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The Final Curtain for Elvis: A Bold Endeavor in the Face of Illness

Elvis Presley passed away on August 16, 1977, at 42, following prolonged misuse of prescription medications and alcohol. His final appearance on stage took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 26, 1977, just weeks before his premature death. In the lead-up to his last performance, two of Presley’s concerts were recorded for a television special on June 19 in Omaha, Nebraska, and June 21 in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The television special “Elvis in Concert,” featuring these recordings, aired six weeks post Presley’s passing. Following several reruns as per contractual agreements, the Presley estate halted further broadcasts, citing the footage depicted an unhealthy Presley, earning it the derogatory nickname “Fat Elvis” concert, which many found regrettable.

The concluding encore at the South Dakota concert was “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, marking it as Presley’s final recorded act. Despite struggling with the song’s spoken section, Presley’s vocal performance remained robust. Devoted fans have pointed out in the comments that Presley often playfully altered lyrics and interludes in his songs. However, his spoken words in this performance were notably indistinct, and his health visibly deteriorated. Some biographers suggest that he was in dire need of medical care at the time.

In a touching reference to his 1973 divorce from Priscilla, Presley introduced his last song saying, “This one’s called ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ I am, and I was.” His performance was deeply emotional, and despite a clumsy spoken part, which he shared a laugh over with the audience, Presley’s singing resumed beautifully. He appeared visibly unwell, yet his singing prowess was undeniable. Contrasting his unclear spoken words in the encore, his introduction to “Unchained Melody” earlier was articulate and clear.

The performance was truly moving. A YouTube user, Mikey, remarked, “That final glance as he wraps up the song…just astonishing. I remember my dad taking us to Graceland multiple times as kids. I finally understand, Dad. Such a voice. Such a spirit. The King, eternally.”

The distinction between the clear introduction of “Unchained Melody” and the mumbled delivery in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” suggests that severe health issues and exhaustion may have played a role in the difficulties Presley faced during the spoken segment of the latter. It was, after all, the encore, and despite his evident health challenges, Presley managed to perform 55 shows in the first half of 1977.

Jerry Schilling, a close associate of Presley’s, revealed in his memoir that he questioned Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, about allowing the filming given Presley’s poor health. Parker reportedly insisted that Presley wanted the special to proceed as planned. My research for this piece has left me astounded and admiring of the quality of Presley’s vocal performance in his last public concert. The king may be gone, but Elvis’s legacy endures.

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