Elvis: Five of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest performances

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is back in the building.

The spirit of Elvis has been resurrected by Baz Luhrmann for his hugely hyped new biopic, starring Austin Butler as the man himself.

Unquestionably one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Presley had a spectacular and often peculiar career — one that scaled incredible heights, in which he became one of the true American icons, but which also featured many years of struggle, out of the limelight. This latest biopic delves into it all, good and bad.

And as Butler brilliantly demonstrates in the biopic, when Elvis was on top of his game, he was untouchable. For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to witness one of those performances in the flesh, thankfully many were captured on film for later generations to enjoy.

Here, we’ve picked out five of his most legendary on-stage appearances, from his first time on national television to one last shining example of his greatness, just months before his demise.

The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show — January 28, 1956

In less than five months’ time, he would be entrancing and enraging the entire nation, but when he appeared on an episode of the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in January 1956, Elvis Presley was a relative unknown. After a string of hits on the country charts, it was his first ever performance on national television, and Heartbreak Hotel — his debut major label release — was just a day old. When he first strode onto the stage though, guitar in hand, hair coiffed and dressed impeccably, he looked every part the idol he would soon become.

He played through a medley of Shake, Rattle and Roll and Flip, Flop and Fly, as well as I Got A Woman by Ray Charles. It gave glimpses of what was in store from the 21-year-old, with his momentary leg quivers eliciting whistles and cheers from the audience, and that era-defining voice gliding over the airwaves.

The Milton Berle Show — June 5, 1956

On the evening of June 5, 1956, 40 million people tuned in to watch the latest edition of the Milton Berle Show, one of the most popular prime-time programmes in the US. It would be Elvis’ second time performing in front of those cameras, but it was this one that, in the 60-odd years since, has been written into rock ‘n’ roll folklore.

It really all came down to a guitar — or rather, a lack thereof. On Berle’s suggestion, Presley had ditched the six-string in order to free himself up on stage. It was a fateful decision, because as his band sauntered into a half-time groove during a rendition of Hound Dog, he began gyrating his pelvis in time to the music, with his previously unseen lower half in scandalously clear view.

The reaction among the studio crowd was one of aroused bemusement, as laughs mingled with excited yelps. In the press, Prelsey was eviscerated (“an unutterable bore,” according to the New York Times). Parents were outraged, with Berle later claiming, quite possibly without hyperbole, that he had received “hundreds of thousands” of complaint letters. But among the younger generations, he had become an instant hero, a heartthrob pin-up and a musical inspiration. As Bruce Springsteen later recalled, drawing on his memory of watching it as a six-year-old: “Everything starts and ends with Elvis.”

‘68 Comeback Special — December 3, 1968

Elvis in 1968 was a very different man to the one who ruffled all those feathers back in 1956. By this time, he had been drafted into the army and, once returned, launched a film career, featuring in a string of limp movies. He hadn’t performed live in seven years, and his musical output was limited to awful soundtracks for those flicks. With the sheer might of The Beatles now to contend with, he could quite easily have faded into nothingness.

This televised special was intended to bring him back into focus, and to win over the younger generations wooed by all the vibrancy of 60s psychedelia. Initially the idea was for Presley to tackle a collection of Christmas songs — thankfully, this was soon abandoned. Instead they settled on a 50-minute special, with the 33-year-old performing in the round while sitting down, and then alone, in front of those famous red light bulbs, arranged to spell out “ELVIS”.

It turned out to be arguably the finest performance of his career, spellbinding with its magnetism and dripping with testosterone. As Elvis strolled onto stage, clad in black tight black leather, there were audible moans of pleasure from the assembled audience. His voice was sensitive and, later, roaringly intense. Between songs he cracked jokes with his band. If he was nervous — and by all accounts from the people who were backstage on the night, he was — then he barely showed it.

The rest of the performance was a triumph. Rather than pander to new trends, Elvis doubled down on what made him Elvis: unbridled charisma and flooring musical talent. That he turned up looking even more 50s than he did in the 50s just proved how infallible his charm was at that point.

It was a transformative night for Presley’s career, launching a run of highly lucrative concerts and catapulting him back into the charts. The king had reclaimed his kingdom.

Aloha From Hawaii — January 14, 1973

Elvis made history in 1973 when he became the first solo artist to broadcast a live concert all around the world via satellite. It was a hefty undertaking, with the whole endeavour costing $2.5m — that’s close to $14.5m in today’s money. His show at the Honolulu International Center was beamed into homes in more than 40 countries around the world and while official viewing figures are disputed, but Presley’s people claimed more than one billion viewers tuned in. Curiously, it wasn’t until the following day that US audiences were able to watch it, as the concert itself clashed with the Super Bowl.

Sparkling in his studded white jumpsuit, he was the consummate performer as he glided through the biggest hits of his career so far, as well as his favourite covers including My Way and Johnny B. Goode. It is widely and rightly regarded as one of Elvis’ best ever concerts — a final apex before his life and career took a plunge.

Rapid City, South Dakota — June 21, 1977

In June 1977, Presley was staggering through a tour he should never have been on. He was a picture of ill-health: on stage, his face was puffy and profusely sweaty, and his once slick on-stage chat had been reduced to a series of confused mutterings.

During one of the concerts, in South Dakota, the 42-year-old introduced a song he had recently recorded, Unchained Melody. As he shuffled over to the piano, wheezing into the microphone, he apologised in advance for forgetting the chords and tried to remember whether or not it had been released yet (it hadn’t).

It made for painful viewing, but what followed was extraordinary. Even as the rest of his body and mind failed him, his voice was irresistible — still so deeply heartfelt, still powerful. It was a faultless rendition, with Presley even managing to flash one of those trademark smiles towards the audience.

Less than two months later, he passed. It meant that this song was without question the last of his great performances caught on film, and perhaps ever.

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