Some Kind of Man
By David McGee

Elvis Presley

Capturing the King at a moment he still was on edge and even a bit uncertain about his ability to pull off a good live show after spending the better part of the ‘60s performing only for movie cameras, On Stage is an exciting, sometimes powerful documenting of an important artist recovering something he thought lost, and further refining it into a sound as distinctively his own as it was when he began his artistic odyssey in 1954 at Sun Records. Preparing for his return to live performance with a stand at Las Vegas’s International Hotel in August 1969, then returning to that stage in February 1970, Elvis assembled a formidable rock ‘n’ roll group, first and foremost, led by James Burton, the one guitarist of Elvis’s own time whose reputation and artistry could match or surpass that of his original guitarist, Scotty Moore. (Really, was there any better fit for Elvis at this juncture than James Burton? A number of live albums and studio sessions suggest the answer is a resounding no.) The second key component of Elvis’s live sound represented the vital gospel strain in his music, embodied on stage by the Imperials (representing the white gospel quartet tradition) and the Sweet Inspirations, bringing the black church to the proceedings. Finally, adding additional drive and punch to the rockers and rich depths of emotional color to the ballads were the strings, horns and percussion of Bobby Morris’s orchestra. All these years later, since Elvis’s passing in 1977, no other artist has mated the fundamental roots of rock ‘n’ roll—gospel, blues, country—to quite so distinctive and, to be certain, vaulting a pop grandeur as Elvis fashioned in his comeback years. This became a bit of an albatross in later years, as his both his health and the quality of his shows deteriorated, but even then there were moments (usually in the gospel segments) where it was as good as ever; but in the years represented on this new double-CD live set, 1969 and 1970, is was nothing short of awesome when it got rolling.

Naturally, with so much sound roaring off the stage, some of the most touching moments here come when Elvis reigns it all in, strips it down almost to a subdued hum and lets his interpretive singing stand out in bold relief against the imposing structure supporting him. You hear this on Disc 1’s (from the 1970 show) lovely treatment of “Yesterday,” with the sweetly humming strings, soft and poignant, being the dominant feature of the soundscape behind Elvis’s wistful reading. It’s even more impressive on a bonus track from the show, Mac Davis’s “Don’t Cry Daddy,” when the orchestra recedes and surges according to the intensity of feeling in Elvis’s delivery, but the strings maintain a repressed, keening cry throughout as he systematically works his way through the brief (2:38) heart tugger concerning a father’s tortured memory of his departed wife (it’s never stated whether she died or walked out) and his anguished response to hearing one of his sons appeal for the return of his laughing, playful dad (in the son’s assurances of better days ahead is one of the truly bizarre lyrics in Elvis lore: “Daddy, you’ve still got me and little Tommy/together we’ll find a brand-new mommy.” Elvis sells it completely by soft pedaling it with no embroidery in his phrasing at all.). From the 1969 show, Disc 2 offers a wonderful treatment of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” which Elvis sings with a bluesy swagger absent not only from his famous recorded version, but also from subsequent live renditions. He even plays the recitation straight, and to great effect; the only flaw in the realization of this dramatic tearjerker is the high, wailing female soprano wafting overhead. This role would later be taken, splendidly so, by one of Elvis’s favorite singers, Kathy Westmoreland, but here it falls to Millie Kirkham, who sound so wobbly at one point that she might be mistaken for a musical saw instead of a human being. One of the bonus tracks is a real gem—a lowdown country blues treatment of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” with Larry Muhoberac contributing some terrific, tear-drenched honky tonk piano, as Burton injects some pinched, crying fills, the Imperials emit a pained, low-key moan and Elvis saunters through it all with the cool aplomb of a man with a wry sense of reality kicking him in the gut again in his chance encounter with an old flame.

Elvis in Las Vegas, August 12, 1979, ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ and ‘In the Ghetto’

Thought the ’69 show comprises Disc 2 of this set, it’s the hardest rocking of the two concerts; six months later, in February 1970, as heard on Disc 1, the elements of the Elvis Spectacle of the later ‘70s were falling into place, but the vocal attack remained pretty ferocious—Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” may never have been given a more gripping or driving treatment; “Polk Salad Annie” is funky in a way that does justice to the Tony Joe White original but stands on its own as well; Joe South’s “Walk a Mile In My Shoes,” fuel-injected by Burton’s spiky, snarling asides, is unfurled with defiant righteousness, until it becomes both proclamation and protest. By contrast, the rockers in the 1969 set feel lighter, fleeter, rawer—from “Blue Suede Shoes” to a white-hot “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” medley to the assured, pleading blues of “Reconsider Baby”; it truly was a set besotted with the spirit of both birth and renewal—the latter explicit in the coiled rage of “In the Ghetto,” in the intense outpouring of conflicted energy erupting in “Suspicious Minds,” powerful songs that demanded more of Elvis than mere vocal prowess, songs that forced his focus inward first, then to the public reckoning of self-revelation.

Two shows; two pivotal moments in the first scenes of Elvis’s last act. There would be another couple of years of fully engaged performances onstage and in the studio, before the onset of steady, systemic decline on all fronts. That he produced any worthwhile work at all during the latter years is altogether remarkable, given the maladies afflicting him spiritually and physically. But here, in these moments of new dawn, he was a sight to see. As for the rest, well, consider the final words of Marlene Dietrich as she pondered the bloated corpse of Orson Welles in the final scene in Touch of Evil:

“He was some kind of a man,” she muses. “What does it matter what you say about people?”

On Stage: Legacy Edition is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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