Today marks the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ benefit concert in Hawaii for the Pearl Harbor USS Arizona Memorial. Below is a repost of a feature I wrote last year about this event.
Elvis was nervous at the start of the show, but the screaming audience has since calmed his fears. Truth is, he learned to use his nervous energy to his advantage on stage years ago. Despite all that has changed in his life, the fuel that powers him continues to be his fans.
This concert is a little different from most of the others, though. This time, he is in Hawaii to raise money for a cause that is very important to him. Colonel has worked out most of the details, of course, including talks with NBC to have the concert aired on TV.
A few songs in now, Elvis glances at his hastily scribbled list to see what is up next. It turns out to be one of his favorites, one sure to get a reaction from the crowd. “Treat me like a fool,” he begins and is met with more yells of approval. He still knows his audience, no matter what anybody says.
After introducing the band and backup singers, it is time for another song. He first heard this Drifters number back in 1954, but didn’t get to record it until he was out of the Army. “It was a night, ooh what a night it was, it really was such a night,” he sings into the microphone.
This time, the audience is a little quiet at first. They don’t know this one as well. No problem, Elvis throws a little leg into it and is instantly rewarded with more cheers. Secretly, he is glad Colonel’s deal fell through and those NBC cameras aren’t here after all. No need to tone this show down.
The year is 1961, and Elvis is in Hawaii to help raise money for the USS Arizona memorial. Just over seven months from now will mark the twentieth anniversary of the December 7, 1941, Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the United States into the middle of World War II.
That attack sunk the mighty Arizona, forever entombing over 1,000 officers and crew below the water in the battleship. Yet, a memorial commission established in 1949 is still having trouble finding the money to start construction on a proper tribute to the fallen.
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Though NBC ended up not filming the show, fortunately at least the audio was captured and preserved for us to still hear today. It appears on the 1980 “Silver” boxed set Elvis Aron Presley, which received a CD release in 1998. The sound quality is not great, but it is certainly listenable.
I pulled this set out for the first time in years yesterday and loved hearing this top-notch and exciting concert. It also reminded me that quite some time ago I had set aside a related book for later reading. As is often the case, by the time “later” came, I had forgotten about it.
Elvis In Hawaii by Jerry Hopkins (author of Elvis: A Biography and Elvis: The Final Years) is an oversized book filled with text and photos about Elvis’ various excursions to Hawaii, including this 1961 concert. One of the cool pieces of memorabilia in the book is Elvis’ handwritten set list for the show, which helped inspire today’s post. Interestingly, he originally planned to sing “Doin’ The Best I Can,” a 1960 album cut from G.I. Blues, before scratching it out and replacing it with his 1956 hit “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Of course, Elvis would return to Hawaii a number of times after this show, including the 1973 cancer fund benefit for which the television cameras of NBC and the world were present, Aloha From Hawaii.
The 1961 USS Arizona benefit raised over $50,000 for the memorial as well as turned a spotlight on the issue to encourage contributions from others, including the US Congress. On Memorial Day 1962, the memorial was finally dedicated.
Though no one knew it at the time, the show also marked Elvis’ last live appearance for over seven years until the studio audience tapings of the 1968 ELVIS television special and his full-fledged 1969 Las Vegas shows. Instead, for better or worse, most of the rest of his 1960s career would focus on making movies.
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Elvis knows he could stay on all night and they would stay, but the show is winding down now. He won’t be leaving Hawaii yet, though.
In just a couple of days, he has to start filming a new movie, Blue Hawaii. Though Mr. Wallis once told him it was to be a “drama,” Elvis is no longer so sure of that after reading the script and recording over a dozen songs for the soundtrack back in Hollywood just a few days ago.
Being on stage in Hawaii is a lot better than that stuffy recording studio. “We’d like to do a spiritual song for you, ladies and gentlemen, from our religious album called His Hand In Mine,” he says. “It goes something like this.”
He launches into “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot.” For that moment on stage, all is right in his world.