Elvis Presley stayed on the road until the end of his life, playing his final show at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana less than two months before his death on August 16th, 1977. But with a handful of exceptions, the gigs he played in his last years were sad, sloppy affairs where a bloated, drugged Presley struggled to remember his lyrics and get through the night without collapsing. There were brief moments of brilliance, like his performances of “Unchained Melody” near the end, but most everything from the final three years of his life is sad and hard to watch.
Some Presley die-hards may quibble with this, but to many, his final moment of true brilliance came on January 14th, 1973, when millions of people tuned in to see his Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite concert special. Presley had been gigging steadily for four years at this point, but he’d never played a single show outside of North America. Demand to see him was extremely strong in Europe and throughout much of Asia and Presley was eager to book the shows, but his manager Colonel Tom Parker (born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands) was in America without proper papers and feared deportation if he ever stepped outside U.S. borders.
The hoopla around President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 inspired Parker to organize another event that would capture the attention of the world, using satellite technology to beam the show to every market on the planet that had waited nearly 20 years in vain to see Elvis Presley in the flesh. The show took place at the Honolulu International Center and featured numerous Presley classics (“Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes”) alongside newer hits (“Suspicious Minds”) and covers that had became a trademark of his live show (“My Way,” “Steamroller Blues”).
One of the highlights came early when he broke out “Burning Love,” a hit from just months earlier that became his final song to hit the Top 10 on the Hot 100. Presley trimmed down for the big show and still had an absolute command of the stage and his singing voice. He was just 38 and seemed poised to stick around for years to come. But Presley’s addiction to painkillers and sleeping pills began taking a heavy toll in the months after Aloha From Hawaii. There were numerous hospitalizations and many attempts to clean him up, but nothing worked.
Had Elvis lived, the world could have hypothetically experienced the joys of a New Wave Elvis album, Elvis standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson at the “We Are The World” sessions, Elvis joining the Traveling Wilburys in 1989 and Elvis working with Rick Rubin in the 1990s on a stripped-down comeback album for American Recordings. He’d be 83 today and could conceivably still be on the road. Sadly, Aloha From Hawaii stands as the final document of a time where the future still looked bright for Elvis Presley.