The Last Great Moment of Elvis Presley’s Musical Career: Watch His Extraordinary Performance of “Unchained Melody” (1977)

As the “King” of American pop culture in the mid-20th century, Elvis embodied so many of his country’s contradictions. Revivalist of the “love and theft” of black American music and performance; humble, small town mama’s boy and dutiful soldier who built a cult of modern celebrity and a garish temple to conspicuous excess; self-appointed crusader who railed against “the drug culture” while his “legal” addiction to opiates and amphetamines laid waste to his career and health.

Maybe in these conflicts between humility and fame-seeking, all-American wholesomeness and transgressive seduction, playacting lawlessness and moralizing law and order, his legions of fans saw their own split selves. His hip-shaking confidence seemed particularly suited to both inflaming and soothing anxieties and safely channeling pent-up passions. Certain inconsistencies in his persona did not seem to trouble him overmuch.

But he was not a well man in the last several years of his short life and his tenure in the glittering faux-palaces of Las Vegas dramatically hastened the decline. While the reality of Elvis in Vegas was tacky and sad, the mythos of Elvis in Vegas made it “cool for fading superstar performers to find a second (or even third) act of their career in Vegas,” writes Mike Sager at Billboard. “Elvis paved the way for the likes of Britney Spears,” whose big American rise and fall resembles his in many ways.

Elvis’ own attempt at a third (or fourth) act is predictably tragic. Exploitative manager Colonel Tom Parker pushed him out on tour in 1977, notes Andy Greene at Rolling Stone, “despite his horrid shape.” Parker “arranged a camera crew to film the June 19th show in Omaha” in order to “get more product in to the stores”—perhaps sensing that Presley did not have much further to go. The cameras kept rolling in stops throughout the Midwest.

He was an absolute mess. He was only 42, but years of prescription drug abuse and horrifying dietary habits had left him bloated, depressed and near death. He had an enlarged heart, an enlarged intestine, hypertension and incredibly painful bowel problems. He was barely sleeping and should have probably been in the hospital, but he was still a huge draw on the concert circuit and the money was too good to turn down.

It is ugly to dwell on this period, except that somehow those final concerts produced the extraordinarily poignant footage of “Unchained Melody” at the top in Rapid City, South Dakota. “Without a doubt,” writes Greene, “it’s the last great moment of his career.” He digs deep, his voice is clear and strong. The jarring contrast between how good he sounds and how terrible he looks underlines and bolds the lines—“time can do so much…”

At the last tour stop in Indianapolis, he barely pulled off a rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” above. The song starts off really strong but soon devolves into Elvis muttering gibberish, sweating, and giggling to himself. This is hard to watch and it’s no wonder the tour footage, aired once on CBS, “has yet to resurface in any official capacity. This isn’t the Elvis that his estate wants the fans to remember.” Surely those fans themselves prefer the kitschy fantasy. Less than two months later, he was gone.

via Boing Boing

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Watch Johnny Cash’s Poignant Final Interview & His Last Performance: “Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” (2003)

Watch George Harrison’s Final Interview and Performance (1997)

Watch John Lennon’s Last Live Performance (1975): “Imagine,” “Stand By Me” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (25)
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  • Patricia says:

    There will never be another ELVIS !!!! He was taken way too soon.He was a great man to many people.He was not perfect,
    but who is? He did the very best he could.None of us know everything he had to deal with in his life.

  • Mary Harwood says:

    His voice is the greatest asset any performer ever had. I will love him forever. I Saw him 4 times in concert, the last being in DesMoines,Iowa in June 1977. He was always the ultimate performer.

  • M. Asproyerakas says:

    Sad, yet at the same time magnificent. His talent and glory shone through to his fans, those who were able to see and hear past his distress. Elvis, we love and respect you tender.

  • Gary says:

    The version of are you lonesome tonight shown here is not from Elvis’s last concert in Indianapolis it’s from rapid city on June 21 1977 6 days earlier than his last concert.

  • Diane Millican says:

    I am so sick of people always yapping about ELVIs’drug use!There will never be the likes of ELVIS ever again!He was the best!I will always love him.the greatest entertainer of the 20th century and beyond😔

  • Gus Evers says:

    Can’t remember exact year, I was bus driver ( Greyhound ) at Lakeland, Florida concert with J D Sumner, Sweet Inspirations, Joe Esposito,Joe Guercio and Vegas Hilton Band, stayed at motel in Lakeland, went to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa afterwards! Regards, Gus Evers

  • Thelma King says:

    Elvis was a great man. He was the greatest entertainer the world has ever known. My favorite gospel song of his is HOW GREAT THOU ART. No one can sing that song like Elvis can. His Concerts were really good.I only had a chance to go to two (2) of them. I got to meet his Dad and talk to him. That was one (1) of the highlights of my trip to Memphis, Tenn. I really hated that he had such a short life here on this earth. It is so Sad to think about him being gone. He just had it all his good looks, his great singing voice and his great talent. He was a one and only greatest person that I have ever known!

