Viva the King
Elvis Presley was a 42-year-old shadow of the svelte ‘50s rockabilly icon when he took the stage of the Augusta Civic Center on the night of May 24, 1977. But a capacity crowd of 7,100 mostly-female fans drove up the temperature as the King of Rock ’n Roll, still in fine voice and able to work an audience, tore through a 22-song set list that included “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “My Way.”
Three months later, on Aug. 16, Elvis would succumb to a heart attack in his Graceland mansion. Charting the next leg of his national tour, he had already sold out two more Maine shows, on Aug. 17 and 18, at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Stunned by the news, a gaggle of fans, many clutching $12 tickets from the canceled Portland performances, gathered outside the arena, and inside for an evening tribute show. Tom Parker, Elvis’ longtime manager, already in Maine, along with the star’s glittery wardrobe, was said to have aged years after taking the tragic phone call in his hotel room.
The Augusta show, The King’s only Maine appearance, was reviewed over and over in the minds of those lucky enough to have attended. But 40 years later, it is often eclipsed by Elvis’ ghostly Portland no-shows, despite eBay auctions featuring 5/24/77 Augusta tickets, CDs, snapshots, and grainy 17-minute, 40-second 8mm YouTube concert highlights footage.
“People started lining up at the Augusta Civic Center two days before tickets went on sale,” recalled former executive director Lionel Dubay. “I stayed at the center all night [in the rain] and would occasionally go out and walk the lines. I would tell folks that there was a maximum of six tickets per person and all of the tickets had been racked with the best seats being sold in order. …”
Dubay said that Augusta took the Elvis show when a contact person at the newly-opened Cumberland County Civic Center didn’t call the promoter back, that he dealt over the phone directly with Parker, and that Augusta had a two-show option, but that the promoter feared a loss of future business if Elvis’ second performance didn’t sell quickly.
“We got notice that Elvis was arriving at the center [an hour late] and we brought him into the building from the back,” continued Dubay, now assistant vice president of the University of Florida’s Business Service Division. “He was already dressed for the show. I was standing by the stage when the house lights went down and they announced the singer as he went up on stage. It seemed that 7,000 Kodak Instamatic cameras with the little square flash cubes on top went off at once. I got goose bumps.”
Inside the arena, Chris Palmer of the Bangor Daily News and Paul Betit of the Kennebec Journal sat with note pads in hand, ready to review The King in pre-website, hard-copy newspaper reviews.
“When the Pelvis took his place before the microphones, …” Palmer wrote, “he worked his larynx (and other more noticeable parts of his million-dollar anatomy) like a pro.”
Palmer noted Elvis’s “skin-tight, white jumpsuit, embellished with gold sequins and a large sunburst on the back, … did little to disguise [his] now-famous paunch.” She also said he seemed incoherent, tipsy, or just “oblivious to the world around him.”
Writing more like a Presley fan, Betit, who today pens military crime novels, commented, “He didn’t have to sing. All he had to do was stand there and move something—a finger, a leg, a shake of the head. … All the elements of what he is were there—gospel, soul, rock, and plenty of excitement.”
Today, Palmer, retired from the BDN and a career in corporate communications, considers herself fortunate to have seen Elvis so soon before his death. But she stands by her critique, roundly panned by some Presley fans, that the audience members, wearing apparel monogrammed with The King’s name, were the show’s best feature.
“I believe that the Beatles, not Elvis, were rock’s true royalty,” she said. “And Elvis was really poured into that suit. If I had been bolder, I would have written it the way I saw it. Sorry fans, but The King was fat.”
In a sense, Presley and his Maine presence never died. There is the old Sheraton Hotel in South Portland where Elvis spent the night, reportedly ordering out for a peanut butter and banana sandwich and autographing the bathroom sink. Plus, a plaque donated by Presley’s friends and fans hangs inside the Augusta Civic Center lobby, a group called True Fans for Elvis has been active here, and impersonators such as Bruce Nye the Elvis Guy have ignited the singer’s spirit.
“I’ve sung at funerals, nursing homes, churches,” said Nye, a retired Bangor banker-turned-showman living in Florida. “One woman said she attended 386 of my shows. But on April 11, I retired my act, after about 3,000 Elvis shows. It’s a lot of work traveling around, keeping the outfit ironed and looking nice.”
Nye said because of all the work involved in capturing Elvis’ magnetism, only about 3,000 full-time impersonators are working in the U.S. Make that 3,001 if you count Elvis’ spirit, which lives on in the hearts and minds of those who saw him perform, heard him on the radio, saw him on TV, and remember the day, 40 years ago, that the music died, if only for a moment, in Memphis and in Maine.