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Reliving Elvis

Skip Heller By

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No matter how much is written, or by whom, Elvis Presley remains impossible to explain. The usual "young white rocker who could sing black" is as inaccurate as any standing American mythology. His legacy has been as mangled as his career was, often to the detriment of the work itself. Yes, at the time of his death, Elvis had become (to use Frank Zappa's description) "that poor guy, that drug-infested blimp." Yes, by 1962 he had become the star of bad movies that spawned mostly bad songs.

But look closely, and a much more complex and magnetic artist comes into focus, one who hangs onto his fastball well into the late innings. Elvis had power, a mystique few could ever claim. He was remote but never cold, and his fans to a one related to him (many still do). Maybe you had to have been to an Elvis concert to have felt the full impact.

Which I was.

As a small child, I fell under the spell, seeing his famous Aloha From Hawaii television special as it aired on January 13, 1973. I walked into the room while my mother was watching, and I was fascinated. It was an otherwise unremarkable day. Except that a figure approaching a billion people around the world watched Elvis sing on TV. And that was the headline the next day.

Watching the DVD of that special now is still quite something. The King is in fantastic voice, terrific physical shape, and clearly rising to an immense performance challenge. But there's also a lot of TV hula cheese throughout, to say nothing of a few melodramatic song choices that point out his excesses in the most unsubtle ways. Not everything about it has aged well.

Just six months earlier, Elvis played New York for the first time since his famous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (the last being January 6, 1957), something he was reluctant to do. He played four capacity-crowd shows at Madison Square Garden, from which a fantastic live album (Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden) was assembled. Although history has awarded the mantle of importance to the Hawaii show, this one has the intensity and the power and even the charm. The Prince From Another Planet gives us the afternoon and evening shows he performed on the first day (June 10, 1972). And puts us in the room as no previous Elvis release has done.

First of all, his backing band was on fire. The rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ronnie Tutt was equal parts sizzle and steak. They were busy, but they grooved very hard. Also, they very versatile. The slow, funky "Never Been To Spain" percolates and builds to a climax spearheaded by one of those showstopping Elvis vocals. But "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is sheer stark drama. Unlike the famous Phil Spector Wall of Sound masterpiece that features the unforgettable vocal handoff between Righteous Brothers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, this is a one man delivery. No problem. Guitarist James Burton's fills are perfectly placed as well. And even in this, the vocal is delivered so casually that it's easy to overlook the virtuosity.

(Phil Spector and I became friends, and I rarely asked him about his own songs or other people's interpretation, knowing his feeling about the producer's role. But I couldn't resist asking him about this one, and he said, "You have no idea how great he was.")

The whole show is a study in casual power. Elvis was apparently nervous backstage, having never gotten over the whipping the New York critics gave him back in the fifties. He was not sure New York audiences would like him. He needn't have worried. It becomes obvious in the first few bars of "That's All Right" (his first song on both shows) that he owns New York. The crowd hangs on his every word, every note. The band responds to the crowd's energy with a charge of their own. At the helm is King Elvis, alternating sheer vocal command with self-mockery, charm, and pure rhythm'n'blues sexuality.

The eclectic scope of the set list—the two shows are nearly identical—gives every indication that this is a contemporary entertainer. Rock revivalism was providing many a fifties rocker with a new payday, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and more than a few others were playing big halls again. In fact, Madison Square Garden was (on October 15, 1971) the site of the famous "Garden Party" that Rick Nelson wrote and sang about. Crowds were coming out to hear the old stuff. Don't mess it up by providing anything new.

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