Elvis’s legendary NBC TV Comeback Special marked his return to live music. The Singer-sponsored show, discussed by Ian Inglis (2006) and others, is seen as the intimate and incendiary moment where the King reclaimed his crown from the British invasion by returning to the passion of his roots. The Special was constructed to reflect the two sides of Elvis’s image, as movie showman and as an electric live singer; the latter segment was so influential that it has been seen as accidentally inaugurating the unplugged format. In it Elvis returned to the Sun recordings within a studio setting that produced some of the rawest recordings of his career. His choice to contradict the Colonel (who wanted to create a Christmas Special along the lines of those made by Perry Como) has been located as a career defining moment, but several other decisions contributed to the success of the show including the black leather outfit with the Napoleonic collar created by Bill Belew and the choice of musical material. In an era when civil rights turmoil was at a peak, the show has some interesting and resonant connections to black culture, notably the specially written closing song, ‘If I Can Dream’. It was followed by several further triumphant Elvis comebacks: first to Las Vegas, where he established an ongoing annual residency, and second to live touring and the third, later, to the New York audience. Starting at the Huston Astrodome in February 1970, in an early example of arena rock Elvis did several shows that, to an extent, emulated the Beatles performances at the Shea Stadium. Throughout the next few years a pattern of annual residency in Las Vegas and then Lake Tahoe developed, and combined with periodic national tour schedule. It was during this period that Elvis assembled and led a competent, flexible rock band featuring guitarist James Burton and drummer Jerry Scheff. He also added soprano Kathy Westmoreland, black female backing troop the Sweet Inspirations, a gospel quartet and a full orchestra led by Joe Guercio. The result was an extremely full and flexible sound that he could arrange to create an inclusive sense of musical community. Elvis’s standard 1970s set would open with ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ (a rousing, Nietzschean instrumental marking the triumph of humanity in the space age) and then segueway straight into ‘CC Rider’ (an equally rousing up-tempo number led by a horn section that made it sound like a game show vamp). He would treat many of his rock’n’roll numbers in a punchy, throwaway style, perhaps performing them because they were expected by fans. While his set list gradually changed over the years, certain numbers like the ballad ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ were regular favourites. It is evident that the list was engineered to suit the demands of his fan base. If his flamboyant jumpsuits, concert feature film Elvis That’s The Way It Is, and famous global television concert Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii marked high points of his singing career, its nadirs included his divorce, occasional stage outbursts, struggle with weight gain and prescription drugs. The star became so jaded that he was eventually touted round smaller provincial towns across America and recorded on mobile equipment from Graceland rather than entering an outside studio. Scandalized by a sensationalist book written by two of his disaffected bodyguards, he died of heart failure in August 1977.
Debates in this section will include:
• What concepts can be used to examine and define Elvis’s musical creativity?
• To what extent was Elvis’s post-Comeback image and music permeable to the social concerns of his day?
• How can we talk about Elvis’s contribution to popular music?
• Is it possible to understand Elvis beyond simplifications that focus on exploitation?
• Why has Elvis’s weigh gain become a point of contestation for fans and critics?
• How is Elvis’s later career used to talk about the value and pressures of stardom?
• How did perceptions of Elvis’s death change his phenomenon and why has it become a focus of such intense debate?