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DEC4 Podcast: Interim Newsletter - Elvis and the McComb Tornado Benefit, May 1975.
The DEC4 Podcast will be returning soon, with Gary Wells (www.soulrideblog.com) back with us to talk about some fascinating books on the Beach Boys, but in the meantime, this interim newsletter features a special concert Elvis performed in May 1975; a benefit in Jackson, Mississippi, for the victims of a tornado that had recently devastated McComb, a town around 80 miles south of the State Capital.
Both Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had provided major support for a number of charities throughout the two decades of their success, both through direct financial contributions and fundraising performances. In 1961, a benefit concert for the USS Arizona memorial in Hawaii had raised around $65 000, more than 10% of the final cost of the project. For Elvis’ first performance at the Houston Astrodome for the Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1970, 4 000 complimentary tickets were offered for children with disabilities and their families who attended the show as special guests of Elvis and Colonel Parker.
More recently, in 1973, his most famous charity show of all, the globally televised Aloha From Hawaii concert had, through a voluntary donation in lieu of set ticket prices, contributed $ 75 000 to the Kui Lee cancer research fund. Read more about preparations for Aloha From Hawaii in a previous newsletter here. We also have a three-part podcast series with Gary Wells, taking a deep dive into the project from initial conception to triumphant conclusion. Part One includes some background to the philanthropic aspect.
But by early 1975, although the altruistic intent could not be denied, Parker had an ulterior motive, cleverly using the initiative of the tornado benefit concert to coax an otherwise reluctant Elvis back to work. Following late night discussions at Graceland involving Colonel Parker himself, RCA executive George Parkhill, and concert promoter Tom Hulett, direct contact was made with Mississippi Governor Bill Waller, and plans for the show were set in motion.
This is how Tom Hulett remembered the meeting at Graceland, as related in Peter Guralnick’s definitive biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown and Company, 1999);
“…I had never been this much on the inside before, and here I was all of a sudden part of a unit going to see Elvis about possibly going back to work. Elvis came downstairs in a robe looking very heavy, and we sat at the big table in the dining room in tall, high-backed chairs. There was some small talk, and then the Colonel said, ‘Elvis, you been reading about the problems down in McComb?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s really terrible.’ The Colonel said, ‘You know, I think we should go down and do a benefit for those people. What do you think?’ And Elvis goes, ‘You know, I don’t know…’ Because there was this funny shit going on between them, like Elvis is saying, ‘I ain’t gonna work,’ and the Colonel is saying, ‘I ain’t gonna let you work’—and now the Colonel has finally found an outside vehicle to break the ice…Finally, Elvis said, ‘Well, I guess,’ and the Colonel said, ‘If we go down and do the benefit, we might as well add on a few dates.’ That’s when I got the connection. And Elvis goes, ‘Well, I guess so…”
The benefit concert was eventually held on May 5th 1975, towards the end of what had expanded into an 18 show southern tour, between April 24th and May 7th.
For the benefit performance, Colonel Parker and Elvis committed to covering all logistics and promotional expenses themselves, while their entire crew, everyone from on-stage talent to roadies, also donated their time. The 10 000 seat State Fair Coliseum was offered as a venue, also at no cost, however in return Colonel Parker agreed that Elvis would commit to subsequent paying dates in the near future.
As a result of this cooperation at all levels, Elvis was able to hand a cheque for $108 860, from arena ticket sales alone, to the State Governor, prior to the show. The amount would go even higher from the sale of donated Elvis merchandise. The First Lady of Mississippi, Ava Waller, described Elvis' demeanour backstage as ‘very friendly’ and ‘surprisingly shy’.
The Delta Democrat Times wrote;
“…Elvis Presley returned to his native state for a benefit performance Monday night and received a thunderous reception from more than 10,000 fans who packed the Mississippi (State Fair) Coliseum. The 40 year old Tupelo native, a little heavier now but dazzling in a baby blue casual suit and dark blue shirt, strode onto the stage amid cheers and screams...”
A resolution of appreciation was passed in the Mississippi State Legislature, stating; “This compassionate gesture of concern is appreciated by all Mississippians”.
Elvis returned to Jackson, as promised, and played three very well received, sold-out shows over two days in June.
Elvis continued to support a number of charities in and around Memphis, Las Vegas, and beyond, for the rest of his life, an addition to a number of acts of spontaneous generosity.
Colonel Parker's faults have been well documented over the years, but he understood the value of philanthropy as well, although no doubt backed up by pragmatism in terms of the effect on his client's image, and he retained special regard for the fans.
Hear DEC4 supporter Steve Collins take a nostalgic, personal journey through the pub rock scene in 1970s Sydney.