Say what you will about Elvis Presley in the 1970s (go ahead, say it—he was drug-addled, tacky, fat, a humorless parody of his former self, etc., etc., ad nauseam), he was certainly prolific. He released something like 12 studio albums in seven years, and during the same period, he let fly four live discs. This is to say nothing of the myriad posthumous collections devoted to the period.
Of course, whatever your preferred vintage, there’s no lack of studio material to sate you and convince you that your Elvis is the true and proper one. What’s more unique about Presley’s output in his last decade is the prominence of live material. Apart from the justly ballyhooed television appearances and some scattered one-offs of variable sound quality from the 1950s and 1960s, the live records from the 1970s comprise the bulk of our documentary evidence of Elvis as a live performer. As time has lurched ever forward and the distance separating Elvis from his contemporary audience has broadened, his studio recordings nonetheless have continued to fascinate and resonate. These live recordings, on the other hand, have become increasingly inscrutable.
Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis is a good case in point. At first, the entire production seems vaguely haughty, what with its big arrangements, its horns and its ample back-up singers. And Presley’s vocals, while never anything less than capable, sound listless, even lazy. If, however, you spend some time living with this record, you’ll begin to feel very differently about it. Those first impressions will change shape. What once sounded haughty will sound simply confident. What once sounded lazy will sound lived-in and casual. You’ll come to relish those admittedly small, momentary flashes of Presley’s virtuosity, and you’ll actively enjoy the easy-going professionalism that is the album’s hallmark.
Spend more time with it still, and you’ll realize that the album is in considerable part a testament to Presley’s sense of humor—amiable and accessible, to be sure, but not without its sharp edges. The opening processional, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, heralds the King’s entrance, and it is a gesture so huge, so unabashedly regal, that at first you might miss the joke and mistake it for a signifier of Presley’s delusions of grandeur. The performances that follow, however, prove above all else that Presley didn’t take himself too seriously. During his tenderest ballads (“Love Me”, for instance) and sultriest torch tunes (a riotous take on “Fever”), Elvis sabotages himself, deliberately flubbing lines and dropping jokes. That’s not to say there aren’t serious moments. He won his final Grammy for the gospel standard “How Great Thou Art”, and he certainly deserved it. And although the bombast and sheer audacity of “An American Trilogy” will provoke snickering from more cynical listeners, there’s no denying the passion and sincerity of Presley’s vocal.
Still, the prevailing mood here is playful, and that’s not a quality we presently celebrate in live rock ‘n’ roll. Intensity, passion, zeal: these are the chief criteria by which we judge performers today. To modern ears attuned to these altogether different aesthetic values, this record can seem impenetrable, and its foreignness can discourage the work required to glean anything from it. That being said, if you press through that initial reluctance and give the record a fair hearing, there’s a lot to be learned here, not just about Elvis Presley, but about the amorphous metrics by which we measure the quality of live performances.