It Was 30 Years Ago Today: ELVIS PRESLEY Came to Saginaw to Play

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Concert Reviews,   From Issue 638   By: Ron Brown

31st May, 2007     0

Editor's Note - April 25, 2007 marked the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's first concert in Saginaw; he would play another on May 3. Of course, less than four months later, Elvis was gone and rock and roll would never be the same. Writer and Saginaw native Ronald L. Brown was at the April 25 show.

I saw this website that offers thousands of suggestions for naming one's new baby. One particular page features "Emerson" - simply, the son of Emery; "Emma," a name of German origin which means "all-containing" or "universal;" and on the same page, it has the name, "Elvis" - the definition that follows says, "Meaning unknown."

Now, anyone with half of a brain knows what Elvis means.

Energy. Excitement. The dawning of a new era. Dripping wet sexuality. And ultimately, living (or dying) proof of what drugs, greed, and excess will do to a man.

It seems like just a couple years back, but it's been nearly three decades that I was called before The King.  I've seen Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, B.B. King and dozens of other contenders and pretenders - no one has, did, or ever will bring the noise and bring the funk like Elvis Aron Presley.

I lucked into it. 

Dean, a close friend from high school, and I had seen many shows together, and his mother snagged three tickets for the first of two Elvis shows in Saginaw.  Mrs. C. was one of those who subscribed to Presley from the beginning, her loyalty never shaken.  She was a sweet woman; tiny and quiet, but enjoyed a good party as much as her hunky male singers.  Tom Jones was a close second, but there was only one true love. 

It was going to be a family outing, but Mr. C. balked, choosing instead an evening at his own church - a cold one in the living room.  When asked, I didn't hesitate, despite the ungodly 15-dollar ticket price.

The Civic Center was six years old in 1977, but it seemed like the building already needed a good shave and a haircut.  There I'd seen Aerosmith, J. Geils, Ted Nugent, Boston, Rush, Humble Pie.  I was not prepared for The King.

You did not see equal amounts of mascara and Aqua Net at an Aerosmith concert, except maybe in Steven Tyler's dressing room.  Ted Nugent did not bring out the thirty-something female vote.  Peter Wolf and the J. Geils Band did not draw the sequins and glitter of people trying to relive and reclaim their past. 

The building was full of nervous energy, over 5,000 people waiting to exhale.  Elvis pins, shirts, buttons, programs everywhere - "Elvis Super Souvenirs," the recorded message droned.   This was Colonel Tom's legacy, squeezing every penny possible out of the gold mine.  Only his daughter and her people would prove better than Tom Parker at prostituting the King.

We get to our seats - a great view of the stage from the opposite end of the building.  Mrs. C. looks like a little girl on Christmas Eve, knowing that new bike is coming - but you have to wait.  I can't really put a finger on my emotions. This sure is a different crowd.  Do I even belong in this group?  Will this place blow up when He comes out?  I hope I don't scream like a bobby soxer.  When will this thing start?

The lights go downŠ.the moment is at handŠ.we are introduced toŠ. Jackie Kahane.

You know, Jackie Kahane, the Vegas comedian.  We are getting a dyed-in-the-wool, 100% Las Vegas stage show, approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission and bouffant hairdos in all 50 states.  Kahane has been with Elvis for some time, hired by Colonel Tom after seeing him open for Wayne Newton. 

For now, he comes across as tired, a bit too slick - I later learned that he was booed off the stage at least once by an impatient gathering.  He makes a comment about marijuana, when two females sitting high off to the side of the stage whoop in unison - cannabis forever!  Instead of continuing, Jackie takes time to single out the women and chide them for their opinions on pot.  It was and is the only concert I've ever attended in this building where getting high was put in the same category as polio or the German measles.  Thankfully, Jackie is soon done - he is a very brave man, slighting the weed and delaying the arrival of the King all at once.

The lights come upŠ.go down againŠ.and it's timeŠ.for Kathy Westmoreland and the Sweet Inspirations.  Elvis's female backup singers can hit the notes, but this is not why we're here.  The girls give way to the boys - J.D. Sumners and the Stamps quartet, more great voices, but simply prolonging the inevitable. 

The lights come up, go down againŠ.the first strains of "2001," the entry music, can be heardŠ.

It is no false alarm.  The King is nigh.

2001 reaches its crescendo.  Drummer Ronnie Tutt does a nice, tight fill that leads into an explosion by the band.

And Elvis takes the stage.

A thousand flashbulbs explode at once.  The crowd releases itself - it can now come out and play.  Screams.  Tears.  More screams.  A rush to the stage.  More deafening screams.  The roof is blowing off, and Auntie Em is not here to save us.  And we don't care.

Elvis has that sly little grin, part shyness and part bravado.  He knows who he is and what he represents to 7,197 here and millions more elsewhere.  Presley takes the mike from guitarist/scarf man Charlie Hodge, a friend since their army days, and kicks into the Mitch Ryder hit, "C.C. Rider."

I have wondered about Elvis's condition. 

