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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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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