Minnesota Now and Then: Elvis Presley in Duluth

Elvis Presley in 1975, near the end of his Vegas years.
Elvis Presley in 1975, near the end of his Vegas years.
Keystone via Getty Images

The movie Priscilla has earned more than 19 million dollars since its late October release. The film tells the story of the teenage girl who met and later married Elvis Presley, one of the pioneers of rock n’ roll. Priscilla’s movie comes less than two years after Elvis had a biopic of his own. Both have stirred up attention over the King’s legacy.

Elvis died at the young age of 42 of a heart attack. When he came through Minnesota on one of his final tours a few months earlier, drug use and chronic illness were taking a toll on his body.

For the latest story in our history series, Minnesota Now and Then, MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt take us to Elvis’ 1977 concert at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[ELVIS, "HOUND DOG"] - (SINGING) You ain't nothing but a hound dog crying all the time. You ain't nothing but a hound dog--

CATHY WURZER: That, of course, "The King," Elvis Presley. The movie, Priscilla, has earned more than $19 million since its debut about a month ago. It tells the story of the teenage girl who eventually married Elvis. Of course, you know he's one of the pioneers of rock and roll.

Priscilla's movie comes less than two years after Elvis had a biopic of his own, and both have stirred up attention over the King of Rock and Roll's legacy. Elvis, as many of you know, died at the young age of 42 of a heart attack. When he came through Minnesota on one of his final tours, there were signs that drug use and chronic illness were taking a toll on his body. In the latest of our history series, "Minnesota Now and Then," MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt take us to Duluth for Elvis's 1977 concert at The DECC.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

CONTRIBUTOR: Elvis Presley's life was a mess, but the view was good-- a panorama of Lake Superior from the fifth floor of the Duluth Radisson, the cylindrical hotel known for its rotating restaurant. It was probably dark. The King of Rock and Roll went to bed when others were just getting up. His private jet had flown from his entourage directly from Green Bay when a disenchanted music critic was already typing up a review of this last evening's concert. "Pelvis Slowed" was the headline.

ELVIS: Thank you.

CONTRIBUTOR: And he didn't waste time getting to the question on everybody's mind, "Was Elvis fat?" Yes, he was fat, the critic wrote, and moved on to the next burning question, "Can he still sing?" Yes, he can hit the notes when he has to. And finally, "Is he the famous showman of old?" Sad to say that he is not.

It didn't help that the 42-year-old singer had twisted his ankle a couple of nights ago. He favored the leg as he maneuvered around the Radisson's presidential suite and chatted with Larry Allen, the hotel busboy that he had asked for by name. Last year, when he'd come to Duluth for his first-ever concert in the Twin Ports area, Larry had scrounged up two banana splits at 3:00 in the morning. They were his favorite for Elvis. It was true. He liked a good meal.

ELVIS: Thank you very much. Thank you.

[BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE, "TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS"]

CONTRIBUTOR: But he also liked the guy who could take care of business. That was Larry. He talked to the King about the weather-- it was cold-- and the view, which was beautiful-- the harbor, the lift bridge, the twinkling lights. Elvis wanted to eat. The busboy took the order-- two grilled cheese, one milk, one sliced tomato, one hot apple pie, one quart of ginger ale, and a $2 tip for Larry, who pocketed the receipt as a souvenir.

It was the morning of April 29, 1977, when Elvis hit the sheets, not before getting his "attack," that packet of pills that helped him sleep. He was an insomniac with a lot on his mind. Newspapers were reporting that the Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's manager of 22 years, was selling his contract. Elvis was being sold like a sack of potatoes?

MAN: Man, you've got to be kidding me on that one.

CONTRIBUTOR: And the Colonel couldn't even bother to tell him?

FOGHORN LEGHORN: Pay attention to me, boy. I'm not just talking to hear my head roar.

CONTRIBUTOR: Rumor had it that the manager was buried in gambling debt.

[CARDS SHUFFLING]

Worse than that, three of the singer's former bodyguards were writing tell-all books.

[ADELE, "RUMOR HAS IT"]

What would the fans think when they heard about his girls, his drugs? Around 4:00 PM, Elvis's doctor gave him another attack, the pills and injections that helped him wake up. There would be more attacks before the show. The packets had to be timed perfectly so he didn't pass out or stagger through the concert in a daze.

ELVIS: I've never gotten over what they call stage fright, really. I go through it every show. I'm pretty concerned. I'm pretty much thinking about the show.

I never get completely comfortable with it, and I don't want the people with me to get comfortable with it. And then I remind them that it's a new crowd out there. It's a new audience, and they haven't seen us before. So it's got to be like the first time we go on.

CONTRIBUTOR: Already, his bodyguards and girlfriends were feeling like nursemaids. How many times had Elvis fallen asleep while eating and they had to claw food out of his throat so he didn't choke? At 10:00 PM, he hit the stage at the Duluth Arena in a white jumpsuit and an ankle brace.

[ELVIS, "THAT'S ALL RIGHT"]

A little puffier than the old Elvis, a lot slower, but my God, the screams. You could tell that the fans of this guy, who physically was hanging on by a thread and would be dead in four months, wasn't the most exciting thing that happened in town.

And if anything could make Elvis feel better, it was singing. He loved to sing. And word from the Colonel that the nonsense about him selling his contract was just that. In the limo after the show, Elvis toweled sweat from his face and drank Gatorade. He had been a lot of places in his life he told the chauffeur, but Duluth was just as pretty as any of them.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, by the way, if you want more information on what happened, Jim Heffernan, who used to write for the Duluth News Tribune did a reminiscence of the 1977 Elvis concert. It's in the Duluth News Tribune from 2021. You might want to check that out.

Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt do such a good job with this. And this, of course, was also made possible by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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