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Elvis in Chicago Was 'Electrifying': An 80th Birthday Celebration

By Casey Cora | January 8, 2015 5:48am | Updated on January 8, 2015 10:02am
 Elvis Presley rocked the world of 13,000 adoring fans at the International Amphitheatre in the Union Stockyards.
Elvis Presley rocked the world of 13,000 adoring fans at the International Amphitheatre in the Union Stockyards.
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Joe Krein

CHICAGO — Before opening night of his 1957 tour at the International Amphitheatre, Elvis Presley held a news conference in the Saddle and Sirloin Club, a nearby ritzy hangout for cattle executives visiting the Union Stockyards.

Flanked by a hound dog and a gaggle of reporters ahead of his first-ever Chicago stop — the first concert after his waist-up "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance — the 22-year-old Presley unveiled golden shoes, part of the custom-designed gold suit that he'd debut that night and that would become iconic.

Then came the 16-song, 47-minute performance, attended by some 13,000 rabid fans who rendered "the King" and his backing Jordanaires inaudible with their screams.

 A concert poster promoting Elvis Presley's 1957 performance at the International Amphitheatre.
A concert poster promoting Elvis Presley's 1957 performance at the International Amphitheatre.
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File Photo

Newspaper accounts detail the pandemonium: Grown women were reduced to tears. Dozens of girls fainted. An usher from Bridgeport was cold-cocked by the purse of a fan trying to rush the stage at the arena, located at 42nd and Halsted streets.

Presley was born on this day in 1935 and rocketed to periods of global stardom until his death in 1977.

From his rollicking rhythm and blues roots to the grandiose stage shows at now-shuttered arenas, the relationship of "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" — born 80 years ago Thursday — with the city was special.

"I don't think there was a more pivotal or more important voice to younger generations at that time. They needed that beacon of energy for their generation and certainly Elvis was it," said Cory Cooper, a Nevada-based "Elvis expert." 

Like most major cities in the United States, Chicago was a familiar and frequent spot for Presley, where he played both the Amphitheater and Chicago Stadium. But Presley's legacy here took a macabre turn in 1956, the year his film "Love Me Tender" was shown at the Brighton Park Theater on the Southwest Side. 

McKinley Park sisters and devoted Elvis fans Patricia and Barbara Grimes attended a screening on Dec. 28 of that year, reportedly their 11th viewing. After they left the movie, they disappeared. 

Publicity about the case sparked a number of reports of their sighting, including one from a woman who said she saw them in Memphis, leading some to believe they had gone to Tennessee to see Presley.

The singer even issued a plea to the sisters, saying, "If you're good Presley fans, you'll go home and ease your mother's worries."

The girls were found dead a month later in suburban Willow Springs. The nude bodies of Patricia, 13, and Barbara, 15, appeared to have been tossed out of a car. The case remains unsolved. 

And then there is “In the Ghetto,” Presley's 1969 hit that told the story of poor child born “on a cold and gray Chicago morn,” which was written by Mac Davis. Davis has said he was inspired by a childhood friend from his hometown in Lubbock, Texas. The boy lived in a predominantly black, poor part of town.

“A child is born in a situation, his father leaves, and he ends up acting out and becoming his father. Being born and dying and being replaced by another child in the same situation is basically what I was talking about,” Davis once said. “Dying is a metaphor for being born into failure, being born into a situation where you have no hope.”

Davis said he thought Presley took a risk to sing a song with a political bent because “he was always in the middle of the road when it came to controversy.”

Davis credited Presley with adding the mournful final line "and his mama cried."

A year after the 1957 Stockyards concert, Presley was drafted and wound up in the Army. He'd return to the city several more times during various points in his career. 

Some of those concerts ended up on vinyl, many of them bootlegs. Chicago Stadium shows from Oct. 15-16, 1976, were released as “The Hit That Saves the Day” and “Love American Style,” collectively known as the Chicago Chronicles.

With a painful colon condition in remission, he was described as "looking better than he had for several years" at those performances, although a Chicago Daily News reviewer blasted the performance as a shameless money grab. 

 Elvis Presley's 1976 concerts at the Chicago Stadium were captured for this live recording.
Elvis Presley's 1976 concerts at the Chicago Stadium were captured for this live recording.
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Still, "no matter what else one says about him, there's no doubt Mr. Presley can sing a song," wrote critic Jack Hafferkamp.

Other concerts included a June 17, 1972, Chicago Stadium show where his 27-song set included "That's All Right," 'Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog" and "Suspicious Minds," which can all be found on the record "From New York to Chicago."

A May 1977 show had Elvis singing "C.C. Rider," "Early Mornin' Rain" and "Johnny B. Goode." Then-Tribune rock critic Lynn Van Matre wrote that it "was painfully impossible to notice that Elvis doesn't put on that great of a show."

"Like Mick Jagger, Presley long ago turned into a self-parody," she wrote.

Barbara Hahn, the Chicago-born partner of Elvis memorabilia collector and historian Jerry Osborne, was at one of those May 1977 shows. Like the other throngs of fans who packed the old Chicago Stadium, she disagreed with the critics. 

"I remember it so well," said Hahn, who as a 19-year-old paid a friend to wait in line for tickets at the arena's box office. "He was overweight, and he stood on there, on stage. All that shook was his right leg, not the running around he used to do, and I remember he was laying on the the floor singing. But it was electrifying. It absolutely was."

The International Amphitheater, 4220 S. Halsted St., played host to such mega-acts as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and the Jackson 5, as well as cattle expositions, circuses and multiple political conventions — including the historic 1968 Democratic convention. It was torn down in 1999. 

The Chicago Stadium, 1800 W. Madison St., was demolished in 1995.

Cooper, the Elvis aficionado, said finding anyone with firsthand knowledge of Presley's early stints in Chicago is getting harder and harder to come by.

"All these people, they're passing away now. They're all at that age," he said.

Feel like celebrating the King's birthday? Head over to The Original Mothers for the 15th annual Elvis Fest.

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