Friday, August 16, 2013

Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii. . . And The Grave

Thirty-six years ago today, Elvis Presley got out of bed and retreated to a bathroom in his Graceland home to read a book about Jesus while his live-in girlfriend slept. When she awoke, she found the King slumped on the floor, his face purple and buried in the carpet. His tongue, clenched between his capped teeth, had nearly been severed. Imagine if the paramedics who arrived soon after had managed to revive him. Would the voice that had, by that time, sold 400 million records, been silenced even if Elvis had lived?

It’s mere speculation, because Elvis, the man, could not be revived. The career, however, has thrived ever since.

As part of the hoopla that always accompanies the anniversary of Presley’s death, PBS is repeating Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii this month. Sent out to a worldwide audience via satellite on January 14, 1973, the special spawned a two-disc soundtrack (released by RCA in quadraphonic sound) that would be the last of his albums to reach number one on the Billboard chart during his lifetime.

Other than those flared trousers, Elvis looked splendid back in January 1973, the month of his 38th birthday. The voice is a little thin at first, but gains strength as the show goes on.

The Elvis of Aloha from Hawaii is not the rock ‘n’ roll rebel who defied moral conventions, the role that he played from 1955-1958 before the Army tamed his wild spirit. This later Elvis is the one who had met with Richard Nixon, who admired J. Edgar Hoover, and thought that The Beatles, who had idolized him, were a bad influence on the nation’s youth.

The Elvis of the 1970s was an American icon who had more in common with John Wayne than John Lennon. The musical highlight was not “Hound Dog” or even “Burning Love,” but “An American Trilogy,” a patriotic blending of “Dixie,” “All My Trials,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that now served as his anthem.

There’s been plenty of hype through the years about the size of the audience when Aloha from Hawaii first aired. Some claim that the special was seen by more people than actually populated the earth at the time, but it was a huge hit by any standard, and represented Presley’s final triumph.

The concert didn’t air in the U.S. until April, pre-empting the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie and topping the Nielsen ratings for the week. Back then, and, perhaps, even now, Elvis was the only musical icon whose appeal was broad enough for the mass audience of television. Each of his three television specials (the first in December ‘68, and the last, aired posthumously in October ’77) topped the Nielsen ratings the week they aired. Not even Frank Sinatra could boast of such wide appeal. The Chairman of the Board was more active in television than Elvis, but of his many specials the only one to hit number one was in 1960 when his special guest, newly discharged from the Army, was . . . Elvis Presley!

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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