  • Jackie Miller says:

    He was the Best there will be another elvis presley. Bring back all these pictures of him when he did not look his Best. We loved him for his music and his home were people can visit to be close to him all I can say once his mother passed away which he missed so much. and his marraige was over. Put good things up about elvis.

  • ChrisDenny says:

    How did Elvis have a “12-year tenure in the glittering faux-palaces of Las Vegas”? He was only there after the ’68 Comeback Special and before hitting a perpetual tour of the U.S. as shown in Elvis On Tour (1972). Even counting his initial critical failure in Las Vegas early in his career, he couldn’t have had more than a 4-year tenure, at best–probably less than that. For Elvis to have a “12-year tenure” in Las Vegas, he would have had to play there from 1965 until his death in 1977.

  • Joe Howard says:

    Elvis was a great man had giving heart was Best the Best Entertainer in the world no one could ever outdo Elvis performances

  • ChrisDenny says:

    Note: Correction was made.

  • Mrs. D says:

    But he is still with us! Some already have been blessed to know who he is today.
    Glad he could go on and live a normal life!

  • Annie Ludwig says:

    My dad came home and surprised us all with Elvis tickets,his last concert in Chicago 1977. It was all I expected fantastic,great,and more. His voice was great and he will always be the greatest singer I have ever seen. It broke my heart even to this day I cry over the loss of Elvis. There isn’t a bad word anyone could ever say about this wonderful man who brought joy to us all with his voice,music and his humor and of course his good looks. ALWAYS THE KING. I will always love Elvis and miss him always. ONE OF A KIND

  • Jme says:

    Elvis always acted silly in his performances. I do not think he was all messed up and talking gibberish in “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. I think he initially messed up and in true Elvis fashion he kept the joke going and was cheesy.

  • Donald H Roberts says:

    Parker contributed to his decline as much as his lifestyle. Elvis was brainwashed.

  • Rick Magee says:

    While I am among those who value and appreciate Elvis’ immense talent, I am also realistic enough to know that much of his troubles stemmed from allowing Parker to take advantage of him and from his own weaknesses as a human being. I don’t regard him as a musical god, but I know many people would have self-destructed under the same circumstances. Peter Guralick’s 2-part biography of Elvis is the best portrait of the man, and I highly recommend it.

  • Dana Dean says:

    Absolutely the best,Can’t go a day without listening to his music.

  • Cynthia says:

    You are an ass to make a joke of a mucic icon in his final performance. The world will remember him but your only claim to fame is as some bozo using classical footage to get your 3td grade article recognized. He is the Kind, you are a bozo.

  • Joyce Dignazio says:

    I am another person who is sick of hearing about Elvis’ drug use. Parker had him on that one, some of us aren’t as strong as others. I’m also sick of hearing about how over-weight he was, what judging people we have. People gain and lose weight. Have a heart!!!

  • Jules says:

    Ive watched this video once before its so heat breaking it left me in tears..All because Col.Parker was a greedy selfish malicious man …He didnt care about Elvis all he cared about was money..Not about Elvis or his health ..I know people tried to help Elvis i know he was bad tempered or that he would sack a member of his staff ..But surely at the end of the day shameful to say in the best interest of Elvis health & well being to have him sectioned..if he had been maybe Elvis have lived..No doubt i will get back lash but ive had my little rant.. .

  • dave says:

    if you listen to his voice, its really rich and wonderful. Sad but his voice never left him. He has so much presence and charisma that does not seem to belong in this planet. Rest in Peace Elvis.

  • Michaela Enoch says:

    This is a disgusting article about Elvis and hardly corresponds to reality. It is not well researched and contains only the prejudices of those who want to undermine Elvis’ dignity after his death and trample underfoot!

  • Kate says:

    He wasn’t losing it on this version. He had already done a very famous spoof on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” earlier, and it was very funny. It’s possible that he was pretty spacy in this video, but he wasn’t just losing it here–he was simply doing another version of the spoof. We all know he was in terrible trouble by then, in any case.

  • john ashleigh says:

    mick jagger the greatest ever ,

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