DEC4 Podcast Companion, Interim Newsletter - Elvis: Working on New Year's Eve
Welcome to our interim newsletter for the DEC4 Podcast. Our three part series on Elvis Aloha From Hawaii, featuring Gary Wells, will be available across January 2022 on Soundcloud and other platforms as well, but in the meantime, here’s a little Elvis history; memorable performances over consecutive New Year’s Eves.
The first of two New Year concerts Elvis performed was 1975-76, one night at the Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan, to a record in-person audience of over 62 000. Newspaper reports of the time conveyed the excitement with headlines, Elvis Still Shakes 'em Up, and The Legendary Elvis Dazzles New Year's Eve Stadium Crowd.
The $800 000 gross for the night also attracted widespread publicity, at that time a record for a single performance by a solo artist. On this occasion, Elvis more than earned his share. The time of year, and the unprecedented size of the venue, created a number of challenges.
The weather was freezing, making things very uncomfortable for everyone, while delayed and echoing sound made it difficult for Elvis, the band, and orchestra to stay in time with each other. Early in the show, Elvis tore the seat out of the 'rainfall' jumpsuit and had to leave the stage for a quick change.
There was an unfamiliar stage rig; Elvis was isolated on a catwalk several feet above the main stage. The improvisational nature of a typical concert required close-up, unspoken communication with band members, but this arrangement made that difficult, if not impossible for a good part of the show. All these factors inevitably led to one or two bloopers along the way, and some loose arrangements of familiar tunes.
The patience of the audience was severely tested by ticketing mix-ups, the freezing temperatures - one fan described conditions as ‘ the worst ice-storm ever’ - and an extended pre-programme which included a group named Bodie Mountain Express, a side project of Colonel Parker who was trying to get them signed with RCA. Elvis himself proved to be in top form and, in spite of the icy air, in generally great voice. In Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Joe Guercio is quoted as observing ‘disgustedly’ to (warm-up comedian) Jackie Kahane that Elvis was ‘all fucked up’. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any real evidence of this, from what we can gather from the available concert audio. (An audience-recorded bootleg is available, called Rock Back the Clock, and can be found on YouTube). It was actually one of the nights that Elvis made a very big effort, and despite all the difficulties, it proved to be a great show.
In typical self-deprecating style, Elvis recalled the Silverdome experience on stage in 1976, including the realisation that he hadn’t quite learned Auld Lang Syne well enough.
The following year, Elvis played in a more familiar setting, the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, to a sold-out audience of 16 409. It was the third time Elvis had appeared there, the other occasions being two consecutive nights in the Summer of 1973. This New Year’s Eve event concluded a brief, frenetic, five-night tour that began on December 27th.
In keeping with the energetically high standards of this tour, Pittsburgh is widely seen as one of the great performances of Elvis’ later career, with a wild and responsive audience having a great time, and it wasn’t just the women getting a little overexcited, as you can hear in the linked audio. It was a packed show that ran to around 90 minutes, with an interesting and varied set-list and great vibe throughout, and with one or two little mistakes along the way. It’s hard to pick a highlight amongst some great rock and roll and big ballads; while still seated at the piano following Unchained Melody, just before the close, an unrehearsed and raw rendition of Rags to Riches just about blew the roof off.
This audio presentation is an audience recording, but with good and clear sound. (It’s worth mentioning that there are other versions of this show to be found on YouTube with accompanying amateur vision as well)
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered a thoughtful review;
“…While Pittsburghers rang in the New Year Friday night in front of their TV sets with Guy Lombardo, 16,409 others scorned 1977 with Elvis Presley at the Civic Arena. After three opening acts and a lengthy intermission, Presley landed on stage 35 minutes before midnight, but you would have thought the clock had struck twelve. He received an ear-deafening ovation punctuated by thousands of blasts from flash bulbs and a patchwork of "We-Love-You-Elvis" signs hoisted aloft… Presley had perhaps the most captive audience since Johnny Cash played Folsom Prison. And rarely did he lose his iron grip on the crowd during his 90 minutes on stage…”
“…Presley was much warmer than on his first visit here in mid-1973. This time he not only interacted with the crowd but he also even gave up the microphone for a minute or so to have a fan wish him happy birthday and happy New Year. He also snapped up dozens of gifts from those who had come to pay homage to him. He gave out 42 scarves and, believe it or not, even took requests. He also was in better voice on this Pittsburgh visit, singing surprisingly well and in a lower register that gave more impact to his phrasing. He even ventured into difficult musical areas, hitting notes that could cause a mild hernia. And after they drew a good crowd reaction, he offered them in a reprise that was tantamount to masochism…”
The reviewer, Mike Kalina, also a restaurant critic, TV cook and cookbook author, was particularly impressed with Charlie Hodge, writing; “To watch his interaction with Presley was worth the price of admission alone.”
He went on to make an interesting point about the first rock and roll star to reach a successful middle age. It’s interesting to consider this in the context of the time, rather than now, when many rock and roll icons continue to work and tour successfully well into their seventies, and perhaps beyond.
“…He worked hard, but underneath it all one could see that age is taking its toll on the singer. A change in style seems to be the logical career move for him - but Presley seems intent on showing the world that a middle-aged man can rock and roll, too. A famous country artist once said that you can grow old as a country singer but not as a rock singer, Presley is trying to prove him wrong. But he's not succeeding…”
A big thankyou, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all our listeners and readers, and to everyone who has supported the podcast and newsletter this year; Steve Collins (tellmewhere2go.com) for tech support, Gainesville for our theme music, and our contributors Oliver Crocker (The Bill Podcast) and Gary Wells (soulrideblog.com).
We’ll be back in 2022. In the meantime here is our preview episode for our upcoming Aloha From Hawaii specials.
There’ll be a lot explore; the lead-up, preparations and rehearsals, important people behind the scenes, the intense pressure on everyone involved, a near catastrophe as technical faults threatened to derail the broadcast at the last minute…and finally an entertainment event that would present to an international audience Elvis at the top of his game, dominate television ratings around the world, afford him a number one album, and create the definitive image of his later career.
In this episode, and companion newsletter, we also talk a little about the 1973 George Lucas blockbuster, American Graffiti, and Gary shares with us some Christmas and holiday season media traditions and recommendations.