In the same month that BMG issues a marvellous mid-price CD ‘Elvis LIVE’ compiling some of Elvis’ best in concert performances, the import label Straight Arrow releases a CD of Elvis’ reputed worst-ever concert. Last year Straight Arrow released the excellent 1975 'Pieces Of My Life’ the Asheville July 24, 1975 Closing Show. The Elvis World is indeed a strange and wonderful beast.
Elvis’ personal & emotional turmoil certainly made some of his later shows totally fascinating to witness. Give me a ‘Closing Night 1973’ or ‘Desert Storm’ with all its incredible dialogue, over a boring Vegas Dinner Show any day. But as for Elvis’ reputed "worst show" in College Park 1974, what can it possibly reveal?
'Chaos In Central Park'.
Released by the Straight Arrow label, this infamous performance of September 27 1974 has the reputation of being Elvis’ worst-ever concert. This period was certainly one of Elvis’ all-time low points where his emotional turmoil, inner demons and drug abuse seem to run away with him. Elvis had begun an emotional roller-coaster ride around mid 1973, which by the end on 1974 seemed to be getting totally out of control. It appears that Elvis physician in charge during this late 1974 period was NOT the infamous Dr. Nick but Dr Ghanem instead. Make of this what you will.
Major events in this period are marked by concerts like the wildness of September 1973’s ‘Closing Night’ and the tightrope tension of his 1974 Las Vegas closer (Desert Storm) a year later. In between we have the astounding re-invention of Opening Night August 19th 1974, the hard work at Houston Astrodome March 3rd (Event #8), as well as the powerful March 1974 concerts (Elvis; Live In Memphis).
We also know that if something sparked Elvis’ interest, he could returned revamped & with new inspiration as he did on his mid-year 1975 tours and finally, after a terrible period in 1976, with his December 1976 Tour.
Perhaps it is because of Elvis’ emotional turmoil and unpredictability of his performances that a large number of hard-core Elvis followers find these 1974 concerts so interesting. Of course Elvis never entered the studio in 1974 so we can only learn more about his journey through stories, photos and live concerts.
Personally I delighted in the recent discovery of the early January 1974 soundboard release ‘I Found My Thrill’. I have a similar fascination with being an observer to Elvis’ emotional ride of ‘Desert Storm’, or feeling the anger that he felt while performing ‘Closing Night’ 1973. These concerts are certainly NOT the restrained perfection of ‘Aloha’, but they have such involvement that they could never be described as run-of-the-mill performances.
So while Elvis’ set-list became somewhat static in 1974 (no I don’t need to hear yet another drawn-out version of ‘I Got A Woman’ with J.D’s dive-bombing routine) there is still something engrossing about listening to Elvis pull something magical out of thin-air and save a concert that you would otherwise consider a relative failure.
Straight Arrow certainly don’t make any pretence on this Maryland concert being a first-rate Elvis show and their sleeve notes explain this right from the start..
"He is done. I remember crying…", orchestra conductor Joe Guercio said in reference to the tour opening performance in College Park, Maryland, on September 27th, 1974. And now you are about to listen this infamous, much discussed show. Many words have been said and written about this particular show, but not too many fans have heard the complete recording of it. What was it that really happened on this night? Was there something wrong with his dosage of medication on this particular day, or were his years of self-abuse beginning to catch up with him? Was this the display of a mentally unstable man in deep trouble, too far gone to realize that he was now out of control in public? Probably yes, on all counts.
You may wonder why we would even contemplate releasing this show, but we feel that it's only fair that you - the listener - get a chance to form your own opinion of this show. This CD is not an attempt to dishonor his memory, as has been done so often in the past. We feel that this recording may help the serious fans and collectors in getting a deeper understanding of the tragedy of Elvis' final years. In the end concerts like this only remind us that, despite his monumental achievements, Elvis was just a human being with his ups and downs, just like the rest of us."
The CD comes from a superior audience recording & the audio is surprisingly good. This show has previously been released on a CDR called ‘All Gut In College Park’ but this recording sounds so different and so improved that at times you think it must be a different concert. No credit is given for the audio engineer or design.
Before this short 13-day tour Elvis had two weeks off to recover from the previously stressful Las Vegas Season.
And so to the performance itself - College Park, Opening Night, Tour 12.
Immediately you can sense the excitement in the air as the 2001 intro rolls through the auditorium of 15,000 people. The band kick in to ‘See See Rider’ as Elvis walks on stage in his fabulous Peacock jumpsuit delivering his first words. Comparing this to ‘I Found My Thrill’ or ‘Live In Memphis’ there is no doubt that Elvis is running on low but it is interestingly to note however that this night’s start doesn’t sound as much a struggle as the following night. However Elvis does seem to be pushing the lyrics out, almost sounding flat and the ending is weak.
