Turning 50, 'Elvis On Tour' remains a valuable document of the 1970s

By: Gillian G. Gaar
Source: Goldmine Magazine
March 18, 2023

'Elvis On Tour' shows Elvis Presley in the midst of the whirlwind touring that dominated his career in the 1970s. 'Elvis On Tour' directors and members of Elvis' backing band tell about the experience - with the film now reissued as an expanded edition in a Blu-ray/CD set.

'Make up your mind about either being an electrician or playing guitar. I never saw a guitar player that was worth a damn'.

Such was Vernon Presley's advice, as recalled by his son, Elvis, during an interview that illustrated just how wrong his father had been. For Elvis Presley had, of course, become a phenomenal success as a performer, though singing had ended up being his strong suit, not playing guitar. Almost two decades after his father had made that observation, Elvis was reminiscing for the benefit of a film crew in the midst of making the second documentary about him, Elvis On Tour, the only Elvis film that would win an award during his lifetime.

First released in 1972, Elvis on Tour has now been issued in a deluxe 50th anniversary package. In addition to featuring the film itself on Blu-ray, you get audio of all four concerts recorded for the film (three of those shows previously unreleased), and two CDs of pre-tour rehearsals, with a number of tracks also previously unreleased. It's a valuable document that shows Elvis in the midst of the whirlwind touring that dominated his career in the 1970s.

Elvis' previous documentary, Elvis: That's The Way It Is (1970), focused on his Las Vegas shows of August 1970. In September of that year, Elvis went out on his first tour since 1957, and touring quickly became a major part of his working schedule, with short runs fit in between the two residencies he played in Vegas each year. In 1972, it was deemed time for a new album, and songs were recorded during Elvis' January-February 1972 Vegas season for that purpose. But the venture soon changed, when Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, decided instead to have Elvis' April 1972 shows filmed and recorded for a project tentatively titled Standing Room Only.

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MGM Studios, who'd released That's The Way It Is, were involved with the new documentary as well. Jack Haley, Jr., MGM's vice president, approached Bob Abel and Pierre Adidge to direct, impressed by their work on Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a documentary about Joe Cocker's 1970 tour of the U.S. Abel was hesitant; work on the Cocker film had been stressful, and he didn't want to do another film about a rock tour. But Adidge convinced him it was an opportunity they couldn't pass up.

The two men first met with Elvis during his early '72 Vegas run. They found him somewhat guarded, but stressed they wanted the film to offer some insight into their subject. 'I want to shoot the real you', Abel said, 'but the trade-off is, you've got to be open with me. If I feel that you're posing or doing something, I'll just turn the cameras off'. 'I like your honesty', Elvis replied. 'When do we start?'

Elvis Presley, On Tour 1972.
Elvis Presley, On Tour 1972.

The answer to that was: March 30 and 31. Elvis had been working at RCA's studio in Hollywood from March 27 to 29, recording tracks for future singles, including 'Burning Love' (which would be released in August) and 'Separate Ways' (released in November). Following the sessions, the film crew spent the next two days filming Elvis and his musicians in the studio as if was an actual recording session; in reality, they were rehearsals for the upcoming tour. In the film, Elvis is seen performing 'Separate Ways' from the rehearsal, and there are some nice improvised moments, as when Elvis sings gospel numbers with his backing singers, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, and his longtime friend Charlie Hodge. 'It was a beautiful experience', the filmmakers said of the sequence in the film's original press book. 'For the first time we began to see who the man is and began to understand his roots'.

The touring band members had all been working with Elvis for a number of years. Guitarist James Burton had helped put the band together when Elvis returned to live performance in 1969: John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass, and Ronnie Tutt on drums. Charlie Hodge was also in the band, on guitar and vocals.

It was a solid core of musicians who had all been won over by Elvis' work ethic and his own personal charm. 'He had charisma', Tutt recalls. 'Upon meeting him and looking into his eyes, we just clicked. And from that moment on, I watched him; I watched his eyes, I watched his movements, I watched everything he did. And as he told me, 'What impressed me about you, Ronnie, was the fact that you weren't looking around doing your thing, you were watching me. Everything I did you got, everything, and accented it'. You'd just watch everything he did because he wanted us to play to that. Because he was very very rhythmical and very expressive. And that's what made it even more exciting'.

