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Concerts Reviewed - 1970


BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN - PHOENIX '70.
Peter Butler


Phoenix, AZ - September 9, 1970:

When Elvis Presley appeared before 13,300 people at the Veteran Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix, Arizona, at 8:30pm., on Wednesday, 9th September 1970, he had not toured since October 1957. After the success of those first three Las Vegas seasons, it was decided that he would go back on the road again, and re-establish his ties with a wider public.

Colonel Tom contacted promoters Jerry Weintraub (managing the still to be discovered John Denver) and Tom Hulett (of Concerts West). Both had made names for themselves via successful tours by top flight acts like Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. They joined forces and started running tours in 1969.

The short tour would begin just two days after the 10th August - 7th September engagement at the International Hotel in Vegas ended. In all there would be eight concerts in what was essentially seen by all as a 'test run'. After the opening show there was St. Louis (10/9), Detroit (11/9), Miami (12/9 - 2 shows), Tampa (13/9 - 2 shows), and Mobile (14/9).

On the Colonel's orders, right-hand-man Tom Diskin had the opening show set up like Vegas regarding the sound system and stage. With Elvis sidelined in the army, then Hollywood and Vegas from the 50's onwards, no one appears to have bothered to check out modern sound system technology. Elvis would go on in Phoenix with two on-stage monitors and the 'in-house' system for the audience, however good or bad it might be. This was the only show where that would happen. Management III (Weintraub, Hulett, and Terry Bassett from Dallas, who put up much of the money) took over the next day and installed a realistic system.

Parker insisted that tickets be priced at $5, $7.50, and $10, but no more. This favoured everyone. They all made money and the venues sold out. In fact they sold out within hours of box offices opening. Typical for the Colonel, everyone had to pay, even Elvis when wanting seats for family and friends. With each venue holding at least 10,000 people (except Tampa with 7,500, but two shows were performed), Elvis would receive something in the range of $100,000 per show.

There was a bomb threat in Phoenix just prior to the show. The audience had to be evacuated. After a detailed search, nothing was found. While the band were aware of the situation, Elvis wasn't told. He found out later from a newspaper report and it annoyed him a great deal. This came a year after death threats in Las Vegas and he couldn't understand that someone could really want to hurt him.

Elvis wasn't happy either when he found out that The Imperials weren't coming with him. They had another booking in Nashville, and said that the Colonel hadn't given them enough notice or time to make plans. It's been claimed that this was a negotiating ploy by the group. Whatever the case, they were replaced by the Hugh Jarrett Singers, a group assembled for just this tour by the ex-Jordanaire.

Joe Guercio too would find himself on the spot. Just he and a single trumpet player from his large Las Vegas orchestra would go on the road. Other, additional, musicians would be picked up at each stop. Not the best arrangement.

Apart from the above, there was comedian Sammy Shore. He, along with the Jarrett Singers and Sweet lnspirations (Ann Williams, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell, Estelle Brown), occupied the stage for the opening hour. Then Elvis "bounced on stage". He was supported by what would become the regular touring band, and was in fact the now set Vegas team: James Burton (lead guitar), John Wilkinson (rhythm guitar), Jerry Scheff (bass), Glen D. Hardin (piano), Ronnie Tutt (drums), Charlie "Kate Smith" Hodge (acoustic guitar), and Kathy Westmoreland (highvoice singer).

The opening theme fills the air. A nervous and apprehensive Elvis, dressed in a white fringe and beaded suit, with green leaf belt and scarf, opens with fast and furious versions of "That's All Right" and "I Got A Woman", which falters at the end. He jokes, "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Glen Campbell," and does a line of Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (in Detroit on the 11/9 he would sing a line of "Detroit City"). Then we're into a typical Vegas version of "Love Me Tender", with comments from the king to those reaching for him. At the end he says "I'd like to tell you it's really a pleasure to be here. It's my first appearance like this in about nine years". The last time being "1957, when I was just a baby!".

He introduces "I've Lost You", and does a very good version of his new hit. Most of the familiar material is arranged and performed as in "That's The Way It Is". He intro's Neil Diamond's song "from last year. You guys know 'Sweet Caroline'?" The band answer with the intro only. It's a mess. Elvis laughs, says "Hold it! We didn't wanna do the song anyway!" Someone from the audience requests a song. He comes back with "I'll do 'em all before the night's over. Just hang loose man!" Quickly he goes into a vocally strong version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin"', though he does forget the lyric shortly after the start, at the verse change. The "if this suit weren't too tight" line in included too.

By now it's clear that the audience is made up of people around Elvis' age, their thirties. They want to hear the sounds of their youth, but are equally ready to listen to the more recent material.

"Polk Salad Annie" is next. A crazy, wild take of the Tony Joe White swamp rocker. Elvis is all over the stage. The crowd reacting to every little twitch of a limb. Ronnie is going mad too, and Elvis gets Jerry to play some neat bass licks. Then he shouts the names of other entertainers, including "Jones" and "Humperdinck", then "me!", getting laughs as he performs a move in the style of each, but never missing a beat!

