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Retro Baltimore

When Elvis played to a sellout crowd of 12,000 in Baltimore

When Paul McCartney rocks Oriole Park in June, he’ll be the latest in a line of iconic performers to play Baltimore through the years.

McCartney has performed here before, of course, with the Beatles before a convulsive crowd at what was then called the Civic Center in 1964.

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What other talent has magnetized the town? The Bee Gees and Rolling Stones; Paul Simon and James Brown; and a scant few storied artists best known by a single name (Springsteen, Sinatra, Dylan and Rihanna).

Count Elvis among them. In 1971, the king of rock ‘n’ roll staged a brisk, 50-minute show at the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) before a capacity crowd, many of them 30-somethings who screamed and carried on like the teens they’d been when Elvis Presley first wiggled his hips and curled his lips in the 1950s.

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The 12,000-seat performance sold out in a day. The morning that tickets went on sale at 10 o’clock, hundreds of fans — some of whom arrived at 4 a.m. — queued up in a line that stretched 1 1/2 blocks. No surprise: Their idol had sold more than 250 million records and starred in 30 movies.

For days before the concert, pleas for Elvis tickets peppered The Sun’s classified section, to wit:

“HELP! I need 1 or 2 tickets for Elvis show. Matter of life and death.”

“Two desperate girls need tickets to Elvis show.”

“Disappointed little 9-year-old girl would like to see Elvis at Civic Center.”

Scalpers who came by the $5-$10 tickets sold them for as much as $100 each.

The media raced to the fore. Two weeks before the concert, WCBM-AM aired a 12-part broadcast of “The Elvis Presley Show,” a partisan chronology of his life, at 3 p.m. daily.

On the big night (Nov. 9), the arena dimmed its lights, an 18-piece orchestra played a triumphal intro (”Also sprach Zarathustra,” from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and Presley strode out in gleaming attire, with a ring on every finger. There were shrieks, shouts and “wild, almost blinding stroboscopic lights as flash bulbs fired off and The King strutted across the stage in a white jumpsuit, red scarf and red-and-white jeweled cape,” The Washington Post reported.

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He belted out 21 songs, from his own hits (”Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”) to those of others (”Johnny B. Goode,” “Amen” and “Proud Mary”). If you could hear him at all.

“Each twitch of that famous left leg brought another chorus of frenzied screams, as did ... his partial splits [after] several songs,” The Sun reported.

The performance was punctuated by faux karate chops (Elvis had a black belt) and a partial striptease. At one point, he hurled his scarf into the crowd; it disappeared in a sea of outstretched hands. During one steamy ballad, he took off his belt. Women went nuts and might have stormed The King if not for the 24 security guards who ringed the stage.

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Presley also toyed with his audience, changing the lyrics of several songs. During a rendition of “It’s Now Or Never,” a 20-million seller, he sang, “Your lips excite me, for thy sake don’t bite me.” No one seemed to mind.

And then it was over. Elvis left the building, but he returned six years later for a much different show. On May 29, 1977, he appeared on the same stage before a packed house, but as a doughy, drug-addled knockoff of himself who mumbled his way through songs and embarrassed his most ardent fans. Mid-concert, he abruptly walked off and disappeared for 30 minutes, returning to blame his exit on “nature’s call” and a turned ankle.

The Sun offered mixed reviews. One referred to Presley as “almost a caricature from the past.” Another read: “The King is slightly paunchy now ... but the main ingredients of the image are intact — the boyish face, the sexual pelvic movements and the country voice that croons the rhythms of white rock welded onto Black soul.”

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The crowd’s response? Unlike the finish of his first show in Baltimore, there was no standing ovation.

Less than three months later, Elvis died of a heart attack on Aug. 16, 1977. He was 42.

WJZ-TV marked his demise with a late-night binge of Presley movies, from “Follow That Dream” to “G.I. Blues.” Such should be his legacy, The Sun’s Eric Siegel wrote upon his death:

“The fans who applauded Presley’s last concert here, who fought for the sweaty scarves he flung and threw him teddy bears in return, were imagining Presley, and by extension themselves, not as he was on stage then, but as he was 20 years ago.”


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