'The best part for me was the fact that Elvis loved bass', says Scheff. 'He never told me what to play or not to play. He liked the energy I created. I didn't care whether the audience knew what I was doing. Elvis and I had a communication musically. When we started to play solos during the introductions, Elvis stood next to me with his foot on the riser and made 'bass faces' as I played'.

Glen Hardin had joined on piano in 1970 on piano. The Sweet Inspirations had been Elvis' backing singers since 1969 ('The Sweets were always contributing energy and flash', Scheff recalls), soloist Kathy Westmoreland joined in 1970, and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps replaced the Imperials in 1971. Filling out the sound was Joe Guercio and His Orchestra, who'd also started with Elvis in Vegas in 1969.

The musicians had been ready to go once the touring era began. 'Oh, absolutely', says Tutt. 'We all really felt a release from that. We loved the touring, the going into the cities, and playing in the coliseums - the giant tuna cans, we called them'. But the shows had evolved from those first dates in 1969. 'Elvis was trying to reinvent himself', says Scheff. 'I thought then and now that he wanted to show off his amazing voice more; a song like 'My Way' comes to mind. And in fairness, he did a lot of them better that the originals'.

The rock and roll hits were often compressed into medleys; Elvis wasn't interested in recreating how a song sounded on record. 'When we did play his hits, he said to me right away, 'Ronnie, I don't want you to copy them, don't play like we played those things back then', ' says Tutt. ''There weren't even drums on some of that stuff. You play the way you hear it. If there's something wrong with it, then we'll talk about it. But don't worry about it. You do what you do; that's why you're here'. It really freed me up to try different things'.

Another noticeable change was in Elvis' stage attire, as his signature jumpsuits become more elaborate, with ever-increasing amounts of metal studs and semi-precious jewels. 'When he started out, he did have the one piece suit, but there were more strings and leather, fringe, those kind of things', Tutt observes. 'Then later on, it got to where there was just no turning back. It got to be more and more; pretty soon he was a walking jewel with a cape up there, just every color of the rainbow. And then he started having one after the other made in different colors. It was some amazing work, [costume designer] Bill Belew did some phenomenal wardrobe stuff. But it just shows you how the perspective changed from the first year all the way to the end'.

The tour opened on April 5 in Buffalo, New York. Abel filmed the show himself on videotape, planning to use it as a reference guide for the subsequent shows the full film crew would shoot (though brief footage of Elvis rehearsing with his singers backstage on this night was used in the final film). RCA also planned to record Elvis' April 8 shows in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the accompanying live album, but due to equipment failure, nothing ended up being recorded.

So the first material properly recorded and filmed from the tour would be the April 9 show in Hampton Roads, Virginia. There were eleven cameras in the film crew, each set to record on a staggered schedule, so that a show could be captured in its entirety. Along with the four complete shows that were being filmed, offstage and backstage footage would be shot in other cities on the tour.

'When those cameras start whirring, it's real easy to get wrapped up into that', says Tutt, 'and then pretty soon you start watching what they're doing and how you respond to what they're doing instead of stepping away from that and saying, 'They're just there to try to capture what is going on in a live situation'. Elvis, because of his film experience, would always try to mention something to us; he would say, 'We just want to go out and do our show guys, don't pay any attention to those Hollywood cameras' - as he called them - 'and those microphones; let's just do what we do and everything else'll take care of itself'. '

'Most of us were seasoned professionals', adds Scheff. 'As a recording musician, I was used to the tremendous pressure of having to play flawless music without losing the soul of the music. Even doing Aloha from Hawaii, you can't think of the huge audience. You just go out hop on the train and enjoy the ride'.

RCA/Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, will release the Elvis On Tour box set, a newly-compiled 50th anniversary celebration of Presley's monumental 1972 concert trek (premiering unreleased live and studio material), on Friday, December 2.


