When Elvis on Tour hit the big screen in 1972, Elvis Presley was no longer the frequent cinema fixture of the 1960s, when he would crank out two or even three motion pictures a year. His last movie appearance was the 1970 documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is, chronicling the Elvis Summer Festival of 1970 at Las Vegas' International Hotel. Elvis on Tour painted with an even larger canvas. Though it had originally been mooted as a new showcase of Presley's Vegas performances, the concept soon expanded to cover his 15-city U.S. tour. The film crew led by directors Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel (Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen) captured four shows in Hampton, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Greensboro, North Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas. (Presley was also filmed backstage at his Jacksonville, Florida show, and that footage would be used for the movie's final scene.) The footage was then edited by Ken Zemke, assisted by the young Martin Scorsese; the latter made innovative use of split screens, much as he had in Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock film.
The movie was released on November 1, 1972 and took in nearly $500,000.00 in domestic box office receipts within its first three days of release in 187 theaters. It was first aired on television in 1976 and released on home video in 1982. A revised version arrived on video in 1997; in 2003, the complete San Antonio show was issued. In 2010, Elvis on Tour was re-released in cinemas and earned almost $600,000.00 in its limited release. This edition, which replaced the original opening of "Johnny B. Goode" with "Don't Be Cruel," was released to DVD and Blu-ray. Despite the film's initial success and subsequent stature, it never yielded a soundtrack album...until now. RCA and Legacy Recordings have released the first Elvis on Tour soundtrack as a 6-CD/1-Blu-ray package (with the 2010 edit of the film, as previously released by Warner Home Entertainment, on the Blu-ray).
The first CD was recorded on April 9, 1972, at Hampton Roads Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia. The second CD was captured on April 10, at Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, Virginia, and CD 3 preserves the April 14 show in Greensboro, North Carolina. All three discs are previously unreleased. CD 4 was recorded live on April 18 at Convention Center Arena, San Antonio, Texas, and includes previously released material from 2003's Elvis: Close-Up box set, though Matt Ross-Spang has remixed it for this release along with the previously unissued shows, while Vic Anesini has beautifully mastered everything.
The film promised "all the excitement of Elvis Live!" and despite the lack of visuals - always an important component of any Presley performance, from his earliest television appearances through his 1968 "comeback" special, 1973's Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and beyond - his kinetic energy comes through in Ross-Spang's vibrant new mixes. There are certain limitations; occasionally Presley goes off-mic and even modern technology can't place him up front. But those issues lend to the shows' raw immediacy and genuine live atmosphere. The shows are bookended by the now-famous "Also Sprach Zarathustra" introduction and the final announcement that "Elvis has left the building" (plus a few words reminding audience members to pick up souvenirs on the way out).
The setlists for each show were largely similar though not identical as Elvis ran through his greatest hits and more recent favorites in breakneck fashion. He was supported by his crack TCB Band of Glen D. Hardin (piano), James Burton, Charlie Hodge, and John Wilkinson (guitars), Ron Tutt (drums), and Jerry Scheff or Emery Gordy (bass) as well as The Joe Guercio Orchestra and background vocalists The Sweet Inspirations, Kathy Westmoreland, and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. Elvis threw himself into a wide-ranging array of contemporary pop, country, and R&B material (John Fogerty's "Proud Mary," Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain," Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie," Mickey Newbury's thunderous "An American Trilogy") while recognizing his substantial back catalogue of rock-and-rollers ("All Shook Up," a medley of "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" and "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog") and ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight," the inevitable closer "Can't Help Falling in Love"). Rather than merely emulating the records in the mold of a nostalgia act, Presley and the TCB Band reinvigorated the older songs with taut, funky arrangements and an abundance of energy.
Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the most touching moments are the more understated ones. Though attired in a flamboyant jumpsuit and backed by a grandiose ensemble, Elvis frequently projects intimacy on the poignant likes of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" and Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" while bringing reverence to "How Great Thou Art." Even playing to large arenas, he brought heart and emotion to Marty Robbins' spiritual "You Gave Me a Mountain," a top 40 hit for Frankie Laine in 1969 (and the final top 40 entry for the vocalist). Unlike many of Elvis' Vegas performances, there isn't a lot of banter with the audience at these shows, and from time to time he entertains himself by refusing to take a song too seriously - even at the expense of the song. But the crowd is audibly appreciative of their time spent in the presence of The King.
The Hampton Roads show that opens the box set may well be the strongest, with Elvis in good voice delivering standout renditions of such showstoppers as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "An American Trilogy," the latter of which was first heard on 1981's This Is Elvis compilation. The Stamps' "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" is also heard as part of this show. "Burning Love," which was released as a single just a few months after these concerts and would become Elvis' biggest hit since "Suspicious Minds" in 1969, isn't heard on the Hampton Roads or Richmond Coliseum shows but vigorous renditions appear on the Greensboro Coliseum and San Antonio Convention Center sets. At Greensboro, he prefaced his performance by sharing, "We're gonna spring a new song on you tonight...We don't know it too well...If we goof it up, just bear with us...It may take a little while, but we'll get it right." Of course, Elvis nailed it. (He nonetheless made a similar apology at San Antonio.)
Following the four core concerts, the box then surveys Presley's rehearsals at RCA Studios in Hollywood on March 30-31, 1972. Some of this material has been featured on past releases, though it's all been newly remixed by Ross-Spang. Most notably, the Follow That Dream label released a 19-song compilation of rehearsals in 2004 as Elvis on Tour - The Rehearsals. Other rehearsal cuts appeared on RCA's earlier The Great Performances (1990) and Amazing Grace (1994), and FTD's 6363 Sunset Boulevard (2001). Quite a few songs are heard only at rehearsals including "Separate Ways" (which would be released as a single in October 1972), the beautiful "Always on My Mind," "Johnny B. Goode," "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and a clutch of gospel songs.
Though there are plentiful false starts and incomplete takes, these tracks open a fascinating window onto Elvis' creative process. A quote from the film reveals how deliberate the song selection was: "I start going through the list of songs and it must be 400 or 500 songs. Out of that 400-500, I have to pick 20 at the most. Then we start rehearsing in a little studio at RCA Victor with a small band, with a rhythm section. And we go through several songs, maybe 50 songs. We do that for several days and we try to add to it. And then we go to Vegas and we pick up the voices. We start rehearsing with the voices, then graduate to the big band. But all this starts to take place two or three months before I ever make a public appearance. It's all planned out."
Elvis on Tour is packaged in the now-familiar cardboard box style of Legacy's previous Presley releases including Back in Nashville, From Elvis in Nashville, The Searcher: The Original Soundtrack, Elvis at Stax, and more. The slipcase contains one folder with the four concert CDs in slots and a second with the rehearsal discs and Blu-ray in slots (only the Blu-ray is in its own protective sleeve), as well as a 32-page squarebound book. Elvis pal Jerry Schilling and historian Warren Zanes provide new essays while there's also printed commentary from the original MGM pressbook and quotes from Elvis. The discs are all adorned with period RCA labels.
After years of extensive Elvis reissues from RCA/Legacy and Follow That Dream, a proper soundtrack to Elvis on Tour is most welcome, indeed, and fills a major gap within the Presley discography. Though the set is by its nature aimed at collectors and completists, the energetic performances are broadly enjoyable, capturing a period in which Presley was still introducing fresh and varied material into his setlists. Happily, with the release of Elvis on Tour, Elvis still hasn't left the building.