So while it certainly is a pretty low-level performance, it is still hard to believe the story of Elvis falling out of the car onto his knees less than an hour before. Maybe this is because of the excitement from the crowd or then again Elvis could have taken a few pick-me-ups backstage. Whatever the reason, Elvis is certainly well aware of the poor PA audio mix and even asks engineer Bill Porter to fix it for the crowd, as well as to try and improve the echo coming back to him on stage.
An overlong ‘I Got a Woman/Amen’ follows, but it is another average version where Elvis doesn’t sound stoned or out-of-it and is focussed enough to play with the crowd. He quips to a girl who is screaming for him, "Honey I will be with you after the show anyway!" He also notes that because of the blinding flash-bulbs he cannot see anything. He nicely jokes, "You could put two Bengal Tigers out here and I wouldn’t know. I’d still be singing, and they’d be chewing my legs off!"
Elvis’ banter before a throwaway ‘Love Me’ is obscured on this recording (by an usher & ticket discussion) but it is obvious that he is in no way slurring as on the following night. After this Elvis goes straight into a fine ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ (never my favourite song) where he is obviously enjoying the harmonies with his backup singers Voice.
The fact that he doesn’t ramble too much between songs is interesting in itself. There have been suggestions that Elvis was holding onto the microphone to steady himself but you can not tell from this tape.
Elvis however sounds tired as he introduces "my new record" ‘It's Midnight’ but his performance is as dramatic as always with Elvis handling the various vocal levels just fine. (Remember this is an audience recording and is not of soundboard quality).
Elvis’ distraction continues during ‘Fever’ as he plays to the screaming crowd, mumbles the words and changes the lyrics too much. But it is hardly "chaos", as we have heard similar throwaway versions before. However if you listen closely you can hear an audience member say, "He's going to go over". Was this because Elvis was stumbling or just because he was leaning over too far giving girls scarves & kisses? Without the accompanying video we can only speculate.
The sloppiness continues with a terrible ‘Love Me Tender’ but interestingly, during the introduction, Elvis corrects a fan that seems to think ‘Blue Hawaii’ was his first film. He also runs through the names of most of his early films with no real hesitation, even mentioning the lesser-known ones like ‘Wild In the Country’ and ‘Flaming Star.’
The first real vocal challenge of the night would be ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ but here Elvis performs inadequately and even drifts off-key at times. It really sounds like the band is driving him along - as opposed to Elvis leading them. Maybe it was here that he was holding onto the microphone stand? Of course it is still "Elvis" and better than any impersonator but this certainly isn’t the usual stunner that we expect.
‘Polk Salad Annie’ that follows shows that on the night Elvis is still up to some funk, although it is a low-energy version. The next two nights Elvis wouldn’t even attempt the song.
The ‘Band Introductions’ confirm that Elvis is not slurring his words, and although overlong he does manage some cute, if regular, jokes about the musicians. In an odd moment Elvis even comments on Glen Hardin’s excessive drinking yet, in the same breath, complementing him on his ability as an arranger & performer. Similarly Elvis is complementary about Joe Guercio & talks about discovering Ronnie Tutt as a great drummer.
The introductions, solos (plus Voice performing ‘Killing Me Softly’) however last a long 14 minutes before Elvis gets back to singing, joining in on a regular ‘Why Me Lord.’
Elvis by now has been on stage for 70 minutes and apologies that "my time is up on this stage" but pulls out a fabulous ‘How Great Thou Art’ to satisfy the disappointed. This is the highlight of the show and a perfect way to leave the audience wanting more. Interestingly the following night’s version (see 28th concert overview below) which Elvis tried to build up to be a vocal challenge - and a showstopper - was actually terrible, with Elvis’ voice cracking. This Opening Night version is much better.
After thanking the audience, "You’re a fantastic audience and I love you. I'd like to tell you in all sincerity that if all the audiences were like you, I'd sing my guts out for you. I'm not kidding", it’s time to go.
The final ‘CHFIL’ is quite extraordinary as Elvis tries a falsetto & goes up an octave on the normal version. It really is very strange. The crowd is very appreciative of the show and an extended Outro follows with Elvis receiving plenty of applause.
So overall it certainly is a very low-key performance, especially for an 'Opening Night’ but if you read all the evidence from people who were there it is hard to imagine that this is the performance that they are talking about.