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To Abel's disappointment, he felt that the four shows that were filmed didn't convey the same excitement as the April 5 show. He also found that despite Elvis' apparent agreement to being open, the barriers around him kept outsiders at a distance. 'I realized with all of the musician and bodyguards and sycophants around, that these guys had been around for 17 years now telling the same stories and jokes, and what kind of a life is this?' he told Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick. 'And do I film it? And if I film it, do I show it more than once to make a point?'

Most footage in Elvis On Tour would come from the Hampton Roads show, which featured an especially strong performance of 'You Gave Me a Mountain'. Other shows had their share of highlights. The April 14 show in Greensboro, North Carolina had powerful renditions of 'An American Trilogy' (the song had just been released as a single that month) and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (''Bridge' was my favorite. Period', says Scheff). The April 18 performance of 'Polk Salad Annie' in San Antonio, Texas, gives a good example of Elvis' 'bass face'. Only the April 10 show in Richmond, Virginia was shortchanged as far as footage in the film was concerned, with just brief glimpses from the performance seen in montages of 'Love Me Tender' (during which Elvis thrilled the audience by doling out kisses to a select few) and 'Suspicious Minds'.

Once Elvis' June dates at Madison Square Garden were booked, the idea of a live album from either the Vegas or April concerts was shelved; instead Elvis As Recorded at Madison Square Garden was rushed out eight days after the final show, and reached No. 11.

In the meantime, Abel and Adidge focusing on completing the film. Among the film's editors was a young Martin Scorsese, who put together a montage of footage from Elvis' early years. Parker was quick to demand it be cut, stating that Elvis didn't like old pictures of himself. But as Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling reveals in the new set's liner notes, he knew that what Elvis really objected to was when old photos were used on new albums. After Schilling explained to Elvis what the sequence was like and how it would provide some context for the film, he agreed to have reinstated.

Schilling, who edited the film's end credits sequence, was also instrumental in getting Elvis to agree to sit for an interview, with the intention of having him provide voiceover narration for the film. The interview was recorded on the MGM lot in July. Perhaps it was the setting that prompted Elvis to spend much of the interview expressing his unhappiness with his film career; only a few brief comments ended up being used in the final film. Instead of the filmmakers showing Elvis a rough cut of the movie to get his impressions, or tailoring their questions more specifically to what they envisioned for the film's narration, it was a lost opportunity.

Elvis On Tour opened in November 1, 1972, and received generally good reviews. Some cited how well the split-screen technique worked in giving the viewer a more well-rounded view of Elvis' performance, while others found the off-stage footage (Elvis arriving and departing from the concert venues, meeting with fans and officials) to be repetitious. Elvis was especially pleased when Elvis On Tour went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Documentary; it was a validation he'd never had from the film industry before.

The film was released on VHS in 1982. A 1997 reissue featured a re-edit, removing the split-screen sequences. These were restored when the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010, but now there was another omission; the audio of 'Johnny B. Goode' was cut from the opening montage due to copyright reasons, with 'Don't Be Cruel' in its place.

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Most frustrating to fans was the lack of any additional footage on the DVD/Blu-ray releases. The 1992 VHS release Elvis: The Lost Performances features additional songs from the April 9 show, but neither that footage, or footage from the other shows, has been subsequently released. A 50th anniversary box set release would've seemed the perfect time to release additional footage, perhaps even an alternate cut, which was done in 2001 for Elvis: That's the Way It Is. Instead, the footage remains in the vaults.

Ultimately, Elvis On Tour captures Presley still caught up in the thrill of live performance. As adoring fans cheer on his every move, as dignitaries in each town jockey to meet him, as he's hustled into and out of arenas with dispatch, he's the calm eye in the center of the storm that swirls around him. As Ernst Jorgensen, the new set's producer, puts it, 'Elvis was still finding something new, was telling us who he wanted to be, was courageous and controlled in his performances. It all comes together for him, for real, in 1972'.

