Dissecting Elvis Presley’s Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis

Dissecting Elvis Presley’s Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis

By Joel Goldenberg, March 28th, 2014

On first listen, Elvis Presley’s 1974 album Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis is just another of Presley’s many live albums released during the 1970s, and its importance lay more in the fact that it was a homecoming concert.
After all, two other live albums — As Recorded At Madison Square Garden  in 1972 and Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite in 1973 — were also released on the basis of them being high-profile events — Elvis’s first concert in New York City and a worldwide (Asia, mostly) satellite broadcast that substituted for the world tour that sadly never took place. Both sold very well.
In my mind, musically, the 1972 and 1973 live albums had their moments but were no great shakes. Elvis was like a tiger freed from its cage in his 1969 and 1970 live performances, but by 1971 boredom was starting to set in. There were still good concerts — his February 1972 stand in Las Vegas was extremely good. But he was beginning to wear himself down.
However, I always had a soft spot for the Memphis live album. The performances are better than usual — if not up to the level of the 1969-70 shows — and Elvis is in a much more playful mood. This is significant in that he was in a pretty bad state of mind just months before — his divorce with Priscilla had gone through in October 1973, he had an uninspired studio session in Memphis in July of that year and his prescription drug habit was escalating.
Ninetenn seventy-four could have been a turning point. Elvis’s December 1973 Memphis session at the Stax studio was a huge improvement, and a private November 1973 tape of Elvis joking around with his girlfriend Linda Thompson showed signs of a much better state of mind. And based on CDs I’ve heard from the Follow That Dream label that put out much unreleased material, his early 1974 concerts were quite inspired.
The newest version of Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis to be released, commemorating that show’s 40th anniversary, is the latest Sony Legacy 2-CD release, which pairs a classic Elvis album with a companion album from the same sessions, or a live show recorded around the same time.
In this case, the Memphis show — expanded to include all the songs performed — is paired with a Richmond, Virginia show performed two days before — the source is an excellent mono soundboard recording.
And both concerts are great — the performances are jaunty, and Elvis is having a good time fooling around with the songs and the audience. Having listened to many FTD recordings, I found that when Elvis was in a good mood, he would add humour to his otherwise perfunctory performance of Hound Dog by singing “please don’t forget the past, before i kick your (cymbal clash)” And he does this in Memphis.
There is no one standout performance on this album, it’s just all good, and fun — especially the  rock n’ roll medley that includes Loggins and Messina’s Your Mama Don’t Dance.
But what is really revealing, and heartbreaking, in the Sony Legacy set are the photos in the accompanying 28-page booklet of Elvis on tour throughout ‘74. Never have I seen someone’s appearance change so much in the course of nine months. In some photos, from the March 20 Memphis concert, Elvis’s face is bloated and he looks rather slightly stocky. In others, shot just two days earlier in Richmond, he looks as good as he did in 1971. In May of that year, he looks lean but considerably older. But on Aug. 28, in Las Vegas, he looks as good as he did in 1969, as he did in photos shot at a karate demonstration in June. But by September, he looked completely out of it, and this was the time of his worst ever concert, from College Park, Maryland, which is painful to hear. Elvis couldn’t sing properly at all at that concert, and his state of mind was deteriorating — he was making remarks from the stage at the time about printed rumours that he was using drugs.
From that time until his final concert in June 1977, he never looked great again, and his concerts were hit and miss.
I’m not sure what happened to Elvis in late 1974, but earlier that year, on the musical evidence at least, he had a chance to take stock of his life and thrive. It’s unfortunate the lure of medications got in the way.

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