Let’s go back to August 1977. Elvis Presley’s records were not being played much on Top 40 radio. He released one single in the summer of 1977, “Way Down,” that landed just outside the Top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That song got to Number 18 only after he died. However, both “Way Down” and his late 1976 single, “Moody Blue,” had reached Number 1 on Billboard’s country chart. “Way Down” went to Number 1 on the pop charts the week Elvis passed away. This is where Elvis’ chart career likely would have headed. More country hits, maybe some adult contemporary, but fewer pop hits. The albums would have kept coming: live ones, Greatest Hits packages, patched-together studio efforts. Along with his tours, this was the cycle he had been on since the early ’70s.
One thing we know is that CBS was filming his concerts to release as some kind of special. But looking at the final footage that ended up in the October 1977 CBS TV broadcast, it’s hard to believe any of that would have been released had he lived.
So, what if Elvis Presley had lived, in some alternate-history scenario…
Although he’d had other health issues in the 1970s that required hospitalization, his brush with mortality on August 16, 1977 was the closest he had ever come to death. Elvis’ friends were sure this latest medical scare would be the one to make him realize that change must happen now. But it would be a slow grind; change doesn’t happen overnight.
Elvis does begin to lose weight, thanks to better eating habits and a daily workout schedule. He also starts taking fewer of the drugs he needed to keep him touring and for all the various ailments that plagued him in the ’70s. But the grueling concert schedule he had throughout the 1970s continues, and Elvis would often fall back on bad habits. So, while to the public Elvis looks better, behind the scenes it’s a different story. The same old yes men, the same old lackluster concerts. But things finally change in the summer of ’78.
Nearly one year after August 16, 1977, Elvis passes out onstage during a concert in Indianapolis. While many had feared another health crisis could happen, the fact it occurred on stage shocks the world. This time there is no turning back. Elvis enters a hospital to address his many health problems.
After a four-week stay, other changes are made. The endless cycle of concerts and throwaway albums comes to an end. Elvis still hits the road, but it is no longer the jumpsuit spectacle of years past. The grueling schedule is gone. But RCA still wants product, and Elvis quickly records a gospel album. Recording gospel material again brings out a refreshed performance from the King. Simply titled Precious Lord, it wins a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance. The album gets good reviews with most noting that Elvis sounds more committed to this type of material than his recent pop/country albums.
The main reason the changes in Elvis’ life are working is that he’s finally listening to people willing to tell him the truth about how low his career has fallen. The Memphis Mafia is still around, but they are relieved that more outside voices are getting Elvis’ attention.
In 1978 the Colonel is finally dumped as Elvis’ manager, something his crew and family have been begging him to do. But it takes people outside the Elvis bubble to finally get him to turn on the Colonel. Even after his Indianapolis health scare, the Colonel wants Elvis to continue to toe the line. But Elvis finally has enough. He’s bored with concerts, making records and just being Elvis. But the Colonel doesn’t go quietly. Elvis is still under contract with him. The Colonel threatens to sue. After a tense meeting with Elvis’ father, Vernon, the Colonel realizes that his working relationship with Elvis and his family is beyond repair. He accepts a buyout of more than a million dollars.
Who would manage Elvis Presley now? Names are rumored for months. While Elvis gets healthy in rehab the industry mentions many names, but the one that gets repeated the most is Jon Landau. Already famous for making Bruce Springsteen a star, Landau makes it known that he would love to take on the King’s career, saying he’s always been a fan.
In 1981 Elvis meets with Landau, who introduces him to Springsteen. Bruce and Elvis hit it off right away. Bruce tells Elvis he has some songs for him to record. Elvis signs on with Landau. In the meantime,
in the summer of ’78 RCA manages to find some unreleased songs Elvis had recorded in the Jungle Room, and adds five new songs to complete a “new” album. Like all of his recent releases, it does better on the country than the pop charts.
