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DEC4 Podcast Companion: Elvis Aloha From Hawaii - Episode 1 With Gary Wells
1972 and the lead-up to the satellite broadcast
A very warm welcome to the companion newsletter to the first of our three-part podcast series on Elvis Aloha From Hawaii. Host George Fairbrother is once again joined for this deep dive by Gary Wells (soulrideblog.com).
In the early hours of January 14th, 1973, an Elvis Presley concert was broadcast live internationally by satellite from the Honolulu International Centre, and although the claimed aggregate viewing figures of up to 1.5 billion are now generally seen as inflated, the programme dominated television ratings internationally in live and delayed telecast, and when repackaged for domestic US television, achieved a 33.8 Nielsen rating with a 57% audience share. There followed a Billboard #1 double live album, and an immovable shadow over the remainder of Elvis’ career. By any objective estimation, it was a commercial and artistic triumph, and one of the most significant entertainment events of the 20th century.
The timing of a career-defining event was opportune; 1972 in particular had been a very successful year. Amongst multiple records released during that year, Burning Love, as a single, reached #2 (Billboard) and #1 (Cashbox), and went on to be an unlikely hit again as part of a compilation, Burning Love and Hits From His Movies, (#22 Billboard), released through RCA’s budget Camden label. His second concert documentary, Elvis on Tour, would do solid box office and win a Golden Globe; there were four shows to a total audience of 80 000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden which garnered some enthusiastic reviews, as well as a hit live album (#11 Billboard); all in all, a total of 165 concerts from two Vegas engagements and three road tours. Although things were less than ideal domestically, professionally things could hardly have been better.
As we know, Elvis and Colonel Parker had enjoyed a warm relationship with Hawaii dating back to the early days of Elvis’ career. A benefit show for the USS Arizona Memorial in 1961 had raised $ 65 000, more than 10% of the entire cost of the project and there were three movies shot there; Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Paradise Hawaiian Style.
We tend to subconsciously write history backwards, and we know that the Aloha concert in all its formats was a colossal triumph, but the success of this ambitious project was far from assured. In the lead-up everyone involved was under enormous pressure, particularly the producer and director Marty Pasetta, who really shouldered almost the entire responsibility for a budget of $ 2.5 million that exceeded some feature films at that time, and was by some sources the most expensive television entertainment programme ever. Pasetta was brought in, having directed the Academy Awards telecast in 1972 (he would go on to direct each one until 1988), and because of his experience working on entertainment and variety programming, including with popular Hawaiian singer and entertainer Don Ho, a friendship that would pay massive dividends and even help stave of disaster at the last moment.
The concept of a ground-breaking live performance broadcast (not quite) globally by satellite came initially from Colonel Parker, whom KNBC News described as the ‘shrewdest manager in the business’. Parker had become increasingly aware of the use of satellite technology in news, political and current affairs broadcasts, and the idea was soon approved by the head of NBC’s west coast operations from 1965-77, Tom Sarnoff (Born 1927). NBC was, of course, part of the RCA family, and Tom’s father David Sarnoff (1891-1971) had been a pioneering executive of RCA. He had recognised very early the potential for radio as a means of home entertainment, and founded NBC as a radio broadcaster, later moving into television. In 1928, he steered the joint venture between RCA, film distributor FBO and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theatre chain to create one of the great golden age vertically integrated Hollywood studios, and to capitalise on emerging talking picture technology.
The details of the concert were announced in Las Vegas on September 4th, 1972, at the conclusion of Elvis’ Hilton residency, during a press conference with Elvis himself and Rocco Laginestra, president of RCA Records. (The image quality in the linked video is poor but the audio is clear)
Marty Pasetta subsequently attended Elvis’ concerts in Long Beach, California, in November 1972, to get a feel for the show. He thought the music aspect was strong, but the performance visually boring. Here is an audience recording of Elvis’ performance at the Long Beach Arena from November 15th (audio only).
In a 2013 interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Marty Pasetta said that Elvis ‘stood there like a lump’, and he was sufficiently worried that Elvis might not be up to it, to take his concerns to NBC management. As the director planned to rely heavily on close-ups, he also felt that Elvis needed to lose a little weight.
He came up with designs that featured Elvis’ name in lights in different languages, and a lower than usual stage and catwalk into the audience. Colonel Parker rejected much of this outright, but Pasetta persisted and asked for the opportunity to present his ideas directly to Elvis. There followed a slightly bizarre meeting with Elvis and members of the Memphis Mafia (whom Pasetta referred to as ‘goons’) during which they wore their sunglasses indoors and prominently displayed their handguns. Despite feeling thoroughly intimidated, Pasetta presented his designs, and told Elvis face-to-face he needed to lose weight. The tension broke, and Elvis promised to work with the producer to ‘make super magic for the tube together’. He also pointed out that, ‘The Colonel controls my business. I control my creativity and my music and my show. He has nothing to say about it. That's your rule. You will deal with Joe Esposito’.
Link here to the full interview.
Following the Long Beach concerts, Elvis did three shows in Hawaii at the Honolulu International Centre, on November 17th and 18th, 1972, which were reviewed by Wayne Harada in the Honolulu Advertiser, where he described Elvis as ‘an incandescent musical force who's a legend in his own time’. Harada would also review the satellite show on January 14th, and some of his lines would become the most quoted and identifiable in future accounts.
At this point, they took the opportunity for another press conference, at which time Elvis spoke once again, in the Rainbow Rib Room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and it was announced that the concert gate would benefit the Kui Lee cancer fund, at the suggestion of local entertainment writer Eddie Sherman, also present at the press conference, and who had actually started the charity through the medical faculty at the University of Hawaii.
“…I had started the Kui Lee Cancer Fund, through my column, for a doctor at the University of Hawaii doing cancer research. Lee was the legendary songwriter who died of cancer at 34. In the TV concert, Elvis sang Kui’s most famous tune, I’ll Remember You, to millions of global viewers. Thanks to Elvis and Col. Tom Parker, his manager, I received, for the fund, a check for $75,000 from the live concert gate…The audience was allowed in via their own contributions. Some kids saw the show for only 10 cents. Next day, Elvis and the Colonel took out full-page newspaper ads thanking Hawaii…” (From Eddie Sherman’s obituary in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser)
Aloha From Hawaii was a visual spectacle as well, and the specially designed jumpsuit, belt and cape combination would go on to represent the iconic image of Elvis at his 1970s peak. There is more detailed background to the suit here, thanks to our friends at elvisconcerts.com.
Correction: During the podcast we name Bill Belew as the jumpsuit designer, however the credit should also have been given to his associate Gene Doucette.
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The dress rehearsal and the live satellite broadcast.
Thanks for listening, and reading!