I was 14 years old when the king came to town in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial. That was 24 years ago, and I was too young and stupid to care. Only one year later, Elvis Presley would be gone and by that time I was old enough and smart enough to care a whole lot. I had missed my opportunity to see him live and as I grew older, I became less and less forgiving of myself. For that short time, when I was a child, I was alive on this earth while he was, and though our paths never crossed, his spirit would return 24 years later and this time I wouldn't miss him.
The closest I'd ever come to seeing this magnificent creature live would be seeing and hearing him on the big screen on an August Saturday night in Memphis this year. Now it would be on a rainy October Sunday night in Chicago. "That's The Way It Is - The 30th Anniversary Edition" in Memphis. "The Concert" in Chicago. Let me tell you about the rainy Sunday night in Chicago when Elvis Presley came back to town.
The first thing that struck me as I closed the door of my car and began my walk through the parking lot to the theater were the people to my right.
Then the people to my left. Then the people up about 10 yards. All of them were younger than me. For a long time I had thought that at 38 I was one of the younger fans, considering the fans who'd grown up with Elvis as their teenage idol. But last year in Memphis, in August of 1999, I began to realize how wrong I was. And the education has continued. I could not believe my eyes. As I entered the fancy lobby of the theater and saw the crowd for the first time, the average age struck me in a powerful way. I'd say it was 30 to 40 years old, with many considerably younger. The older ones I could understand. The younger ones? These were college looking kids who looked as though they should be on their way to a club downtown to listen to modern music. But they were here for Elvis.
I didn't have much of a chance to talk to people for it was just about 7:00 p.m. and it was time to find my seat in the 5th row, dead center. A $75.00 seat. And parking had been $10. Sure enough, there were
the souvenirs right there in the lobby all set up in a display that also exhibited the prices. Prices that were higher than those down at Graceland, I quickly noticed. Some ten dollars higher than for the same thing down in Memphis. But I had to get the program. Another $10 but very worth it. The show hadn't started and I was already out $95. I never questioned once whether it was worth it or not. I knew that with Elvis Presley it would be.
Normally I like to sit further back in a theater. Gives you a better perspective and all, but I couldn't miss the chance to see the faces of the TCB Band and the Sweet Inspirations and The Imperials up close. It would be the closest I would get to the legend here in Chicago, and I wasn't prepared for how profound that would be.
The lights went down and a spotlight shown on the blue velvet curtain.
How do I bring to your ears the sound of a live "2001" beginning its crescendo in the room? I guess I had expected a "recording" of the concert to be coming through the speakers, but no, this was the real thing. It filled every corner of that theater auditorium, and for a few seconds of ecstatic anticipation, I could truly feel what it must have felt like to wait for him to step up on that stage.
The following two hours would transport us all to a time and a place when
audience and singer connected in a way that I've never seen happen since his time.
The curtain lifted, and there he was. The screen was about 12 feet by 12 feet it looked like to me, with two smaller screens, one on each side hanging suspended from the ceiling. And there on the stage they were. The people who were now what was left of the live experience. How young Sweet Inspiration Myrna Smith looked. She had to be at least 50 years old, it having been 30 years since the first live concerts began, but she looked to be about 25. The years had been good to her. The rest of the Sweets. The Imperials. James Burton. Jerry Scheff. Ronnie Tutt. Glen Hardin. Joe Guercio. And Elvis. The years had been good to him, too.
The highlights play in my mind...
It began with images from Aloha, with the groundbreaking worldwide concert being shown on the center screen and images from different angles of the current stage on the two screens flanking the star. It would not strike me until later of how powerful this imagery would be and how the juxtaposition of past and present would meld into images that would be profoundly moving.
Those familiar Aloha images, how many millions of times had I seen them on TV. Now these same images were as big as life. There on the screen were the same people on stage before me, but over 25 years earlier. The artistry of this show, I would discover later into the performance, would almost equal the artistry of the star. No, nothing could equal that. He was frozen in time on the screen, but for those two hours, he was there, with them who were still with him after all these years.
The last four performances before the intermission were the end I thought. Nothing could beat that, I thought. We Chicago people cheered Elvis on home as he broke into "In The Ghetto" from his Vegas show in 1970. "On a cold and grey Chicago morn, a small baby child was born..." he sang, and
for those few brief moments he was singing just to us, this rainy Sunday night in Chicago...This was when I first noticed the artistry of the concert, and the first moments that brought tears to my eyes.
As Elvis sang "In The Ghetto" live on stage as a man, the two smaller screens changed over to still images of Elvis from his youth. All in black and white. With his mother and father...images of a poor but proud southern American family...Images of a grade school Elvis who looked proper and like a boy who would bring an apple to his teacher at school...A boy who was raised to say "Thank you, Maam, and Sir" and who never lost that gracious nature that would stay with him to the end...A boy who could not possibly
have conceived of what was waiting for him around the corner as he
evolved into his teens and then young manhood and the beginning of immortality.
The voice that filled the room and the live images juxtaposed against the still images from half a century ago created magic. This man had transcended time.
The Imperials took center stage after this and sang "He Touched Me," and this was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to hear them harmonize live. The room was silent as their lilting voices filled every space and echoed across the stage. The the room exploded in applause. There it was, that amazing thing about how the artistry of Elvis Presley could move from rock to ballad to spiritual in a matter of minutes...
Then, to follow, came "How Great Thou Art" with images from "On Tour" and Elvis singing the song and the harmonies of The Imperials now in the background on the stage in front of us. The images on the screen were magically transformed into slow motion and this augmented the impact of the crescendo that filled the theater. That song never fails to send chills up and down my spine and I forgot where I was for a moment, so transported was I by the power of that voice.
How could it get better? Then came "Bridge Over Troubled Water" from the Vegas performances of 1970 that had been left out of the new TTWII that premiered in Memphis this August. I had so missed this performance in the premier of TTWII, because it was a song I had loved from childhood, and I loved Elvis' treatment of it, but here it was, on the big screen before me. There on the two small screens, we could see the band members up close, now today, and there on the big screen we could see them 30 years ago...Only Elvis had not changed.
Intermission came and went and during the brief time, by the pure