture caricature.
True, Elvis did not look his best in Omaha. In fact he came off 100% better in the Rapid City footage shot only two days later. The " My Way " number was filmed toward the very end of an exhausting show.What's more, there was tremendous heat caused by bright lighting for benefit of the TV cameras,thus the profuse sweating.
" Yes there were times I'm sure you knew when I bit off more than I could chew "
I am not one of those " Elvis is perfect " defenders who are in denial of his drug dependancy problems and personal shortcomings. But I will say that , on his worst day,Elvis still had plenty to offer. It is a disservice to Elvis' legacy to leave this final chapter of his career unfinished .Why has every rock-bottom celebrity moment in history been canonized into a " comeback " while Elvis is still singled out for being les than perfect six weeks before his death? This material should be viewed as a triumph instead of a failure.Think about it.
The point of all this? I feel the CBS tapes have been given a bum rap. I feel there are more flattering alternate camera angles that can be re-edited into an impressive new version of the " Elvis In Concert " special, much the way " Aloha From Hawaii " was given the treatment a few years ago. I think that by re-presenting the material properly,it will give cause to re-evaluate the last days of Elvis in a much more affirmative light.
Instead of a sore spot to be avoided, EPE can help change the public's view of Elvis " at the end " from a fallen angel to a Rocky-style hero-a man who stood up and fought the good fight 'till the end.
" The record shows I took the blows and did it my way "
Elvis's memory deserves that.
'' Hello Hollywood camera "
There is an exciting new Elvis book that sits on the author's shelf as a finished manuscipt,waiting to be published. It is titled ELVIS-FRAME BY FRAME, by Bill Bram. It is a Hollywood tale I personally have longed to read--a comprehensive, in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at Elvis' films. Mr.Bram has done major research and has conducted many first-hand interviews and, unlike virtually all previous coverage of E's Hollywood years, it promises to be much more than just a cut-and-paste job culled from studio press material.
The author has chosen nine Elvis films to explore, among them " King Creole "," Change Of Habit "," Roustabout " ," Double Trouble "," Easy Come ,Easy Go " and " Clambake ".
Most people dismiss the bulk of Elvis' films as chaff for retarded alligators, but the fact of the matter is-he made 33 of them , and they do constitute a large portion of his career output. One beneficial aspect of this book is that it's irrelevent wheather or not you are a fan of the films themselves, as each chapter will be chock full of untold on-the-set stories and personal insights on working with Elvis, as told by his cinematic co-workers.
If you don't enjoy the films, you will likely enjoy the stories behind the making of them.
It is one of the few areas of Elvis' career that has not been written to death. The " peanut butter and banana " stories have been told and re-told. Finally, here is an overlooked phase of Elvis' career illuminated at last by a fan who has taken the time to actually do some hard-nosed research. It is a thoughful look into Elvis' films I personally feel is long overdue. Good luck to Bill in placing this project with a publisher, and keep posted for further developments. Anyone out there own a publishing company?
Thanks for listening--any fellow Elvis fans with comments or rare-Elvis tips, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Russo © 2006