Listen to this track from rock ‘n’ roll Monarch, and Tupelo, Mississippi favourite son Elvis Aaron Presley. It’s “American Trilogy” as performed as a part of one of the first concert-length satellite broadcasts in history, and captured for posterity on the concert film Elvis – Aloha from Hawaii.
The show itself was one of the most expensive projects of its time, costing a whopping 2.5 million dollars (about 13.5 million in today’s money), and broadcast internationally on January 14, 1973, one week after Presley’s 37th birthday. The album was released a month later.
The show itself came out of the idea that Elvis couldn’t play every major city in the world, and that a satellite broadcast would make up for it. This show was broadcast from Honolulu, with the same crack backing band that had defined his show from the late ’60s, including James Burton on lead guitar, and backed up by gospel vocal group the Stamps.
This was an historic show technologically, and Elvis and his band rose to the occasion. But, in my books, it was historic for other reasons besides, and in a bittersweet sort of way.
But, first thing’s first.
I think a lot of people are under the impression that as soon as Elvis donned his rhinestone-studded jumpsuits, it marked the beginning of his ‘fat’ period. Not so, not so. From 1968 to this concert in Hawaii, Elvis had honed his live show, and took on some of the aesthetics of the time while he was at it.
Really, this was Elvis’ glam period, emerging at the same time as Bowie dyed his hair, put on space boots, and became an alien rock star. This was the era when Roxy music brought extravagance and art school androgyny to the pop music table. Marc Bolan put glitter and eyliner on the ’50s R&B boogie-beat. In short, exaggerated stage costuming became a priority in general across the pop/rock spectrum by the early ’70s. Elvis followed suit, pardon the pun.
As a singer, Elvis was in fine form, with a seasoned, lived-in voice that carried an authoratative, almost operatic power that his ’50s Sun Records and early RCA incarnations, great in their own right, were moving towards. His questionable movie period was largely behind him, and he was ready to do what he was always best at; to exercise his unparalleled capacity for interpreting musical material be it the blues, country, or traditional pop, while putting his own mark on it, and making it an entertaining spectacle from it in front of live audiences.
By the time this concert was shot and recorded as a live album, Elvis was lean, mean, and ready to rock.
This tune, “American Trilogy”, was always one of my favourites of his from this vital, and underrated period between the Elvis television special (aka ’68 Comeback Special’), and this live satellite show from Hawaii in 1973. It makes a medley of three traditional folk tunes; theme of the Confederacy, “Dixie”, folk song “All My Trials” made popular in the ’60s folk boom, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. It was arranged by Mickey Newbury.
I think one of the reasons it resonates with me is the tearstains that you can hear in between the lines that Elvis brings out so well. And maybe it’s because it is Elvis singing it. It’s hard not to imprint his story on it. The “hush little baby don’t you cry/you know your daddy’s bound to die” is devastating, as is “All my trials, Lord/Will soon be over”. How apropos.
I say that because I think this show was it for the King. It was his final curtain, to quote another song from this set. He would of course continue to be an active performer, and recording artist after this show. But, it was all downhill for him in terms of his physical and arguably emotional health too, with a failed marriage behind him by then, ballooning weight, and a serious addiction to pills that would be one of the causes of his untimely death by the summer of 1977 at the relatively young age of 42.
It is all the more apropos that even if ‘aloha’ means ‘hello’, it also means ‘goodbye’.
I like to think that this show was a way to give audience a taste of what it would have been like to see Elvis in his glam-period prime, and at the height of his powers as a performer. And it should give audiences today a glimpse into that era, too.
And that’s how we remember him best.
To get in touch with the King, make sure and check out Elvis.com.