Yes, he has been eating too many peanut butter and banana sandwiches.  He is not the "Hound Dog" Elvis.  Definitely not the '68 Comeback King.  He's not even "Aloha from Hawaii."  He doesn't appear to be overly obese, but appearances are apparently misleading.  Less than a month prior to the first Saginaw show, Elvis spent four days in the hospital and when he resumed touring he was sometimes unable to complete an entire show. But tonight, he is in Saginaw in full effect.  He wears his "sundial" jumpsuit, white with what looks like a Mayan god emblazoned across the front.  His face is round and his hair is a little too long. But when he opens his mouth and notes hit air, it is immediately apparent that one part of Elvis will never die.  You can have the swiveling hips, curled up lips, waving arms.  Nothing has more importance than the voice.  The sweat, the screams, the memories - none come alive without the voice. 

There is always the show within the show - people watching people watching Elvis.  It's Christmas morning and Mrs. C.'s new bike has arrived, her smile beaming with approval.  Dean and I glance at one another - all we can do is laugh.  Earlier, we couldn't picture ourselves here in a million years.  Now that we are here, we couldn't picture in a million years that it would be this good. 

Every little move elicits more screams.  Thousands of women are hysterical, sounding like they've all lost their purses.  Now, they are just losing their minds. This will not subside for another 90 minutes. 

My family has a lot of musical ability, so I have an appreciation for the assembled players.  The aforementioned Mr. Tutt is efficient, never giving up the beat or getting in the way.  Few - Ringo and Charlie Watts come to mind - can deliver in the same way. 

When Elvis came all the way back in 1969, he recruited guitarist James Burton to put together the band. Burton started with another teen idol, Ricky Nelson.  Listen to his solo on "Fools Rush In" - it's Rock Guitar 101, cutting as clean as the sharpest knife.    Beyond the vocals, Elvis's sound would be defined by two guitar players, Scotty Moore in the beginning and Burton later on.  It is not an accident that both gentlemen now join the King in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Bassist Jerry Scheff completes the front line troops.  Throw out any name from the first twenty years of rock and roll, and chances are Scheff, Burton, or Tutt have played on their records.  Add the stellar arrangements of bandleader Joe Guercio, who still tours with an "Elvis In Concert" show, playing live music to the King on videotape.  When it came to the music behind the voice, Elvis never settled for second best.

And now, scarves.

Perhaps the most enduring memory of any Elvis show from the '70's is the scarf ritual.  Charlie Hodge follows the King around the stage, usually during a mid-tempo number.  Hodge hands over a scarf and the King would use it to soak up a bit of whatever was coming out of his pores.  Elvis would then dangle the garment over the first couple rows of fans like he was trolling for steelhead on the Au Sable River.  At that moment, he could've had whatever he wanted - give me your checking account, recite the Pledge of Allegiance - backwards; who was the winning pitcher in game 5 of the '58 World Series?  And when he drops the bait to a waiting species, another chorus of screams and a rush of adrenaline escapes.  I am incredulous - it seemed Elvis derived a sinister pleasure of the whole procedure.  He could've stopped the music and handed out scarves for the next ten hours - and everyone would've left happy.  One woman receives a silky gift, trembling at her good fortune.  She barely has time to enjoy her prize when another woman delivered a solid right cross to her jaw and escaped with her bounty.

Back to the tunes.     

The King would deliver sufficient doses of the music that made him - "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Teddy Bear," among others.  He showed his strong gospel influence with "Amen" and "You Gave Me a Mountain," the Stamps and the Inspirations helping to take them to a higher and more sacred plain.  It was somewhat fitting that he looked most haggard when singing a song first made famous by someone else, Sinatra's "My Way."  Describing a similar scene on the same tour, author Peter Guralnick wrote in his book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley: "Hunched over the piano, his face framed in a helmet of blue-black hair from which sweat sheets down over pale, swollen cheeks, Elvis looks like nothing so much as a creature out of a Hollywood monster film - and yet we are with him all the way as he struggles to achieve grace."

The last song - "Can't Help Falling in Love."  Then "thank you and good night."  He made have sold millions, ushered in a new culture, changed music forever - but Elvis that evening and always seemed to truly appreciate his fans, receiving as much as giving.  A bow and a wave at each side of the stage, the strobes exploding in a glorious sendoff like the grand finale of the fireworks.  Kahane's voice:  Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.   

It's not over.  It's never over.  That night.  Thirty years gone by.  You did not have to like the music.  A person nearly beheading another - for a scarf?  Is this what Armageddon looks like?  Everything that is right and wrong about us, captured in one evening. 

Freedom to rise from Tupelo to Memphis to icon, then evolve into a display of Vegas kitsch, lights, sounds, screams - and still more than a modicum of ability. You could not ignore it.  Elvis would be a lot of things - he would never be ignored. 

Less than four months later, Jackie Kahane would deliver the eulogy at a certain funeral.  Charlie Hodge would fix the hair of a certain corpse, one of just two people allowed to touch the body.  White hearses would stretch for what seemed like miles.  The King was dead.  I couldn't see it coming that night in Saginaw, but maybe Elvis could.  His last tour would take him to similar, smaller outposts - perhaps he knew he had to make one last go-round at seeing and thanking as many as he could before he moved on.

Thirty years later, we still thank him today.

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