Elvis Presley died 33 years ago today- August 16, 1977. If he were still alive he would be 75 years old. In the time since his death he has gone from a living being to something more like a corporate brand, like Colonel Sanders, or the Michelin Man. He has become such a pop culture icon and subject of so many jokes, impersonations, commercials, and other uses of his image that he is now just a caricature. It's hard to put oneself back in time to recall what it was like when he was a serious musical artist, charting hits, being on television, and mattering about what he was doing instead of who he used to be.
I was too young to really experience Elvis the hitmaker. Listening to his music now, I prefer his 1950's Sun Records era recordings that he made in Memphis. After that it was Hollywood, then the army, then back to Hollywood. From that point on he kind of quit trying very hard. He churned out occasional decent hits, and bland movies (33 of them total, but alas, only one plot) during most of the 1960's. His last hurrah was his 1968 Comeback Special on NBC television. The Comeback Special had Elvis performing live, his first performances in front of an audience since 1961. I own the DVD they have of this concert. It's so well filmed that it looks like they made it yesterday. Elvis looks so good and alive in it. He appears to be really enjoying himself, something that history suggests was all too rare of an event for him. For a brief moment in time he snapped out of it and pulled off one of the great live performances in rock history. It's one of the few places you can reach out and almost touch the forgotten Elvis.
By the 1970's he started really mailing it in, doing long engagements in Las Vegas. He did a concert in Hawaii in 1973 that was one of the first shows of it's kind broadcast worldwide by satellite. I own a DVD of that concert, too. It's only five years after the Comeback Special but the change in his style and effort is shocking. It's like watching Liberace or something. Much of the show you are wondering if perhaps his Madame Tussauds's counterpart is standing in for him. He doesn't move around much and seems a little bored, despite about 15,000 cheering fans. Now and then, though, he sings a song that seems to mean a bit more to him, and out of nowhere, just for a moment, he is- Elvis. The operatic voice, the sneer, the King. Then the song ends and he kind of melts back into his jumpsuit. Playing guitar for him in this concert is the great James Burton, one of the very influential guitar players from the early days of rock and roll, and still playing today. I can't help but wonder if Mr. Burton felt a bit out of sorts playing along with an Elvis so diminished and removed from his peak. He may have, but it didn't matter, the crowd eats up everything Elvis does the whole concert.
The only song I can remember being on the radio as a "current" single release by Elvis was called "Way Down." I just looked it up and that song was recorded in October 1976 and was released on June 6, 1977, only two months before his death. My main memory of his actual death is reading about it in the various National Enquirer-type magazines we always had around the house in those days. Unfortunately for Elvis, his death fought a losing battle that summer with my preoccupation, ok obsession, with Star Wars, still in it's first run glory. As for Elvis, I prefer to think of him as the man in the photo above.