Elvis in Philadelphia

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The two Elvis Presley performances in Philly that everyone remembers but not many talk about.

When audiences witness director-writer Baz Luhrmann’s mad, flashy (as usual) yet oddly poignant new portrait of the relationship between Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker that is ELVIS (opening in Philadelphia on June 24), they’ll revel at the endless loop of life on the road, how the latter-day portion of his career before his untimely passing in August of 1978 was spent between soul-sucking Vegas residencies and hockey arenas across the United States. That Presley never toured abroad is a large part of ELVIS’ drama.

This loop got me thinking: how was Philadelphia ever a part of Presley’s touring schedule?


While I was able to see Presley live, as a kid, at the old Spectrum in South Philadelphia with my father (more on that later), I did find that Presley played in Philly but one other time at the long-gone Philadelphia Arena in 1957, 20 years before I saw him.

The April 5 and 6 1957 dates at the local home of pro wrestling has shockingly little data about the gig online, save for what is reportedly a few live photos of a wriggling, black-suited Presley and snaps of his legendary guitarist Scotty Moore, and that Elvis did two shows each date. The set list is filled with early Presley hits “That’s When Your Heartache Begins” and “Hound Dog”. And was surely filled with the swaggering, hip-swiveling, lewd-and-crude Elvis that provoked Col. Parker (Tom Hanks in Luhrmann’s film) into making Elvis a neutered shadow of his youthful self by the time he got back from the Army.

The one comment that is attached to the 1957 Philly shows, as found on Pinterest, probably tells it all: “Too much.”


The May 28, 1977 Presley show at The Spectrum is another matter entirely in terms of its documentation (the entire show is bootlegged, linked, etc.) and the shape of the Elvis that hit the South Philly’s arena’s stage. Famously, by 1977, Presley was plagued by weight problems, and – if memory serves – breathing issues while performing. Yet, for all the comments that I’ve read about the show (that it wasn’t one of his best, that Bruce Springsteen was in attendance), my tiny teen recall was that this Presley was a boss, one in command of his voice on R&B barnstormers such as “Polk Salad Annie” and “C.C. Rider”, holy rollers such as “You Gave Me a Mountain”, taut rockers such as “Little Sister”, and the closing ballad, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.


His ensemble was churning-combine crack and brassy and Presley’s voice had depth and oomph. He wasn’t phoning anything in. Maybe, his choice of costumes was unfortunate, but everything else about Elvis Presley in Philly in 1977 was choice and on the money.


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