Gary Wells: Elvis Aloha From Hawaii – Episode 1

Welcome to the first of our three-part series as we take a deep dive into Elvis’ pioneering live satellite concert broadcast, Aloha From Hawaii. Our leading contributor Gary Wells ( joins us to discuss the most iconic single performance of Elvis’ later career, and very possibly one of the most significant entertainment events of the 20th century.

In this first episode, we follow Elvis’ career during the stunningly successful and busy year of 1972, and look at planning and preparations in staging, wardrobe and publicity taking place during the months leading up to the international broadcast, scheduled for January 1973. We find out about some of the key talent behind the scenes, in particular producer and director Marty Pasetta, and discover how the broadcast was nearly derailed at the very last minute by catastrophic technical failures.

In our post-credits segment right at the end, we take a light-hearted look at some of the quirkier moments in Elvis’ award-winning concert documentary from 1972, Elvis on Tour, including a memorable sequence involving the Mayor of Roanoke, a paper bag full of money, a floral guitar, and a slightly bizarre civic reception on Elvis’ private jet.

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In the early hours of January 14th, 1973, an Elvis Presley concert was broadcast live internationally by satellite from the Honolulu International Centre, and although the claimed aggregate viewing figures of up to 1.5 billion are now generally seen as inflated, the programme dominated television ratings internationally in live and delayed telecast, and when repackaged for domestic US television, achieved a 33.8 Nielsen rating with a 57% audience share. There followed a Billboard #1 double live album, and an immovable shadow over the remainder of Elvis’ career. By any objective estimation, it was a commercial and artistic triumph, and one of the most significant entertainment events of the 20th century.

The timing of a career-defining event was opportune; 1972 in particular had been a very successful year. Amongst multiple records released during that year, Burning Love, as a single, reached #2 (Billboard) and #1 (Cashbox), and went on to be an unlikely hit again as part of a compilation, Burning Love and Hits From His Movies, (#22 Billboard), released through RCA’s budget Camden label. His second concert documentary, Elvis on Tour, would do solid box office and win a Golden Globe; there were four shows to a total audience of 80 000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden which garnered some enthusiastic reviews, as well as a hit live album (#11 Billboard); all in all, a total of 165 concerts from two Vegas engagements and three road tours. Although things were less than ideal domestically, professionally things could hardly have been better.

On stage at Madison Square Garden, captured by legendary Elvis stage photographer, the late Bob Heis, who is immortalised on the live album. Having requested Polk Salad Annie via a note backstage, Elvis introduced the song, “Okay, Bob!”

As we know, Elvis and Colonel Parker had enjoyed a warm relationship with Hawaii dating back to the early days of Elvis’ career. A benefit show for the USS Arizona Memorial in 1961 had raised $ 65 000, more than 10% of the entire cost of the project and there were three movies shot there; Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Paradise Hawaiian Style.

With co-star Donna Butterworth (1956-2018) in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966).

We tend to subconsciously write history backwards, and we know that the Aloha concert in all its formats was a colossal triumph, but the success of this ambitious project was far from assured. In the lead-up everyone involved was under enormous pressure, particularly the producer and director, Marty Pasetta, who really shouldered almost the entire responsibility for a budget of $ 2.5 million that exceeded some feature films at that time, and was by some sources the most expensive television entertainment programme ever. Pasetta was brought in, having directed the Academy Awards telecast in 1972 (he would go on to direct each one until 1988), and because of his experience working on entertainment and variety programming, including with popular Hawaiian singer and entertainer Don Ho, a friendship that would pay massive dividends and even help stave of disaster at the last moment.

Don Ho (1930-2007), a popular Hawaiian singer and entertainer whose last minute intervention helped to overcome catastrophic technical failures, including cut power lines and sound problems, which could easily have derailed the entire satellite concert.

The concept of a ground-breaking live performance broadcast (not quite) globally by satellite came initially from Colonel Parker, whom KNBC News described as the ‘shrewdest manager in the business’. Parker had become increasingly aware of the use of satellite technology in news, political and current affairs broadcasts, and the idea was soon approved by the head of NBC’s west coast operations from 1965-77, Tom Sarnoff (Born 1927). NBC was, of course, part of the RCA family, and Tom’s father David Sarnoff (1891-1971) had been a pioneering executive of RCA. He had recognised very early the potential for radio as a means of home entertainment, and founded NBC as a radio broadcaster, later moving into television. In 1928, he steered the joint venture between RCA, film distributor FBO and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theatre chain to create one of the great golden age vertically integrated Hollywood studios, and to capitalise on emerging talking picture technology.

The details of the concert were announced in Las Vegas on September 4th, 1972, at the conclusion of Elvis’ Hilton residency, during a press conference with Elvis himself and Rocco Laginestra, president of RCA Records.

Marty Pasetta subsequently attended Elvis’ concerts in Long Beach, California, in November 1972, to get a feel for the show. He thought the music aspect was strong, but the performance visually boring. Here is an audience recording of Elvis’ performance at the Long Beach Arena from November 15th (audio only).

In a 2013 interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Marty Pasetta said that Elvis ‘stood there like a lump’, and he was sufficiently worried that Elvis might not be up to it, to take his concerns to NBC management. As the director planned to rely heavily on close-ups, he also felt that Elvis needed to lose a little weight.