Afterwards he struts around, getting his breath back. Introductions of the black clad musicians come now, though only James gets a solo spot, on "Johnny B. Goode". We get the "Tutt and Scheff" gag too. Elvis goes into a fine version of "The Wonder Of You", complete with Burton licks. "In The Ghetto" starts out well, but he's fooling around, "It's a sad song Charlie!", before the close.

The 'oldies' section includes "Heartbreak Hotel", "Blue Suede Shoes", and "Hound Dog". He plays around at the start of "Hotel", and "Blue Suede" has a "white suede" slipped in towards the start. Returning to modern material, Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" receives a very strong performance. This is perhaps the performance of the concert. Following this he says how, as a kid, he was doing "all that stuff (Tom) Jones is doing now!". Much laughing is heard. To demonstrate his point, he throws himself into "Suspicious Minds". Just about shaking himself to pieces at the end. Tom was never this wild, this animalistic.

Then it's over. A brief comment and "Can't Help Falling In Love" starts up. Its familiar opening notes and performance, though not so familiar back then to the people as the end. The closing vamp comes, as does "Elvis has left the building". People stand, talk, make their way out to go home. Only the night air hitting them makes them realize that this was no dream. Elvis Presley had appeared in concert in their town. Memories for a lifetime made in around forty-five minutes.

Dynamic is a word often overused these days, like superstar and charisma, when describing a performer and their performance. For Elvis though, such words are really only adequate. True. He didn't move in the way he once had. He moved in a-far more current and 'hip' way. Even today, footage of these early 70's concerts, be it official or bootlegged, is breathtaking. He spins, bends, kicks, punches, and jumps. Perfectly emphasizing the music. Becoming the music. At times he seemed firm and rock solid, a white pillar. Then he is rubber, liquid even. So fluid that only his suit seems to contain him. His body as much a part of the music as his voice and the instruments which created it. You can almost believe that the music would suddenly cease if he stopped moving, leaving just endless screaming.

From the limited visual evidence, plus a less than perfect audio source, it's still obvious to anyone that Elvis delivers. The show is full of action, physical and vocal, plus humour. Despite the use of the house system, the crowd appear ecstatic with everything Elvis does, and the sound is surprisingly good on the audience recorded audio cassette. Most of what is said can be both heard and understood. Local reporter Thomas Goldthwaite wasn't so impressed at the time though. His column the very next day was titled "Presley fans were 'unlucky"' (Phoenix Republic 10/9/70). While he admitted that "the voice is better than ever", he attacked just about everything else, from supporting acts, "It was mayhem", to Elvis' material, "some inferior songs of little impact", and that sound system, "one of the most wretched amplification systems ever devised"! Listening to the show, the crowd sound very enthusiastic rather than "unlucky", as is so often the case when comparing a recording to a print report.

It has to said though that this very first concert, where the style and rules were yet to be carved in stone, contains all the potential for the great shows which would follow. It also has the seeds of everything which would go wrong and see Elvis become bored and restless. This is yet another contradiction in the artistic life of this unique artist.

The sound of Elvis' voice at this time can be clearly heard throughout "That's The Way It Is" and, while bootleg recordings from the September tour don't do it and its power justice, the studio session of the 22nd September 1970, where he performs the light and breezy country number "Snowbird", the gospel like "Where Did They Go, Lord?", the rockin' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", and the operatic "Rags To Riches", these show how the voice had stood up to the short tour. And this was a session that was recorded by an Elvis who was said to be in a rush to get away!

It's long been claimed that MGM filmed footage of Elvis in Phoenix for "That's The Way It Is". The UK publication "Elvis A-Z" (Albert Hand Publications, 1976) lists the movie and notes, "Commenced July 1970. Stage act filmed Las Vegas Aug. 1970. Stage act filmed Phoenix Sept. 1970." It only lists, as do many publications, the opening "Mystery Train/Tiger Man" medley as coming from the concert. Later, "Recording Sessions" (Jee Productions, 1984) would state that this was not the case, though it doesn't say where or when the medley was recorded. A version appeared on the 3 CD set, "That's The Way It Is - Special Edition" in 2000. Listed as coming from Vegas on the 12th August 1970, it isn't the same version as that which opens the movie.

As we now see, Elvis didn't even perform "Mystery Train/Tiger Man" in Phoenix! Thereby destroying that decades old myth about those first scenes in the film. It's a fact that the houselights were up at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but MGM has always maintained that this was to allow for a little "location filming". They filmed Elvis' entrance and then the audience, for about ten to twelve minutes. This was simply to get footage of the wilder on the road crowd, as opposed to the far more reserved Las Vegas set. This might explain also, given the reaction at the show, why the next movie would be "On Tour", and not back in Vegas again?

In the end the Phoenix footage was used at the start of the film, minus sound, around Elvis' Las Vegas performance. While there's doubt as to whether MGM recorded the sound at Phoenix, they did do a limited amount of still photography. Some of the pictures appeared on the reverse of the original "That's The Way" LP sleeve.

While it's easy to see and understand what director Denis Sanders sent his crew to Phoenix for, what their task was at this show. That they didn't turn their cameras around and focus on this ultimate hurricane of entertainment, it must rank as nothing less than a tragedy. Those still photographs can only hint at what a performance those assembled witnessed...

Peter Butler

Note: Arjan Deelen provided this article. Thanks Arjan.



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