Gillian G. Gaar, writes for Goldmine Magazine, was a senior editor at the legendary Seattle magazine The Rocket, and has also written for Mojo, Rolling Stone, Q, American Songwriter and Record Collector, among many other publications. She is the author of over 15 books, including Elton John at 75, Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana and Return of the King: Elvis Presley's Great Comeback

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Review: Elvis Presley, 'Elvis on Tour'

By Joe Marchese | theseconddisc.com

When Elvis on Tour hit the big screen in 1972, Elvis Presley was no longer the frequent cinema fixture of the 1960s, when he would crank out two or even three motion pictures a year. His last movie appearance was the 1970 documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is, chronicling the Elvis Summer Festival of 1970 at Las Vegas' International Hotel. Elvis on Tour painted with an even larger canvas. Though it had originally been mooted as a new showcase of Presley's Vegas performances, the concept soon expanded to cover his 15-city U.S. tour. The film crew led by directors Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel (Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen) captured four shows in Hampton, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Greensboro, North Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas. (Presley was also filmed backstage at his Jacksonville, Florida show, and that footage would be used for the movie's final scene.) The footage was then edited by Ken Zemke, assisted by the young Martin Scorsese; the latter made innovative use of split screens, much as he had in Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock film.

The movie was released on November 1, 1972 and took in nearly $500,000.00 in domestic box office receipts within its first three days of release in 187 theaters. It was first aired on television in 1976 and released on home video in 1982. A revised version arrived on video in 1997; in 2003, the complete San Antonio show was issued. In 2010, Elvis on Tour was re-released in cinemas and earned almost $600,000.00 in its limited release. This edition, which replaced the original opening of 'Johnny B. Goode' with 'Don't Be Cruel', was released to DVD and Blu-ray. Despite the film's initial success and subsequent stature, it never yielded a soundtrack album...until now. RCA and Legacy Recordings have released the first Elvis on Tour soundtrack as a 6-CD/1-Blu-ray package (with the 2010 edit of the film, as previously released by Warner Home Entertainment, on the Blu-ray).

The first CD was recorded on April 9, 1972, at Hampton Roads Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia. The second CD was captured on April 10, at Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, Virginia, and CD 3 preserves the April 14 show in Greensboro, North Carolina. All three discs are previously unreleased. CD 4 was recorded live on April 18 at Convention Center Arena, San Antonio, Texas, and includes previously released material from 2003's Elvis: Close-Up box set, though Matt Ross-Spang has remixed it for this release along with the previously unissued shows, while Vic Anesini has beautifully mastered everything.

The film promised 'all the excitement of Elvis Live!' and despite the lack of visuals - always an important component of any Presley performance, from his earliest television appearances through his 1968 'comeback' special, 1973's Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and beyond - his kinetic energy comes through in Ross-Spang's vibrant new mixes. There are certain limitations; occasionally Presley goes off-mic and even modern technology can't place him up front. But those issues lend to the shows' raw immediacy and genuine live atmosphere. The shows are bookended by the now-famous 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' introduction and the final announcement that 'Elvis has left the building' (plus a few words reminding audience members to pick up souvenirs on the way out).-


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The setlists for each show were largely similar though not identical as Elvis ran through his greatest hits and more recent favorites in breakneck fashion. He was supported by his crack TCB Band of Glen D. Hardin (piano), James Burton, Charlie Hodge, and John Wilkinson (guitars), Ron Tutt (drums), and Jerry Scheff or Emery Gordy (bass) as well as The Joe Guercio Orchestra and background vocalists The Sweet Inspirations, Kathy Westmoreland, and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. Elvis threw himself into a wide-ranging array of contemporary pop, country, and R&B material (John Fogerty's 'Proud Mary', Hoyt Axton's 'Never Been to Spain', Tony Joe White's 'Polk Salad Annie', Mickey Newbury's thunderous 'An American Trilogy') while recognizing his substantial back catalogue of rock-and-rollers ('All Shook Up', a medley of '(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear' and 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Hound Dog') and ballads ('Are You Lonesome Tonight', the inevitable closer 'Can't Help Falling in Love'). Rather than merely emulating the records in the mold of a nostalgia act, Presley and the TCB Band reinvigorated the older songs with taut, funky arrangements and an abundance of energy.

Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the most touching moments are the more understated ones. Though attired in a flamboyant jumpsuit and backed by a grandiose ensemble, Elvis frequently projects intimacy on the poignant likes of Willie Nelson's 'Funny How Time Slips Away' and Kris Kristofferson's 'For the Good Times' while bringing reverence to 'How Great Thou Art'. Even playing to large arenas, he brought heart and emotion to Marty Robbins' spiritual 'You Gave Me a Mountain', a top 40 hit for Frankie Laine in 1969 (and the final top 40 entry for the vocalist). Unlike many of Elvis' Vegas performances, there isn't a lot of banter with the audience at these shows, and from time to time he entertains himself by refusing to take a song too seriously - even at the expense of the song. But the crowd is audibly appreciative of their time spent in the presence of The King.

The Hampton Roads show that opens the box set may well be the strongest, with Elvis in good voice delivering standout renditions of such showstoppers as 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and 'An American Trilogy', the latter of which was first heard on 1981's This Is Elvis compilation. The Stamps' 'Sweet, Sweet Spirit' is also heard as part of this show. 'Burning Love', which was released as a single just a few months after these concerts and would become Elvis' biggest hit since 'Suspicious Minds' in 1969, isn't heard on the Hampton Roads or Richmond Coliseum shows but vigorous renditions appear on the Greensboro Coliseum and San Antonio Convention Center sets. At Greensboro, he prefaced his performance by sharing, 'We're gonna spring a new song on you tonight...We don't know it too well...If we goof it up, just bear with us...It may take a little while, but we'll get it right'. Of course, Elvis nailed it. (He nonetheless made a similar apology at San Antonio.)

Following the four core concerts, the box then surveys Presley's rehearsals at RCA Studios in Hollywood on March 30-31, 1972. Some of this material has been featured on past releases, though it's all been newly remixed by Ross-Spang. Most notably, the Follow That Dream label released a 19-song compilation of rehearsals in 2004 as Elvis on Tour - The Rehearsals. Other rehearsal cuts appeared on RCA's earlier The Great Performances (1990) and Amazing Grace (1994), and FTD's 6363 Sunset Boulevard (2001). Quite a few songs are heard only at rehearsals including 'Separate Ways' (which would be released as a single in October 1972), the beautiful 'Always on My Mind', 'Johnny B. Goode', 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', 'Help Me Make It Through the Night', and a clutch of gospel songs.


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Though there are plentiful false starts and incomplete takes, these tracks open a fascinating window onto Elvis' creative process. A quote from the film reveals how deliberate the song selection was: 'I start going through the list of songs and it must be 400 or 500 songs. Out of that 400-500, I have to pick 20 at the most. Then we start rehearsing in a little studio at RCA Victor with a small band, with a rhythm section. And we go through several songs, maybe 50 songs. We do that for several days and we try to add to it. And then we go to Vegas and we pick up the voices. We start rehearsing with the voices, then graduate to the big band. But all this starts to take place two or three months before I ever make a public appearance. It's all planned out'.

Elvis on Tour is packaged in the now-familiar cardboard box style of Legacy's previous Presley releases including Back in Nashville, From Elvis in Nashville, The Searcher: The Original Soundtrack, Elvis at Stax, and more. The slipcase contains one folder with the four concert CDs in slots and a second with the rehearsal discs and Blu-ray in slots (only the Blu-ray is in its own protective sleeve), as well as a 32-page squarebound book. Elvis pal Jerry Schilling and historian Warren Zanes provide new essays while there's also printed commentary from the original MGM pressbook and quotes from Elvis. The discs are all adorned with period RCA labels.

After years of extensive Elvis reissues from RCA/Legacy and Follow That Dream, a proper soundtrack to Elvis on Tour is most welcome, indeed, and fills a major gap within the Presley discography. Though the set is by its nature aimed at collectors and completists, the energetic performances are broadly enjoyable, capturing a period in which Presley was still introducing fresh and varied material into his setlists. Happily, with the release of Elvis on Tour, Elvis still hasn't left the building. This is an incredible, all-encompassing Deluxe presentation of 'Elvis On Tour' in pictures and sound. Don't miss this release.

Elvis on Tour is available now at ElvisPresleyShop.com

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