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Elvis at the end

Taking care of business

Elvis at Crisler, 1977

(Image credit: Michiganensian.)

Doug Edwards was a stagehand at Crisler Arena that night. It was Sunday, April 24, 1977.

The warm-up acts had started at 8:30 p.m. — Marty Horrell and the Hilton Hot Horns, a comedian named Jack Kahane, and a gospel group, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. It was about 10 now and the intermission was over. Fourteen thousand people buzzed in readiness for the real show to start.

Edwards and the other hands were getting the piano and the amplifiers in place when they saw a white stretch limousine glide through the big tunnel at the north end of the arena and pull to a stop backstage.

Three men hustled out of the car — a couple of assistants and a familiar figure in a white jumpsuit open from neck to waist. He was wearing glasses.

The houselights went down. The sound system went up. The theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” blared at top volume.

The man in the jumpsuit walked past Doug Edwards at a distance of no more than five feet. He was bigger than Edwards expected.

“I didn’t really have anything to say to him,” Edwards says. “I mean, what are you gonna say to Elvis?”

End-times Elvis

Elvis at Crisler on a motorcycle

(Image credit: Michiganensian.)

At 42, Elvis seemed trapped in a tragic downward spiral. The tabloids traded in outrageous alarms and diversions. He was said to be dying; he was abusing drugs; he was engaged to a 20-year-old former “Miss Traffic Safety”;  he was overweight; he was breaking commitments; he was at war with his manager, the infamous “Colonel” Tom Parker.

None of that bothered true believers.

Elvis’ talent transcended all that nonsense for fans like Jack Harbaugh, one of Bo Schembechler’s assistant football coaches at the time. He had tickets in the upper deck that night, on a date with his wife, Jackie.

The Harbaughs were in their 30s. Their kids — John, Jim, and Joanie — were just teenagers then.

Jack and Jackie had fallen hard for the original Elvis when they were teenagers themselves. They were there at the beginning, drawn to the weirdly charismatic country boy who’d come up from Memphis to inject black rock ‘n’ roll into the white American mainstream. They’d seen (in real time) his third appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the one where the cameras were trained strictly above the performer’s waist. Apparently, Elvis’ hips, and what he did with them, were not ready for prime time.

Now, as the King went to work at Crisler, opening with “See See Rider” and “I Got a Woman,” the Harbaughs spotted their friend Anne Hanlon down on the floor in a seat near the stage. She was the wife of Jerry Hanlon, another of Bo’s assistant coaches.

The Harbaughs knew Anne as a totally put-together young matron, charming and decorous, the epitome of class. But the woman they saw down there now was a creature they hardly recognized.

She was jumping. She was yelling. Pretty soon she was charging the stage with a scarf in her hand, getting ready to throw it.

At his concerts in the ’70s, Elvis had taken to tossing silk scarves into the crowd one by one. Ecstatic fans would throw him their own scarves in hopes that he would catch one, wipe his brow, and toss it back. (Common as they were, Elvis scarves from back in the day still go for $800-$1,200 at auction, according to PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.”)

Sure enough, Anne Hanlon’s scarf flew up on stage, and as Harbaugh remembers it, the scarf came back down to Anne, complete with Elvis’ DNA.

“It Was Charisma”

A bootleg recording, now on YouTube as “Elvis Presley at Cazzie’s House,” preserves one hour, seven minutes, and 39 seconds of what fans heard that night.

He did early Elvis (“Don’t Be Cruel”), late Elvis (“My Way”), gospel Elvis (“Amen”), and a slew of random covers from “O Sole Mio” to “If You Love Me, Let Me Know” (a hit for Olivia Newton-John at the time).

He mumbled, maundered, tried to be funny: “I mean, my suit’s too tight.” He karate-kicked at the end of songs. His vocals ranged from deep bass to high falsetto.

“I don’t want to throw Elvis under the bus, but he was on a downhill slope,” Edwards says. “Elvis had died but they hadn’t buried him. He was dressed up and they put him out there and he got through the show.”

