Every live stage performer is entitled to have an off night once in awhile, especially somebody like Elvis Presley, who gave hundreds of live concerts during his career. Unfortunately, as his health declined in the mid-seventies, Elvis’s touring schedule was increased at a time when it should have been curtailed instead. The result? … a string of sub-par Presley shows that left his fans saddened and obliged ethical reviewers to be honest about Presley’s mediocre performances.
One of those ethical writers was Marty Bennett, whose blunt review of Elvis’s May 29, 1977, show in Baltimore, Maryland, appeared in Variety three days later. The distressing story of that Presley appearance started before Elvis came to town with widespread ticket scalping and culminated in an embarrassing and painful stage show in the Baltimore Civic Center.
Ticket Scalping and Illicit Sales
Tickets, scaled with a top price of $15, went on sale in mid-April and sold out the same day. The take for the 12,700-seat Civic Center was $179,350, a record for a live performance at the facility. Immediately after the tickets sold out, they went back on sale, this time illegally. In an April 20, 1977, article, Variety reported that Elvis’s appearance in Baltimore had “generated record illicit prices as scalpers, professional and otherwise, gathered the chutzpah to go public with classified ads in a Sunday newspaper.” Of course, details of such illicit ticket sales are hard to come by, but it is known that one scalper who advertised $15 tickets for “best offer” received up to $100 per ticket.
Although there was a strict 10-ticket limit at the box office, the professional scalpers were able to accumulate much more than that. One classified advertiser told a radio reporter that he had 67 Elvis tickets for sale at $40 each. One newspaper, The New American, stood by its principles and refused to accept the scalpers’ ads.
A Show to Remember but Not Cherish
And what did the fleeced victims get for their overpriced tickets? A performance by Presley they would never forget but wish they could. The headline over Bennett’s concert review in the June 1, 1977, issue of Variety read, “What’s With Elvis: Walks Out Midway at Show in Baltimore.”
When Elvis came on following the warm-up acts, he was “heavy-eyelidded and appeared to most observers to be weak and tired,” judged Bennett. “Presley, paunchy and apparently pained, first did 30 minutes marked by anemic singing, a few stilted attempts at his patented gyrations, bewildering patter, and awkward stage movement that included having an aide hand-hold his voice mic.”
Suddenly, without explanation, Elvis announced he had to leave the stage and walked off. His large stage entourage quickly went into ad-lib mode. Bennett reported that the crowd “endured the mysterious break with unusual patience.” He added, “While Presley was gone, his troupe’s uneven filling included a vocal flight by an anonymous opera songstress that drew a partial standing ovation, more than the main attraction received at any time after his intro.”
After a half-hour hiatus, Elvis returned to the stage. He had left, he explained, because of a “twisted ankle and nature calls and you don’t fool around with nature.” Though he emphasized, “there’s nothing wrong with my health,” a Civic Center official later said Elvis was on medication and was treated by a physician during the 30-minute gap.
An Apologetic Elvis Returns to the Stage
On returning to the stage, Elvis “came on like gangbusters,” noted Bennett in his review’s only praise of Presley, “as he politely and apologetically tried to recoup his losses … He repeatedly thanked the audience for hanging with him and said ambiguously, ‘If you want us back we’ll come back.’” That only a handful later asked for a refund is some evidence that he won back a portion of the crowd’s goodwill, but Bennett observed that, “at the finale there was no ovation, and patrons exited shaking their heads and speculating on what was wrong with him.”
The painful honesty of Marty Bennett’s review stands in stark contrast to Earl Arnett’s fraudulent article in the Baltimore Sun the next day. Under the fallacious headline, “Presley Has The Old Magic Still,” Arnett brazenly declared that Elvis had, “visited a packed house at the Civic Center last night and generated the same excitement that has made him an American household word for 20 years.” Nowhere in Arnett’s “review” does he mention Presley’s mysteriously half-hour stage absence. Instead, the writer observed that, “Elvis’ show was intelligent and well-paced.”
Of course, it was ill health that led to Elvis leaving the stage in the middle of his 1977 Baltimore show. It was his tenth stop on a 14-city tour that began in Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 20. A doctor who saw him backstage in Knoxville reported that Elvis was “pale, swollen—he had no stamina.” Two nights later in Largo, Maryland, Elvis threw two microphones to the stage after a sound problem and left the stage briefly for what he called, “nature’s call.”
Elvis Presley’s show in Baltimore on May 29, 1977, will forever be remembered as a heartbreaking night in music history. Despite the ticket scalping and illicit sales, fans eagerly awaited the performance, only to witness an ailing Elvis struggling on stage. He walked off midway through the show, leaving his troupe to ad-lib and entertain the bewildered audience. After a thirty-minute hiatus, Elvis returned, apologizing and trying to recoup the crowd’s goodwill. However, the damage was done, and patrons left the venue shaking their heads.
This unforgettable night serves as a poignant reminder of Elvis’s declining health and the toll it took on his performances. Marty Bennett’s honest review contrasted sharply with Earl Arnett’s misleading article, highlighting the contrast between integrity and deception in music journalism.
As an Elvis fan, or even someone fascinated by music history, this concert in Baltimore holds a significant place. It’s a reminder of the vulnerability of our beloved icons and the impact their struggles can have on their art. Though that night may not have been a cherished memory for many, it remains etched in the annals of Elvis Presley’s legendary career.