1976, America celebrates its bicentennial and Elvis tours more U.S. cities than any fan could have imagined. It is the last full year of his life, and in an ironic reflection of his personal problems, Elvis' performances range from the very good to the very bad. But come the final Friday evening of December, 1976, heard for the first time officially on New Year's Eve, Elvis exceeds all expectations. On a snowy night in Steeltown, Elvis Presley rips it up!
A 'certified Elvis scholar' can usually tell you what Elvis Presley was doing and when. Any of them will readily inform you that the last tour of the year, a one week, five gig run from Kansas to Pennsylvania, is his finest. The sets are a little looser, with unusual songs pulled from the Presley songbook on a whim. Elvis crafts a few numbers alone at the piano, and generally looks and sounds like a man who relishes his role as the world's greatest singer and entertainer. But what those scholars can't tell you is why.
To glean the answer one must backtrack to the beginning of December and Elvis' fifteen sold out gigs in 'Sin City'. As Presley performs an often desultory run in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel's main showroom, he openly declares his contempt for all things Vegas and, in fact, never returns. Afterwards, he passes the free time back at home in Memphis with beautiful new girlfriend Ginger Alden, preparing for Christmas - his favorite holiday.
Apparently this break, not to mention the youthful company, recharges Presley. When the final tour commences on December 27 in Wichita, the Memphis Flash is reborn. Elvis is in love again, and he evidently wants to show his gal just how powerful a concert given by the 'King of Rock and Roll' can be. Committing to an unheard of Monday through Friday schedule, like the majority of his fans, Elvis shows up and gives it up. On the final night of 1976 in Pittsburgh he sings like an angel, moves like a tiger and rocks like a devil in disguise. It's all for love and all contained on this specially-priced two CD set from the Follow That Dream label.
It really was such a night. Elvis nails nearly thirty songs, remaining center stage for almost two full hours. In many ways it surpasses the overly praised 'Aloha' broadcast from 1973. The man from Tennessee works out on rhythm guitar and piano, interacting in a very real way with thousands of fans who braved the chill of winter to mark the beginning of 1977. And along with the bold peaks, Elvis delivers some quiet, almost melancholy, moments where the magic is clearly apparent. That all of this is heard from a dynamic, off-line recording made by an audience member is almost too perfect. One listen and you are there, too.
Just after 11 PM, Presley hits the boards and knocks off rock solid renditions of Chuck Willis' 'C.C. Rider' and Ray Charles' 'I Got A Woman', frolicking as always through the depths of J.D. Sumner's bass tones during the 'Amen' tag. With the third number Elvis throws out the set list, calling for the Jimmy Reed r&b classic 'Big Boss Man', a tune given the Presley treatment on a single ten years prior. 'Too fast, Tony', he advises piano player Tony Brown. Brown heeds the King's call.
Both 'You Gave Me A Mountain' and 'My Way', mainstays of Elvis' dark musical and emotional core in the late seventies, are liberated from the two Frankies, Laine and Sinatra, in a most definitive Presley manner. Elvis revisits his massive number one hit 'It's Now Or Never', this time complete with Italian prelude voiced by tenor Sherrill Nielsen and Elvis' own, Mario Lanza-like vocal finale.
The lovely Willie Nelson country ballad, 'Funny How Time Slips Away', is delivered with easy grace, a touch of falsetto and the house lights on; it's nearly time to kiss 1976 good-bye. With a chuckle and a drum roll, the new year is welcomed as Presley leads the sold out house in the traditional 'Auld Lang Syne'.
As the ecstatic crowd celebrates, Elvis returns to fifties rockers, with the great Sun track 'Trying To Get To You' getting real, real gone for a change. After a scalding serving of 'Polk Salad Annie', introductions and band solos, the show is nearly at an end.
Or is it?
Instead, Elvis slithers through an audience request for the sultry 'Fever'. He then unleashes the recent RCA single 'Hurt' offering a dazzling display of vocal and physical gymnastics, reprising the ending of the Roy Hamilton classic by singing it flat on his back, one leg in the air! Rolling on, Elvis and stage buddy Charlie Hodge joke through 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', to the delight of the crowd. Feeling good, Elvis next offers up the Lowell Fulsom blues 'Reconsider Baby'. Seldom given life on stage, this masterpiece from his amazing 1960 album Elvis Is Back is driven by Elvis' own acoustic, with James Burton providing stinging lead guitar runs. What a treat! Presley strolls on with a sexy, rocking version of 'Little Sister', a top five single back in 1961.
After asking 'permission' to play the piano, 'Unchained Melody' and 'Rags To Riches' find Elvis giving every ounce of his unique talent to a pair of songs that seemingly speak from his very soul. 'Unchained Melody' may be the most stunning revelation of his inner psyche, as Elvis pleads for God to give him the love he seemingly cannot find. As his voice resonates throughout the building and the audience listens in stunned silence, who could imagine this magnificent talent would no longer be with us eight months later?
The band doesn't know 'Rags To Riches', a 1971 single Presley loved from Billy Ward and the Dominoes' 1954 disc, so Elvis takes them through the chord changes, culminating in another powerful ending, a la 'Hurt.' And then, with a kiss and a smile, he says adios with 'Can't Help Falling In Love' and is gone.
If this is ultimately Elvis' good-bye benediction, it's a testament worth hearing again and again. All you need is love. At least the hardcore Elvis fan can enjoy, for the first time ever, a complete December 31, 1976 version of 'Can't Help Falling In Love'. In the final analysis, if you do not possess a copy of this legendary Presley event, the FTD set is a reasonable, if not definitive, place to find it.