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Presley’s Last Stage Appearance: A Resolute Performance Despite Visible Sickness

Elvis Presley passed away on 16 August 1977 at 42, succumbing to the effects of prolonged abuse of prescription medication and alcohol. His final appearance in public was on 26 June 1977 in Indianapolis, Indiana, a brief period before his premature death. In the lead-up to his last performance, two of Presley’s concerts were captured on film for a television special on June 19 in Omaha, Nebraska, and June 21 in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The television special “Elvis in Concert,” which featured these performances, aired six weeks posthumously. Following several reruns as per contractual agreement, further broadcasts were halted by the Presley estate due to the portrayal of Elvis in a deteriorated state, leading to the unfortunate nickname of the “Fat Elvis” concert.

The concluding encore of the Rapid City performance, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” stands as Elvis’s last documented act. Despite struggling with the song’s spoken part, his vocal prowess remained strong. Fans have pointed out in online discussions that Elvis frequently played with song lyrics and segments, although in this instance, his speech was notably more slurred, indicative of his declining health. Critics argue he was in dire need of medical attention.

In a touching reference to his 1973 divorce from Priscilla, Elvis introduces his final song with the words: “This one is called Are You Lonesome Tonight? I am, and I was.” The performance is deeply emotive; despite a clumsy spoken section, which he dismisses with a laugh alongside his audience, Elvis regains his composure, and his performance is seamless. Despite apparent swelling, his vocal delivery is impeccable. Contrasting his spoken word difficulties, his introduction to “Unchained Melody” earlier was articulate and clear.

The performance was nothing short of magnificent. A YouTube user named Mikey remarked, “That concluding glance as he finishes the song…absolutely chilling. I was dragged to Graceland by my dad four times during my childhood. I finally understand, Dad. Such a voice. Such soul. The King, eternally.”

The disparity between his clear introduction of “Unchained Melody” and the mumbled delivery in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” suggests that severe health issues and exhaustion likely played a role in his struggle with the latter’s spoken portion. It was, after all, the final piece of the evening, and despite significant health challenges, including heart and intestinal problems, high blood pressure, and chronic insomnia, Elvis managed to give 55 performances in the first half of 1977 alone.

Jerry Schilling, a close associate of Elvis, recounts in his memoir questioning Elvis’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, about allowing the visibly unwell Elvis to be filmed. Parker allegedly responded that Elvis himself was adamant about proceeding with the special as planned. My research for this piece has left me astounded and moved by the caliber of Elvis’s singing in his ultimate public concert. The king may have left us, but Elvis’s legacy endures.

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