Deaglán de Bréadún: An Irishman’s Diary on an Elvis concert to remember
‘Dressed in his trademark glittering white outfit, he ran onto the stage and went down on one knee to acknowledge the ecstatic reception’
‘When Elvis arrived before us, mass hysteria erupted’. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Some people are such legends that you never expect to encounter them in real life. I never for one moment believed I would see Elvis Presley live on stage but, when the opportunity suddenly arose, I seized it with both hands.
It happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1974. I arrived there at the start of that year to take up a postgraduate scholarship at Tulsa University, an institution which has had Irish connections for many years despite being some 7,000km from our Emerald Isle.
Soon after my plane landed there, I picked up a copy of the Tulsa Tribune and, lo and behold, it contained an advertisement for two concerts by the King himself. Tickets cost $10 each, or about €40 in today’s terms. All seats were priced the same and, in those pre-internet days, I don’t recall any talk of ticket-touting.
As a boy, I had first heard the distinctive Presley tones on a juke-box in a place called “The Cat’s Parlour” at the seaside resort of Courtown in Co Wexford. Right from the start I was struck by the amazing quality of his voice.
Abstain from alcohol
The concert I had booked for was set to take place on March 1st at another third-level institution in Tulsa called Oral Roberts University (ORU), named after its founder, a wealthy television evangelist. We are told that, from its foundation, students were required to abstain from alcohol and cigarettes as well as sex outside marriage but I don’t know if those restrictions applied to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll!
It wasn’t the old “Elvis the Pelvis” routine... This was closer to Frank Sinatra or even Julio Iglesias: Elvis the Smoothie
Elvis performed at ORU’s enormous indoor basketball stadium with its seating capacity of 11,000-plus. Security was tight and it was reported that a man was shot and, as I recall, killed in the area. It was said he was carrying a case and failed to stop when challenged – I read later that the case was empty. Terribly sad and tragic but some might argue that if the same procedure applied at Manchester last May, a lot of people might still be alive.
As the time approached for the King to appear on stage, the William Tell Overture was played and three African-American women sang in heavenly voices.
When the Man from Memphis arrived before us, mass hysteria erupted. Anyone who couldn’t tolerate flash photography would have been in serious danger as the stadium became suffused with white light from the cameras in the audience. Dressed in his trademark glittering white outfit, he ran onto the stage and went down on one knee to acknowledge the ecstatic reception, with arms outstretched and draped in a gold-lined white cape.
It wasn’t the old “Elvis the Pelvis” routine that left him performing behind a waist-high barrier on the Ed Sullivan television show. This was closer to Frank Sinatra or even Julio Iglesias: Elvis the Smoothie.
But the slightest physical movement generated huge excitement and hordes of female fans tried to break through the security guards to get close to their idol. Some of them succeeded and were rewarded with a kiss or a scarf that he had used to mop sweat from his brow. One woman received both accolades and, after she was removed from the stage, stood to one side sobbing and shaking like a leaf.
When I was finally able to hear his voice, it turned out to be even better than expected. His choice of material was somewhat bland, reflecting the distance he had travelled since the initial rock ’n’ roll days. I recall that he performed Fever, made famous by Peggy Lee, and relatively few of his early hits.
At the end he sang Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, representing the different sides in the US civil war, against the background of a huge star-spangled banner. And at the end it really was announced that “Elvis has left the building.” But everybody went home happy, some of them deliriously so. In my own case, it was a dream come true, because I never imagined I would see the Great One live on-stage.
The Tulsa concerts were part of a tour that included Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia and finished up in Memphis, Tennessee where he lived in splendour at the Graceland mansion. It’s 40 years now since Elvis departed this world on August 16th, 1977 and left us all Crying in the Chapel and forever registered in Heartbreak Hotel. Elvis, old boy, you will be Always On My Mind.