A typically rudimentary stage design for an Elvis stadium show in the 1970s. The speakers were suspended from the ceiling by chains so as not to take up any room on the already cramped stage or impact on audience seating, and they would generally rely largely on the house lighting. People were also seated behind the stage. You can see why Marty Pasetta wanted something a little more interesting for the television. (State Fair Coliseum, Jackson, MS, 1975)

He came up with designs that featured Elvis’ name in lights in different languages, and a lower than usual stage and catwalk into the audience. Colonel Parker rejected much of this outright, but Pasetta persisted and asked for the opportunity to present his ideas directly to Elvis. There followed a slightly bizarre meeting with Elvis and members of the Memphis Mafia (whom Pasetta referred to as ‘goons’) during which they wore their sunglasses indoors and prominently displayed their handguns. Despite feeling thoroughly intimidated, Pasetta presented his designs, and told Elvis face-to-face he needed to lose weight. The tension broke, and Elvis promised to work with the producer to ‘make super magic for the tube together’. He also pointed out that, ‘The Colonel controls my business. I control my creativity and my music and my show. He has nothing to say about it. That’s your rule. You will deal with Joe Esposito’.

Link here to the full interview

Marty Pasetta in 2013, interviewed by the Desert Sun. He was killed in a freak road traffic accident in 2015, at the age of 82. (Image: Palm Springs Desert Sun)

Following the Long Beach concerts, Elvis did three shows in Hawaii at the Honolulu International Centre, on November 17th and 18th, 1972, which were reviewed by Wayne Harada in the Honolulu AdvertiserHarada would also review the satellite show on January 14th, and some of his lines would become the most quoted and identifiable in future accounts.

In November 1972, Wayne Harada wrote;

“…Elvis Presley remains one of the most electrifying showbiz marvels – an incandescent musical force who’s a legend in his own time. And the 26,000 fans who took in his three sellouts at the H.I.C. Arena over the weekend will long remember Presley’s mystique, the charisma and that indelible animal magnetism that combined to make him a Big Leaguer nearly two decades ago… when he hits that stage, there’s no denying; Elvis is a champ, the king of rock, a living American myth…”

From the Rainbow Rib Room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. As ever, Elvis was unfailingly humble and polite when talking to the press.

At this point, they took the opportunity for another press conference, at which time Elvis spoke once again, in the Rainbow Rib Room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and it was announced that the concert gate would benefit the Kui Lee cancer fund, at the suggestion of local entertainment writer Eddie Sherman, also present at the press conference, and who had actually started the charity through the medical faculty at the University of Hawaii.

Respected and influential entertainment and celebrity writer Eddie Sherman. He passed away in 2013, aged 88 (Image: Honolulu Star-Advertiser).

“…I had started the Kui Lee Cancer Fund, through my column, for a doctor at the University of Hawaii doing cancer research. Lee was the legendary songwriter who died of cancer at 34. In the TV concert, Elvis sang Kui’s most famous tune, I’ll Remember You, to millions of global viewers. Thanks to Elvis and Col. Tom Parker, his manager, I received, for the fund, a check for $75,000 from the live concert gate…The audience was allowed in via their own contributions. Some kids saw the show for only 10 cents. Next day, Elvis and the Colonel took out full-page newspaper ads thanking Hawaii…”  (From Eddie Sherman’s obituary in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

Elvis arrived in Hawaii the day after his birthday, on January 9th, and was helicoptered from the airport to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. There was a reception with some very excited fans, and Elvis took a few moments to talk to an old friend, Hawaiian DJ and music promoter ‘Uncle’ Tom Moffatt.

We only make passing reference to this in the podcast, but in retrospect this was a much more significant encounter than we gave it credit for. We go into more detail, including profiling Tom Moffatt and his place in Elvis history, in our 50th Anniversary Supplement episode.

Elvis has a few friendly words with legendary Hawaiian DJ and music promoter ‘Uncle’ Tom Moffatt

Aloha From Hawaii was a visual spectacle as well, and the specially designed jumpsuit, belt and cape combination would go on to represent the iconic image of Elvis at his 1970s peak. There is more detailed background to the style thanks to our friends at;

“…The cape that was worn with the “1973 American Eagle” was not the original one. The one that was originally designed for the suit, was way bigger, and way too heavy for Elvis to use on stage. Nowadays EPE/Graceland has both of the suits, one of the (three) capes, and the ‘third belt’. A private collector owns one of the capes, as well as one of the first two belts, apparently also Ed Parker has one of the capes & belts in his possession. Also the original long cape is in private hands. It was sold during one of EPE’s auctions…”

Correction: During the podcast we name Bill Belew as the designer of the iconic eagle jumpsuit, however the credit should also have been given to his associate Gene Doucette.

There were two final suit and cape combinations made, and three belts, which was lucky because Elvis gave one belt away to Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-0) before the concert.

One suit was slightly looser fitting than the other, and this one was worn for the rehearsal show. Elvis chose the snugger fit for the actual broadcast.

The rehearsal suit was seen 11 more times on tour and in Vegas, and was worn for the last time for Elvis’ hometown return in March 1974.

A variation on the American Eagle style was the 1974 version, which was worn a total of seven times on stage between May and October that year.

Thank you for joining us for part one. Next time, Gary takes us on a personal journey through the music and spectacle of the dress-rehearsal and satellite shows.

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