There are many Elvis fans around today who actually saw Elvis perform live on stage in both the 1950s and the 1970s. I know a few, but unfortunately, I’m not a member of that club. I saw Elvis perform twice in the seventies, first in Seattle in 1970 and then again in Spokane in 1976. But I was only eight years old when Elvis came to Spokane in 1957, and so he passed through without me even knowing he had been in town. However, while doing research for my book, Elvis ’57: The Final Fifties Tours, I became quite familiar with Elvis’s stage show that year. One thing I realized was that, although much had changed while Elvis was away making movies, he was the same cat on stage in both the fifties and seventies.
Of course, a specific comparison of Elvis live in those two decades is impossible. On one hand, a live Presley performance in 1955 was quite different from one in 1957. Similarly, Elvis on stage in 1970 differed in many ways from Elvis on stage in 1976. (I can testify personally to that.) The best that can be done, then, is to pick one city and compare Elvis’s appearances there in the two decades. Let’s go with Portland, Oregon, since Elvis was at the height of his game when he played that town in 1957 and 1970.
Elvis’s appearance in Portland on Labor Day, September 2, 1957, was one of his final concerts of the decade. By then he was no longer the wild, raw performer he had been the previous couple of years. Instead, he had polished his act. He had become a master at manipulating a crowd’s emotions, and he was drawing the biggest crowds of his (or anybody else’s) career. With a string of hit records in his repertoire, he was truly at the top of his game.
Elvis next played Portland 13 years later, on November 11, 1970 (I saw him the next night in Seattle). Having polished his act during three Las Vegas engagements, Elvis had only recently gone back out on tour. Not counting Vegas, Portland was just the ninth city that he played in the new decade. Again, Elvis had a recent collection of hits on the playlist. His fans, starved by his long self-exile from the stage, came to see him by the thousands. Once more, he was at the top of his game.
• In some ways it was like Elvis never left the stage
So how did the two Portland shows, 13 years apart, compare? In some ways they were different, reflecting the great cultural and technological changes that had occurred between them. In other ways, though, they were the same, as if nothing had changed through the years.
Let’s start with the obvious changes. First, the venues. In 1957 Elvis performed outdoors on a portable stage sitting over second base in the city’s Multnomah Stadium. In 1970 he played indoors at Portland Memorial Coliseum. While both crowds numbered about 12,000, their makeups differed. At 22, Elvis played to a crowd dominated by screaming 14- and 15-year-old girls. Returning at age 34, Elvis faced a scattering of teenagers, but his fans had aged with him, and the Oregonian referred to the 1970 crowd as being mostly “mothers and matrons.”
Another obvious difference between the two concerts was the stage personnel. Only 5 singers (Elvis and the Jordanaires) and 3 musicians (Scotty, Bill, and D. J.) were on stage that night in 1957. At the Coliseum in 1970, Elvis was joined on stage by at least 6 musicians (TCB Band) and 9 background singers (Sweet Inspirations, The Imperials, Kathy Westmoreland).
There was also a striking difference in Elvis’s stage deportment during the two Portland concerts. It was gyrations versus karate. In 1957 an Oregon Journal writer characterized Elvis’s stage act as a series of “bumps and grinds, wiggles and sinuous writhings.” According to the Oregonian, in 1970 Elvis still worked up a sweat, but “many of his movements [were] unnecessary; he [directed] the band with arm jerks; he [ran] around the stage like a long-haired Pagliacci eager to keep the stage crew happy.”
• Some crossovers in Elvis’s concert playlists
As for the songs Elvis performed, there were many differences, of course, but there were a few common numbers as well. Elvis’s 45-minute, 15-song set for his Pacific Northwest tour in 1957 included “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Got a Woman,” “Teddy Bear,” “Loving You,” “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “I Was the One,” “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” “Love Me,” “Mean Woman Blues,” and the standard ’50s closer, “Hound Dog.”
Elvis’s hour-long, 14-song 1970 show in Portland included “Johnny B. Goode,” “That’s All Right,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Got a Woman,” “Love Me Tender,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “How Great Thou Art,” “The Wonder of You,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Hound Dog,” and his standard ’70s closer, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
From the 1970 concert, Oregonian writer John Wendeborn picked “How Great Thou Art” and “Johnny B. Goode” as the best numbers of the night. Elvis did the Chuck Berry song, Wendeborn said, “in the old Presley style. It was fast and it incorporated the fabulous backup quintet.”
Sound was by far the biggest difference in the two Portland concerts. In 1957 Elvis and his band were still operating with a weak amplifier and a couple of small box speakers set on the stage. Although it was the best sound system available at the time, it was woefully inadequate when playing to 12,000 people, especially in an open-air venue like Multnomah Stadium. Combine the weak sound system with the constant screaming of teenage girls, and most of the crowd could barely discern Elvis’s voice, if at all.
Of course, in the 13 years that intervened between Elvis’s two Portland appearances, concert sound system technology improved in leaps and bounds. The Oregonian’s review of Elvis’s 1970 show reflects that, observing that the singers “elevated the decibels” and the band “crescendoed out of sight.” In the fifties, Elvis occasionally joked that he didn’t mind the screaming at his shows because it covered up his mistakes. By 1970, though, the advanced equipment revealed all sound, both good and bad, coming from the stage. The Oregonian reported that Elvis “flubbed the words to ‘The Wonder of You’ and didn’t finish many of his songs.” (Of course, Elvis did finish all of his songs. The writer here was undoubtedly referring to the shortened versions of his fifties hits that Elvis incorporated into his seventies concerts.)
• Crazy girls a common thread for Elvis in ’50s and ’70s
Despite all the differences between Elvis’s 1957 and 1970 concerts in Portland, there was one common thread. It was in the craziness committed by some of his female fans. In 1957 it was the girl who climbed the outside façade of the Multnomah Hotel in an effort to reach Elvis’s seventh floor room and the young wife who snuck out to see Elvis’s show against her husband’s wishes, only to be exposed by a photo of her at the concert in the next morning’s newspaper. In 1970 it was the group of college girls who had front row seats for Elvis’s show in the Coliseum. One ran up to the stage and grabbed Elvis’s bottle of mineral water. Each of the girls took a drink. “He had a cold, and each of us got a cold from that. We always said we got Elvis colds,” one later announced proudly. When it came to how fans reacted to Elvis, some things never changed. — Alan Hanson (February 2009)
"In some ways they were different, reflecting the great cultural and technological changes that had occurred between them. In other ways, they were the same, as if nothing had changed."