King of the World
Written by Drew Bratcher
On the 50th anniversary of the MOST-WATCHED moment in television history, we reflect on THE LEGEND OF Elvis Presley.
Was there anything left for Elvis to accomplish? It was 1973. Since his debut seventeen years earlier, the first rock and roll album to top the charts, he’d sold more records than any solo artist in history. His songs–the street-smart “Heartbreak Hotel,” the starry-eyed “Love Me Tender,” the vexed “Suspicious Minds”–had become part of the American soundtrack. His 31 feature films, ranging from the good (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole) to the not-bad (Viva Las Vegas) to the godawful (Kissin’ Cousins), had given him the cultural ubiquity of a prize fighter, of a wartime president. You didn’t have to say a word. All you had to do was snarl your lip. All you had to do was go “Uh-uh-huh” and people knew who you meant.
He was the King. He’d done it all. Well, all except for this one thing. To be fair, nobody else had done it either, not Sinatra, not even the Beatles. The idea, as Colonel Parker, his rapacious manager, proposed it, went like this: Using satellite technology, they’d broadcast a concert into living rooms around the planet, from Sydney to Seoul, Paris to Hong Kong. It would be the largest television audience ever, reaching by some estimations more than 1.5 billion people, more than had watched the Apollo 11 moon landing and JFK’s funeral combined. For 85 minutes, so the Col. hoped, the King of Rock and Roll would be the King of the World.
Elvis was in. Nearing 40, with his marriage to Priscilla on the rocks and his live show stalling, with too many pills in his system and too many hangers-on in his entourage, he needed a project to get him out of his funk. It wasn’t the first time TV had provided the charge. His spots on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early days had caused a sensation, and it was his ’68 Comeback Special, watched by nearly half of all channel surfers in the country, that had led to his groundbreaking Vegas residency and some of the finest recording sessions of his career.
The date for the new special was set for January 14, Super Bowl Sunday. Instead of airing the concert live in the States, NBC would tape it and run it as a special later in the spring. Called Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, the performance would be broadcast from the Honolulu International Center, a location chosen for its proximity to Asia and Oceana time zones. If you started the show at 12:30 a.m., it would be on in prime time in Tokyo while European audiences would catch it on a tape delay.
Elvis on the set of Blue Hawaii @ElvisPresley on Twitter
Practicalities aside, the Islands had their own salience in Elvis’s story. Before filming Blue Hawaii, the best of the three movies he made there, he had headlined a benefit concert to raise money for the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor. He donned a gold lamé jacket and black suit pants. You could hardly hear him over the whistles and screams. It was like glimpsing the tail of a once-in-a-lifetime comet, that show. It marked Elvis’s pivot from live music to films. It was the last time, as any fanatic will tell you, that he ever slid across a stage on his knees during a performance of “Hound Dog.”
Viewers tuning in to the new Hawaii concert hoping for a blast from the past must have been let down. Elvis, looking more like a conquering general than the people’s champ, arrives by helicopter. Dancers do the hula on the tarmac. Ticket holders rush the turnstiles inside while the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey blares. When Elvis takes the stage it’s to a hard-charging version of Ma Rainey’s blues standard “See See Rider.” He holds a guitar but it’s mainly just for show. Around the microphone, his fingers bulge with fat gold rings.
The jewelry is a minor flourish in Elvis’s elaborate getup. He wears a bright white jumpsuit with little stars and big eagles all over. His pants flare above white leather boots. His hair and sideburns make a bushy helmet above his high collar. His cape alone weighs 12 pounds. He stands in front of a screen flashing his name in various languages. Behind him is the TCB band, nine background singers, and a 30-piece orchestra. No, there will be no sliding, and very little shaking, this time around.
This is Elvis as grand tourer instead of Ford Thunderbird, Elvis as Godfather Brando instead of Streetcar Brando. And if your abiding impression of the King is of the pouty-lipped shake-scene, the Warhol one with the smoky eyes who seems as astonished as his shrieking fans by the wild ways his beautiful body can move, or if, on the other hand, what comes to mind when you think of Elvis is an image of an overweight clown, the Halloween costume with the gold aviators, the one slurring his words and splitting his pants before finally collapsing at Graceland in a puddle of his own spit, well, either way this Elvis sort of comes as a surprise.
