March 22, 2018

Elvis Walked On Stage

Opening night, July 31, 1969, was the place to be. Every movie star, every singing star who could be there, was there. I remember very well seeing Cary Grant sitting with his friends in a booth straight back from center stage. Center stage right by the front of the stage was Sammy Davis, Jr. He was so close you could touch him. He drank in everything Elvis did. He was so “into it” that Elvis acknowledged him from the stage and between songs he walked over to him, took off one of his rings, bent over and handed it to Sammy. He was so taken with that generous gesture and showed such appreciation to Elvis for this unexpected gift from the king of rock and roll. Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger) was there, Juliet Prowse as well.  Meanwhile, backstage we were making our way to the side of the stage as the comedian was finishing up. We stood around and Elvis was nervous. He didn’t know how that audience would react to him and he needed reassurance. We all were very supportive and encouraging to him. This was a huge gamble on his part but he was always a risk-taker. He blazed trails no one had ever traveled before. True legends like him are willing to take those risks. So he was there and ready to walk on stage as he was torn between the bold and creative man that got him there and the timid and insecure man that held him back.

The comedian walked off stage with a tepid response and there was dead silence for what seemed like an eternity. The lights were out on stage and we walked onstage with the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations to get in place. Then that plaintive sound of the 2001 A Space Odyssey began. At the end of that last chord, Ronnie Tutt began his drum rift. He had two bass drums and the largest drum kit I’ve ever seen. He used every one of them for this opening. Then James, Jerry, Larry, John, and the orchestra kicked in.

Elvis walked on stage, and you have never seen such an ovation in your life!  Every flashbulb in the house went off. It had gone from total darkness to lights flashing everywhere. The Elvis return to live performances had begun.

March 15, 2018

The Magnitude of Stardom

Opening night, July 31, 1969, at the Las Vegas International Hotel was one night I will never forget. We had been in rehearsals for weeks before, beginning in Los Angeles at a Universal Studios rehearsal room with the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations. Elvis would show up mid-morning after we had been there getting ready for him. There were food and beverages to wake us up and when he showed up, we began intense rehearsals. We might go over a song five or six times and tweak the arrangement each time. Anywhere in a song, he might say, “hey guys, would you sing something here, or girls, I would like you to do this or that”.  After a few passes on the song, we would move on to the next one. Many songs were rehearsed and many didn’t make the cut. I would estimate we rehearsed 40 or 50 songs, but the final version that made it to the stage opening night was maybe 15-20 songs. To say we were ready would be an understatement. We would sing them so much I would go to bed with a song in my head that wouldn’t leave!

So, on opening night we’re in the dressing rooms getting ready. Elvis is pacing back and forth like a caged animal looking for an escape. He’s nervous, anxious, and unsure of himself. That insecurity was just part of who he was. He had come to Las Vegas a few years before and his show wasn’t received well. He had gone downtown where the older casinos were and it just wasn’t a good fit for him. Now, several years later he’s back and taking a big gamble that this outcome will be different. He’s in the biggest showroom on the strip and he doesn’t know what the reception will be. What if they gave him the same reception they did downtown? What if they didn’t like him? He also worried about the choice of songs and if he could remember all the words. He even wrote out lyrics for a song or two on tiny pieces of paper he carried on stage. For such a huge star, he was very fragile and insecure at this moment in time.

It doesn’t really matter how big a star you are; we all struggle with the same insecurities related to our perceived feelings of people’s expectations of us. The biggest name ever in rock and roll music and he still had a hard time understanding the magnitude of his stardom. Isn’t that amazing?

 

March 9, 2018

We Got a Call From Elvis

After a year with Jimmy Dean, we got a call from Elvis. He had decided to return to live performances as he was not enjoying the movies as much as he did when he started. When he decided to put together his group, he called James Burton, the greatest guitarist available at the time. He asked James to put together a band for him. James hired Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar and Larry Muhoberac on piano. I’m told he originally wanted the Blossoms as his black female backup group but they turned him down. The Sweet Inspirations were available and the group that opened with Elvis consisted of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston. Elvis had called Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires for his male quartet. At that time, the Jordanaires were very busy in the studio recording backup for almost every country artist in the country music world. They feared that if they accepted his invitation and went to Las Vegas, these artists would find other backup singers and never call them again. They weren’t sure Elvis had a long-term plan for concerts and so they turned him down. The next call he made was to the Imperials. Joe Moscheo was the manager at that time and with very little persuasion, the Imperials said yes.

On July 31, 1969, Elvis came back to live performances to rave reviews at the Hilton International Hotel, the largest showroom by far in Las Vegas. The band named themselves the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, Millie Kirkham on the soprano parts, and a huge 40 piece orchestra behind him. The original conductor of that orchestra was Bobby Morris.

The order of the show brought the Sweet Inspirations out for three songs.  Elvis had a comedian that came on next named Sammy Shore. I will never understand how he got there, but I think the Hilton had him under contract so they had to use him. There was a short intermission and then the one everyone was waiting to see walked onstage to the 2001 Theme song. It was electric every night, but especially opening night.

August 6, 2017

August 12th, 2017 Concert in Memphis

The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley Celebration Concert

8:00 PM. Graceland Soundstage A, Elvis Presley’s Memphis. $40
Enjoy a very special evening at the Graceland Soundstage to celebrate the gospel music of Elvis Presley. Hear the music that not only influenced Elvis, but that also earned him his only three Grammy Awards. Special guest performers for the evening include some who shared the stage with Elvis, plus those who have been inspired by his music: Bill Baize, Donnie Sumner, Larry Strickland and Jeff Sumner, former members of JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet; Terry Blackwood, Darrell Toney and Lynn Royce Taylor of Terry Blackwood and The Imperials; plus musician Terry Mike Jeffrey. The show will feature Elvis imagery and videos on the big screen throughout the performance. Tickets for this event are on sale now individually through Graceland Reservations by calling 800-238-2000 or 901-332-3322 or online at Graceland.com.