When The King made his last visit to Baltimore 40 years ago, no one knew he would be dead less than three months later. But many suspected that something was wrong.
The Elvis Presley who took to the stage at the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) on May 29, 1977, was not the Elvis most of his fans knew. Presley was no longer the sexy, virile, electric presence that revolutionized both the recording industry and live performing in his heyday. Paunchy and clearly out of shape, he labored to get through his set, sometimes mumbling lyrics, awkwardly shifting his hips in what seemed a cruel parody of the gyrations that once so alarmed the nation's moral police, even taking an abrupt break during the concert and disappearing for about 30 minutes. (Upon returning, he blamed "a twisted ankle and nature calls and you don't fool around with nature.")
What would prove to be Elvis' Baltimore swansong had been finalized on March 21, when his longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker, signed a contract with the Civic Center (thanks to "our persistence and sincerity in attracting top-name entertainment," crowed the facility's executive director, Charles A. Neustadt). Tickets – 12,700 of them, with a top price of $15 – went on sale at 8 a.m. April 1 (people had begun lining up outside the Civic Center box office 48 hours earlier), and were sold out by 11:30. Police warned the public about ticket scalping – a practice that was illegal at the time, and anyway, who could guarantee the tickets you were buying were genuine? (Scalping may have been illegal, but that didn't seem to matter much; dozens of ads offering tickets for sale ran in The Sun's classified section, although you generally had to call to find out the asking price, which seemed to hover around $40-$50.)
When the big night arrived, the crowd gathered inside the Civic Center could be excused for being nervous. Illness had forced Elvis to cancel an early-April concert in New Orleans, and reports from a May 22 concert at the Capital Center in Largo suggested The King was not performing at his best. Still, hopes were high, and the excitement was palpable.
Sun reporter Eric Siegel spent the day of the concert, beginning before noon, at the Baltimore Hilton in Charles Center, which he called a "combination convention headquarters, grade B thriller locale, souvenir hunter's heaven and, for those who hoped to catch anything more than the briefest offstage glimpse of the man they call the King of Rock and Roll, a heartbreak hotel." In the eight hours leading up to the concert, Siegel wrote, the hotel lobby and coffee shop played host to members of Elvis' backup band and crew (many of whom had been in Philadelphia for a concert the night before), as well as fans aplenty.
Elvis himself didn't make an appearance until 10 p.m., when the concert at the nearby Civic Center was already 90 minutes old (thank goodness for opening acts). When Presley finally did descend from his 25th-floor suite to the hotel's underground parking garage, "under heavy escort," about two dozen fans were still hanging around, hoping for a glimpse, maybe even a brief encounter, with their hero.
"Presley acknowledges his fans with a wave of his right hand," Siegel wrote, "inducing squeals and yells, and acknowledges them again by lifting a large Coke he is holding in the air as the limousine passes onto the street, inducing more squeals and yells.
"Ten minutes later, he is on stage at the Civic Center."
As he often did during that period, Elvis – introduced to the strains of Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" – opened the show with "See See Rider," kicking off a set that included many of the classics, including "Are You Lonesome Tonight," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," "The Wonder of You" and "It's Now or Never." The show ended with "Can't Help Falling in Love."
The concert, as reported in The Sun by Earl Arnett, sounded like nothing special – he called it "intelligent and well-paced," later elaborating, "women still screamed whenever he wiggled his hips, even when it obviously was a pose, almost a caricature from the past…It was impossible for them to reconcile the legend in their minds to the spectacle of a mere man showing the signs of middle age."
Arnett, it appears, was being kind. A review of the concert that appeared in Variety, penned by Marty Bennett, was less forgiving. Calling Elvis "physically and artistically subpar," he labeled the concert "strange" and said the show's first half-hour was "marked by anemic singing, a few stilted attempts at his patented gyrations, bewildering patter and awkward stage movements that included having an aide hand-hold his voice mike."
He also noted Presley's unscheduled "hiatus" during the show, after which he "repeatedly thanked the audience for hanging with him." Following his return, Bennett acknowledges, Presley "came on like gangbusters as he politely and apologetically tried to recoup his losses."
Following the show, a Civic Center spokesman said Elvis was on medication, according to Variety, and that he was treated by a physician during the show's interruption.
(You can hear the concert for yourself by tracking down a bootleg recording of it, known variously as "Baltimore Nightfall" or "Send Me the Light…I Need it Bad," or by checking out various postings on youtube.com.)
Less than three months later – 40 years ago next week, in fact – Elvis died, found collapsed and not breathing in the bathroom of his Memphis mansion, Graceland. He was only 42.
In the aftermath, as they continue to do today, his fans refused to let him go.
Writing in The Sun several days after Elvis' death, Siegel told of speaking with a woman from New Jersey who had also seen the Baltimore show – as well as, she said, 42 others. When Siegel said he didn't think much of the show, that it "left something to be desired," the woman bristled.
"You're not a true Elvis fan," she said. "There are only two kinds of Elvis shows – great and super."