But to the Harbaughs, up high in the arena, it didn’t look that way and it definitely didn’t sound that way. If nothing else, the bootleg proves his voice still had power.

“As he got older his voice was better than when he was younger,” Harbaugh says. “It was just an outstanding performance — outstanding!

“He was just able to connect. It was charisma. It was a presence, an understanding of how to connect with an audience.”

“It Was Over”

Elvis fans 1977

It’s all about the merch. (Image credit: Ann Arbor District Library.)

By all accounts, Elvis shouted his way through “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and then it was over — fast.

The house lights went down. Edwards saw the glasses go back on. And Elvis hurried to the limo.

Then came the announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building. Thank you and good night. We’d like to remind you that for a short time the Elvis Super-Souvenir Concession Stand will be open…”

“There were gonna be no encores,” Harbaugh remembers. “He was gone. It was over.”

That spring and summer Elvis Presley played 35 more concerts, from Duluth, Minn., to Mobile, Ala.

Four months after his one and only appearance in Ann Arbor, on Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis died at Graceland, his home in Memphis.

Sources included Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999).

Comments

  1. John Branston - 1971

    Nice story, thanks. Three irresistible hooks in Elvis, Cazzie and Harbaugh. My inner copy editor was ready to jump on “See See Rider” but you got it right, not to be confused with “C. C. Rider” by Ray Charles and others. I did not see the Ann Arbor concert or any other Elvis concert, but anyone who lives in Memphis as I do knows someone who did or at least lies about it. In 1976, Memphis columnist Bill Burk wondered, after seeing bloated and ill-prepared Elvis, “how much longer it can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly . . .”

    John Branston
    Memphis

    Reply

    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      Thanks, John. I copy-edited that song title myself before publication. Looks like it’s been rendered both ways, depending on the artist and the slang etymology is really interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/See_See_Rider

      Reply

  2. Royetta Ealba - MBA 1983

    I was at the Elvis concert that night in Ann Arbor. My boyfriend’s sister at the time was president of the Elvis Fan Club in Michigan and we sat in the second row. She followed Elvis across the country to attend many of his concerts. She had collected several scarfs from these concerts and caught a white one that night in Ann Arbor! I really wasn’t much of a fan until seeing him in person. Wow, what a performance and the crowd was electric! The night became even more memorable after his death a few months later. I will always be happy that I got to attend this concert.

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  3. Anita Caplan - Ph.D. 1982

    I was there with my husband Bob. It was wonderful. We still play his records, cry to Old Shep. My favorite is Love Me.

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  4. Jil Gordon - BFA - 1974

    Had seen Elvis just the night before the A2 concert as my ex-hubby and I were in Toledo. (I moved back to A2 in ’78. Yeah!) It was an amazing concert but Elvis was really struggling to hit the notes at the end. I believe he was having “voice help” from behind the curtain which I personally witnessed from our seats next to the stage. He was not well and yet managed to tour. It was shame his life was cut so short due to the obvious. Glad I got to at see him.

    Reply

  5. Ronna Simon - 1981

    I wasn’t there… no Elvis connection. Just an observation: it’s interesting that in the first photo he’s wearing a Jewish “chai” (meaning “life”). I’m pretty sure Elvis wasn’t Jewish. Any insights? Thanks!

    Reply

    • John Branston - 1971

      As with all things Elvis, there is a wealth of information on internet but short answer as to the chai seems to be yes.

      Reply

    • Shirley Kowalski - 1977, 1982

      Elvis explored many religious beliefs. “The meaning of life” was an important quest to Elvis. As a teen in Memphis, he was friends with a neighbor who was a rabbi.

      Reply

  6. Patrick Flannery - 1974

    A girl friend, I forgot her name, invited me to the Elvis concert at Crisler Arena. I was, at first, reluctant to go but I changed my mind and went. Elvis was a spectacular showman and knew how to whip up the crowd. The little girls, young women and middle age women all screamed together, hooted, clapped and were quite raucous. It was sure a sight to see them perform as Elvis sang. It made the concert…. well memorable on another plane.
    Elvis started singing “Teddy Bear” and the concert goers tossed stuffed bears onto the stage en masse. It seemed as if the concert started and then was just over, it went by so quickly. Elvis walked off the stage and did not return for a final encore. The announcer said, “Elvis has left the building!” It was a final surprise that evening. I had never seen Elvis before, but always loved his early music with the Jordanaires backing him up. The concert remains a cherished Americana memory to me, too bad I didn’t take some pictures!

