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Prior to 'Elvis' movie release, fans relive Ann Arbor concert memories


Suited up in his iconic white one-piece, on April 24, 1977, Elvis wiped his brow, tossed a scarf into the audience, and left the building for what would be his last time ever performing in Ann Arbor. 

On that memorable Sunday evening, Elvis fans gathered to watch his performance at Crisler Arena, featuring an iconic performance of "Unchained Melody" that "felt like a last hurrah,” says Claudette Brower, who at the time was a 22-year-old working as a major events box office manager for the University of Michigan.

That last hurrah still holds significant meaning for Elvis fans.

Two recordings from that evening, “Little Darlin’” and the King of Rock and Roll’s rendition of “Unchained Melody,” were included on “Moody Blue,” which was released that July and was the final album Elvis’ released. This version of “Unchained Melody” is also the final song on the soundtrack to the “Elvis” film opening in theaters Friday. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, this biography follows Elvis (Austin Butler) as he rises  to fame maintaining a complex relationship with his manager (Tom Hanks).

The Crisler concert, Presley's only appearance in Ann Arbor, came during a run of Michigan shows for the King: He played Olympia Stadium in Detroit on April 22, Wendler Arena in Saginaw on April 25 and Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo on April 26. 

But Elvis, who made his Michigan debut at Detroit’s Fox Theatre in May 1956, was far from the peak of his career and close to the end of his life in the spring of 1977. It had been eight years since his last No. 1 hit, “Suspicious Minds,” and five years since his last Top 10 hit, “Burning Love.” 

More: Read Adam Graham's "Elvis" review here. 

While Crisler was swarmed by fans of the King that night, it was not a full house, says Brower. As an employee working the show, she recalls many things happening behind the scenes to inflate the King's ego prior to his arrival.

"We had to actually put on the sign outside of Crisler that the show was sold out. It was not, because when he drove up he had to say that it was sold out," Brower says. "We also had to do what was referred to as dress the house... it was not completely sold out but we had it look like the seats were filled. So we would sell seats in the upper level, not necessarily next to each other, so that it looked like there was people sitting throughout the arena."

Doug Edwards worked as a stagehand at Crisler Arena and remembers watching Elvis arrive at the building.

“He wasn't the Elvis that everybody remembered from Las Vegas. I would say he was struggling,” says Edwards. “He put on a good show, he went out there. We had the limousine pull right into the building. He jumped out of the car with a handler, he was wearing glasses, I remember that he was already dressed in his stage attire. (He) jumped out, walked up to the stage, didn't go to a dressing room, didn't really do much of anything. (He) went right from the car to the stage and put on the show. It was pretty well-rehearsed.”

Edwards was within a few feet of Elvis on multiple occasions throughout the evening. 

“He walked right past me, not but four feet away on his way up to the stage. (He) didn't really look at anybody, he seemed to be focused on heading to the stage. (He) got up there, did the show… it was a pretty standard show.” 

Brower says Elvis started and stopped his performance multiple times throughout the evening, restarting his songs to make sure he was putting his best effort into each set.

“I do remember that there were some songs, and I don't know if it were multiple, but I do remember him starting over on some things that he didn't sort of, I don't know if he forgot the words or the arrangement wasn't right or that something wasn't meshing in, that he started over again,” she says.

Before his performance of "Unchained Melody," Elvis apologized to the crowd that he might not remember how to play the tune.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to play the piano and do a song called Unchained Melody," Presley said. "I hope I can remember the chords."

At the end of the performance, Elvis chuckled as he thanked the roaring audience and stated that he had previously performed the song better. Yet, it ended up being a meaningful performance to Elvis fans for years to come.

Royetta Ealba sat in the second row of the concert that night with her boyfriend for free, as his sister was the president of the Michigan Elvis Fan Club at the time. She enjoyed the performance, and recalls that Elvis announced the show was being recorded.

"I do remember he announced to the crowd, 'Oh, they're going to be recording this' and apparently they did," Ealba says. "He gave a very good concert. He was very connected to the crowd, and he smiled a lot, and he talked to you like you were sitting on the back porch."

As the closing of the show neared, the infamous “Elvis has left the building” announcement came over the arena’s P.A. system, and the phrase gained new meaning to Edwards, who watched as Elvis left the building before the band had finished playing.

"At the end of the show, I remember he came down the stairs, didn't say or see anybody, into the limo he got and off he went," Edwards says. "You hear the stories of ‘Elvis has left the building,’ and while the band was indeed still playing, Elvis was in the car and gone by the time the house lights came up."

Just a few months later, after years of prescription drug abuse and unhealthy eating habits accumulated, Presley died of a heart attack at age 42. In his final shows before the end of his life that August, it was apparent to fans that he was not in the best of health. 

"He didn't look the greatest of health," Brower says. "A lot of performers get up there and they get sweaty and warm. I mean, this guy was sweating bullets. I remember that, thinking, ‘Oh, this doesn't look healthy.’ Everybody had heard that he had not been healthy. I will say I was shocked when I found out he died in August because that tells me that he wasn't in great shape in April."

Regardless, Brower says she felt like the performance of "Unchained Melody," was something she will always remember.

“Well, I love that song, it was wonderful,” Brower says. “He really wanted to put on the show. He was a performer.” 

kluckoff@detroitnew.com