The first thing Landau tells Elvis is that he would like to get him in the studio with a new producer and a bunch of new songs by Springsteen, Petty, Willie, and others. But he doesn’t want to do a throwaway pop album. He wants Elvis to get back to what he did when he started: rock and roll, country, and gospel, along with the R&B sound of his 1969 From Elvis In Memphis sessions. Elvis likes what he hears, but is also eager to get back in front of an audience. Landau tells Elvis he will finally let him do the one thing the Colonel wouldn’t: do some dates around the world.
Recording for Elvis’ new album is set to begin in early 1983. Landau mentions bringing in Chips Moman, who produced From Elvis In Memphis. That album from was part of the reason for Elvis’ comeback. Moman brings in most of the musicians from that album, along with legendary guitarist James Burton, a long-time member of Elvis’ live band. And just as he was in 1969, Elvis is relieved to be given a great set of songs. The recording goes smoothly. Even though Landau uses new songs by many of that era’s biggest songwriters, there are no guest artists on the album.
With a hotly-anticipated new album scheduled for release during the fall of 1983, some warm-up concert dates are scheduled for the summer in Nashville and Memphis. One thing will be missing: jumpsuits. Elvis is now 48, and even he concedes the suits have become too much.
These concerts will most resemble the live shows Elvis did in 1969. Landau makes one more promise to Elvis. The hunt for a great movie role is on. Elvis had told Landau he still wants to act, but no more of the assembly line fluff that the Colonel had forced on him.
Landau begins seeking advice from industry pros about possible parts for the Elvis. He’s surprised there’s some resistance. Some don’t think Elvis will commit to something that is too gritty. Others say they don’t do musicals. Landau reminds those who are really interested that they won’t be getting the Elvis of those forgettable sixties movies. Elvis himself wants something dramatic. A chance to finally prove that he is indeed a good actor. Among the big-name directors of the day, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are just two names mentioned. Landau tells Elvis that his great movie role is just around the corner.
With a new album, tour, and possible movie role, 1984 is going to be Elvis Presley’s greatest comeback. He’s 49 now, and suddenly the thought of hitting 50 no longer bothers him. The boredom his career descended to in the ’70s is gone. Elvis is no longer the overweight punchline that he became from 1977 through 1980. Elvis’ management begins talking about a TV special on the order of his now-legendary ’68 Comeback Special and ’73’s Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite. A familiar name is brought back, Steve Binder. Binder had directed Elvis’ ’68 Special, but the Colonel had refused to let him handle any other projects. With the Colonel out of the way, Elvis is thrilled to have him back.
When he reaches 50 on January 8, 1985, the accolades begin rolling in. There are TV specials that look back on his past 30 years as the King. He garners more lifetime achievement awards, including a Grammy, and receives tributes from Springsteen, Petty and many of his contemporaries including Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. In the spring Elvis makes a surprise appearance at the “We Are The World” sessions to record a verse. He also sings in the chorus and talks to all the artists who are stunned that he showed up. On the heels of those sessions, Elvis performs a tight 30-minute set at Live Aid to great acclaim. In December, Elvis is honored as one of that year’s Kennedy Center honorees. Elvis attends the ceremony and once again is given a lavish tribute.
Everybody now wants a piece of Elvis. Including politicians. But as he did in 1984, by turning down an invitation to speak at both the GOP and Democratic presidential conventions, Elvis stays apolitical throughout the rest of the ’80s.
In 1986 the newly-created Rock and Roll Hall of Fame names Elvis as one of its first inductees. Bruce Springsteen inducts Elvis, who then gives a short but touching speech about how honored he is to be included with his rock and roll peers. After the ceremony the greatest jam session in rock history takes place as Elvis takes the stage with fellow honorees Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, James Brown, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin for blazing renditions of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Bye Bye Love,” “What’d I Say,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Respect.” Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Tina Turner and Joan Jett also join in on a jam that lasts over an hour.
Elvis would close out the 1980s with another excellent album, Where I’m Coming From, while also making plans to write his autobiography, tentatively titled I Keep Singing The Songs.
Elvis’ 1980s comeback proved to be more rewarding than anyone could have imagined. It was unthinkable to those around him in the summer of 1977 that the Elvis they once knew would ever make it through the decade.
But he did and then some…
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.