    Reply

  7. John Maher - 1974

    I usher this concert.
    While the music was great the real show was the mothers with their daughters.
    The mothers all seemed old to me at 25. While their daughters were teenagers.
    All the mothers were totally engrossed. Yelling, crying,singing and moaning.
    The daughters were either mortified or joined their mothers in the celebration of Elvis.
    It was great.

    Reply

  8. Cindy Ward - 1975

    I was there and enjoyed every moment of the concert. It was amazing. I have been an Elvis fan since I was little. I share his birthday. I was so fortunate to be able to see him before he died. I will never forget the concert it was one in a life time. Elvis was and will always be the KING.

    Reply

  9. Claudette Brower - 1976

    I was working the Box Office for U-M Major Events at the time of this concert. Contrary to popular belief and to the marquee in front of Crisler, the show was not sold out; however, we were instructed by the Colonel (Elvis’s Manager) to make it appear that the arena was filled so that Elvis would not see any empty seats when he was performing. We ‘dressed the house’ by selling groups of seats and leaving an empty seat here and there to make if look full. Yes-even after all his years of success, Elvis had a very big ego that needed to be stoked.

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  10. Bill Caruthers - 1977

    I was there that night helping out with ushering and later security. One of my roommates was on the student usher list, and I would cover for him for any event he didn’t want to attend. The crowd outside Crisler was already excited long before the show was to start. My first job was just to direct people toward the entrances in the ring around the arena. Just after Elvis started singing, one of the roadies told me to follow him; they needed help by the stage. He took me down to the right corner in front of the stage, but behind a wooden barrier, and told me to make sure that none of the girls/women got onto the stage. Didn’t sound too hard. Then Elvis started singing and passing out scarves! Huge crush towards the the stage, very few actually tried to get over the barrier. He tossed those scarves right over me. He was working very hard to put on a good show, the sweat was pouring off of him. He put scarf after scarf on his neck for a second or two and then toss it. One of his stage hands stood beside him with an armful of scarves to drape over Elvis’ neck, I thought it went on forever. Finally he was done, and then he was gone. I was not an Elvis fan before the concert, but I became one afterward. He made a believer of me.

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  11. Tom Gardner - AB 1971; MBA 1974

    Hi Jim: Thank you for the memories. I was a guest of the Major Events Office at the concert, sitting in the row above the floor where reporters would sit during a basketball game. Technically, at the time, Major Events was part of the University Activities Center (UAC), a student organization. I was the manager of Student Business Services, which provided banking services to student groups. Thus, I was responsible for paying Elvis after the show. Since he was ahead of his time (in so many ways), he was paid by bank transfer rather than check or cash. I suppose part of the reason for this was he, indeed, had “left the building” immediately after departing the stage. First thing Monday morning, I went to the Ann Arbor Bank and wired his fee to his agency. If memory serves, he earned $105,000 (pretty good in 1977) for his hour of work. As a side note, Major Events was a tremendous concert producer – two days before Elvis, the Doobie Brothers played Crisler Arena.

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  12. PATRICIA ZINS - 1979

    I had no clue Elvis was in the area… I was 19 years old and a sophomore at UM. I worked at Millers Ice Cream store and I remember when Elvis died, people were coming into the store with tears in their eyes announcing his death. He was a man… an icon…a talent….and a heart break. I am now 20 years older than he was when he passed. I never was a fan of his work, but no doubt, he impacted our society then as well as now.

    Reply

  13. Mike Pluta - 1979

    I was there with my friend, Tom Forton. It was a great show and seemed to be over way too soon! I was shocked when, four short months later, Elvis was dead. I am still so thankful that I went. And I was pleased to see that he was not grossly overweight as the press had made him out to be.

    Reply

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