Piano player Tony Brown has said, "My first night was College Park, Maryland. I was scared, my hands were sweating, and I'm backstage waiting for Elvis to arrive. He pulls up in the car, and he fell out of the limousine, to his knees. People jumped to help, and he pushed them away like, 'Don't help me.' He walked onstage and held on to the mike for the first thirty minutes like it was a post. Everybody's looking at each other like, is this tour gonna happen? Is he sick? Is it gonna be cancelled?"
Review by Piers Beagley, copyright EIN - November 2006.Click to comment on this review
Rather than my long ramble above I would like to add the most succinct review of this CD by EIN contributor ROB from FECC.
Having heard this show, I can finally comment on it.
College Park, September 28 1974.
The energy level is extremely low the following night with Elvis out of breath even on the opening number 'See See Rider.' If Elvis was trying to prove himself after the previous night it wasn’t a fortuitous start. Ronnie Tutt sounds like he is trying to help blast Elvis awake. Compared to the first night he is certainly over-medicated and is slurring his words. Right at the start Elvis sounds totally asleep or medicated and fumbles..
"I've played before many a people, many a person, many an audience whatever. First of all I’ve got to do a song or two. You see, you see folks I love what I do. I love show bin-ness, bin-ness.. business. Damn I love it, I ain’t kidding. Say, what was I going to do?"
Whereas the previous night Elvis was gentle in asking for the audio to be improved, this particular night there is a very spiteful comment to Felton Jarvis (for whom Elvis had paid for a kidney transplant). Elvis says, "What is that feedback, Felton? I’ve got a little humming sound, ye ye ye ye. You either fix it or I'll take your kidney away from ya'."
While the crowd is enthusiastic as at any concert, Elvis’ vocal is very second rate. ‘If You Love’ is particularly poor & wavering. ‘Big Boss Man’ is even worse than the night before with Elvis losing the rhythm at the start. In a scary moment, before the start of ‘Fever’ Elvis even comments, "I hope I don't fall off the stage. If I do you guys catch me. If I fall off, you guys just put me back on the stage. That's all." I guess (and hope) that he was kidding?
It is a train crash in slow motion and it only becomes worse when Elvis starts making excuses for his increase in weight, as had been reported in a newspaper review of the previous night’s concert.
Elvis is keen to insist, "The evening paper gave us a fantastic write-up, except they said that I had a paunch here. I want to tell you something - I got their damn paunch. I wear a bulletproof vest on stage. (crowd laughs).
He gets the crowd pumped with a powerful vocal on ‘Trying To Get To You’, even though he fluffs the ending. But when this is followed by ‘Killing Me Softly’ and The Stamps ‘When It’s My Time’ you can feel the audience’s new found enthusiasm slipping away. When Elvis messes up his classic ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, where he badly forgets the words, you know things are not right.
Although towards the end ‘Hawaiian Wedding Song’ is nicely done, he fails on the potential show-stopper ‘How Great Thou Art’ and even ‘Let Me Be There’ is feeble and off-key at points.
Elvis’ slurring has basically disappeared by now, but instead his bitterness shows. As in the August Vegas season Elvis turns his anger towards the tabloid magazines and the drug rumours. You get the feeling that he is appeasing his own guilty-conscience...
Elvis says, "For an audience like this I will sing my can off. In fact I have. Things that are written in movie magazines about me are TRASH!" (Audience cheers)
His statements all seem so inappropriate, and whom was he fooling? Finally Elvis also tells the crowd that, "I want the people to get the best!"
Sadly Elvis was way below his best in this tour and it is a relief when he goes straight into ‘CHFIL’ and the concert is thankfully over.
The following night in Detroit Elvis would only perform for 30 minutes due to sickness, and towards the end of October Elvis would be in Dr Ghanem’s clinic undergoing a revitalising "sleep diet" for celebrities.
Note that FTD has also released 'Dragonheart' Elvis' concert just 3 days later in South Bend. While Elvis was still running on low he was in definitely better shape even adding 'You Gave Me A Mountain' and a funky 'Steamroller Blues' to the setlist.
Review by Piers Beagley, copyright EIN - November 2006.
Note - EIN does not support bootleggers since they do deprive songwriters & musicians of their well-deserved earnings. There is however no doubt that FTD/BMG will never consider these sub-par concerts for a mainstream release. Investigating Elvis' legacy legally, collectors are therefore stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The above is of course only the opinion that EIN has gained through research - and an absolute fascination with Elvis’ legacy.
Darrin Lee informs EIN that The College Park project is two books down the line and the specifics at this time are:
1. The soft cover is planned for 2007.
MORE EIN relevant reviews and information.