KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

(Above: Elvis brings a mid-year Christmas to Kemper Arena in 1977.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elvis Presley, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday today, rolled into Kansas City for the first of two concerts at Kemper Arena, he was far from the hungry, hunky artist who terrorized parents and could only be shown on television from the waist down.

Presley played the arena twice in the last 18 months of his life. Although the monarchy was waning, the King could still captivate a crowd. Jess Ritter wrote about Presley’s initial show on April 21, 1976, in the Kansas City Times.

“From the moment (Elvis) strode onstage last night, though, he proved clearly that, at age 41, he is still one of the most charismatic entertainers in America,” Ritter wrote. “Elvis worked hard in his stint, which lasted well over an hour. The punk hip gyrations of the past are gone and all his movements are carefully choreographed, but they are vividly real – and insinuating. In his ice-blue shirt, white singlet and tight white pants encircled at the waist with a massive rhinestone belt, Elvis dominated the stage without trying too hard.”

Ritter doesn’t mention many of the songs played in the brief review, focusing instead on Presley’s medical conditions and history. The only number mentioned by name was “Return to Sender.”

Presley’s bicentennial show wasn’t his first stop in town. He played Municipal Auditorium – the biggest concert hall in town prior to the construction of Kemper Arena – in 1971 and 1974. The venue was also the site of Presley’s only previous Kansas City concert, on May 24, 1956.

Such frequent performances were part of the King’s new motif. After the success of his ’68 Comeback Special, Presley ditched Hollywood and returned to the stage. The TCB Band, anchored by former Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton, accompanied him on most of those occasions.

The band that rolled into Kemper 14 months later, in June, 1977, was more or less the same, with two exceptions. Drummer Larry London had replaced Ronnie Tutt, who left to join the Jerry Garcia Band. Tony Brown debuted with the band that night on keyboards – without the benefit of any rehearsals.

Brown, now a Nashville music executive, spoke with an Australian Elvis fan site about his time in the TCB Band. He said Presley liked to surprise the band. One night the King called for “Blueberry Hill, which wasn’t in the repertoire.

“I just started playing the rhythm of the song, you know,” Brown said. “This is in front of, like, 20,000 people. I’m sweating. I mean you can feel the water rolling.”

Brown suffered the collective skunk eye from his bandmates until Presley bailed him out.

“Elvis says, ‘That’s not the way it goes,’ walks over to the piano, sits down and plays something. Then the band kicks in,” Brown recalled. “He started singing it and got up and left and out in front and did the next couple of songs I was worthless. I mean total embarrassment, you know.”

While Brown fared better in his debut, his boss was not so lucky. Shifra Stein described the spectacle for the Kansas City Times.

“Looking in desperate need of a rest (Presley) drank frequently on stage from a paper cup. Sometimes he stood to one side, eyes closed, and let his show troupe take over for him,” Stein wrote. “At other times, in mocking self-parody, he ran through all his old songs – ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘It’s Now or Never,’ ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and so on. In several instances he forgot his lyrics, and at one point sang ‘My Way’ reading the lyrics from a paper, explaining to the audience ‘I can’t remember the words.’”

But the sold-out crowd didn’t care.

“The arena was filled with thousands of aging teenagers,” Stein wrote, “mostly women in their 30s whose voices rose to a maddened shriek when their beloved idol climbed on stage about 10 p.m.”

They bought $5 belt buckles, “souvenir programs with poorly reproduced Elvis photos for $3” and snapped up tickets being scalped for $50. Stein estimated the evening “represented almost one-quarter of a million dollars in profit for Presley who is currently raking it in on tour across the country.”

The concerts were the crown jewel of Kansas City’s return to national prominence at a time when the city boasted Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL franchises and hosted the 1976 Republican National Convention. Although an outdated relic today, Kemper Arena was the bait that lured the NHL and NBA teams and RNC to town.

The night after Presley played Kemper, his band took the stage in Omaha, Neb. That performance and the following nights in Lincoln, Neb. and Rapid City, S.D. were immortalized on the album “Elvis in Concert.” Just five nights later, Presley concluded his spring tour in Indianapolis. That June 26 concert, little more than a week after his performance in Kansas City, would be his last. Six weeks later, Presley was dead.

Setlist: Elvis Presley, Kemper Arena, June 18, 1977

2001 Theme, See See Rider, I Got A Woman, Amen, That’s All Right, Blue Christmas, Are you Lonesome Tonight?, Big Boss Man, Love Me, Jailhouse Rock, O Sole Mio, It’s Now or Never, Little Sister, Teddy Bear, Don’t Be Cruel, And I Love You So, My Way, Early Morning Rain, What’d I Say, Johnny B. Goode, I Really Don’t Want to Know, Hurt, Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Closing Vamp

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