He’s older, more stationary, sure. He’s lost 25 pounds but still looks bloated. As a physical display, the performance doesn’t hold up, not set against the iconic Jailhouse Rock title sequence, not compared to his “All Shook Up” caper from the ’68 Comeback. Even so, the King is hardly out of gas. If not imperturbable, if not exactly light on his feet, he sure does seem poised.
Left: elvispresleymusic.com.au Right: @visitgraceland
What’s clear is that he’s no longer trying to earn the audience’s affection. He takes that as a given. Instead, he leverages the place he knows he has in their hearts to direct attention not so much to himself but to the songs he sings. His eyes, for one, are often closed. Where before he seemed to take hold of the music with his body, using lyrics and chords as vessels for his own charisma, here that exchange is reversed. It’s as if the songs have taken possession of him.
What this means is that his voice, more than his hips, more than his costume, is what carries the day. He’s content, for the most part, to stand there and sing, microphone in hand, no longer the Guitar Man, no longer Elvis the Pelvis, and if this sounds like a snooze, have you ever really listened to Elvis’s voice?
Aloha is a capacious word. It means hello. It can also mean goodbye.
Over the course of 22 songs, which he delivers one right after the other, he moves from baritone to tenor and even into falsetto without shedding that steadying, unsteadying quaver that sounds, perhaps here more than ever, as if it emanates from some sonic plane beyond the brain, beyond the belly, from back where the soul, fit to be tied, beats itself bloody against the bone.
It’s one of the most sundry setlists you’ll find. For all its omissions, it has a definitiveness to it. You can get a pretty good sense of what a big hunk of the 20th century sounded like in much of the English-speaking world from studying it. The songs range across Elvis’s body of work, and because his oeuvre is a compendium of American music past and present, it’s a set that gestures in a dozen different musical directions, to honkytonk music (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and countrypolitan (“Welcome to My World”), to southern blues (“See See Rider”), to Ravel (“What Now My Love”), to gospel and patriotic songs (“An American Trilogy”), to various permutations of rock and roll (“Burning Love,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Something”), to Memphis (“Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On”) and the Islands too (“I Remember You”).
Fifty years later, it’s hard not to view Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite as a kind of valediction, as one last sunward flight before the sad and ugly flail. Elvis, after all, will be dead in four and a half years. The fade will begin a long time before that. You can be forgiven for hearing in his renditions of “My Way” and “It’s Over,” as I’m tempted to do, a hint of augury, for seeing the flower necklaces placed around his neck throughout the performance as props in a dress rehearsal for a funeral. Aloha is a capacious word. It means hello. It can also mean goodbye.
But when I think of the concert now, having watched it any number of times on YouTube and elsewhere, I’m more struck by what it certifies than what it portends. Elvis ends the set with “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” a song he first performed in Blue Hawaii when he was 26. As he relays the familiar words, the tempo much quicker here than in the film, he tosses scarves to the crowd, shakes hands, accepts leis from fans. His mussed hair is dripping. He’s all out of breath. But then the last chorus swoops in and Elvis just belts it, his voice going higher and louder than you’re ready for it to go.
Then it’s over. He slings his cape into the crowd and drops to one knee, head down, two pointer fingers aimed outward, upward, to where, someplace in the sky (is it still there now?), a satellite receives the signal and shoots it around the world.
It’s this image, inseparable from the voice that precedes it, that I think about when I think about Elvis. Tough to imagine Michael without it. Bruce either, all sweaty and shining after one of his three-hour stands. It’s the image of an artist who has expended himself utterly, and for about the millionth time, in the service of a music that will go on sounding long after the antennas lose the feed.
Drew Bratcher is the author of Bub: Essays From Just North of Nashville. His essays and journalism have appeared in Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review, and Washingtonian. He lives outside Chicago.
Feature Image: @visitgraceland on Twitter