Once upon a time in Duluth: Elvis played Duluth Arena, no media allowed, 44 years ago
"The King" entertained local fans twice in the span of a year, famously slept at the Radisson, then died less than four months later.
The lights went down, the band played the start of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and then there was Elvis Presley, in a jumpsuit, of course, on the stage at the Duluth Arena Auditorium.
The April 29, 1977, concert was his second show here in a year and the last he would play for this maxed-out audience.
“At precisely 10 p.m., wrist-watch time … the great man swaggered to the stage, blue spotlights playing on him and thousands of hand-held cameras popping flashbulbs,” then arts reporter Jim Heffernan wrote in his review for the News Tribune. “The crowd surged forward down the aisles despite the protestations of ushers and police and he was off and wriggling.”
The concert was similar to one he played at the same venue the previous October — though with less of the aforementioned wriggle and a struggle to remember lyrics, it was reported. Years later, Heffernan would admit that The King didn’t look so hot that night — a portrait he had buffed a bit for readers.
“Standing to the side of the stage — positioned at the east end of the Arena — I had a good close-up view of Elvis, and I was ruefully disappointed at how he had dissipated since the early days, although I fudged it in my reviews,” Heffernan wrote nearly 20 years later.
Elvis died of a heart attack when he was 42, just more than three months after his show in Duluth. He was found unconscious in his Memphis home, Graceland mansion, by his then-girlfriend.
He was, at that time, reportedly addicted to prescription drugs.
DECC Arena welcomes new artwork picturing iconic performances
A brief overview on Elvis, for young people
Elvis had a rags-to-riches, Hollywood-ready backstory. He was born to parents who struggled financially in Tupelo, Mississippi, graduated from high school and found blue collar work. Then he was discovered by the label Sun when he made a $4 demo acetate for his mother as a gift — his music influences ranging from gospel to R&B to country. His popularity grew, he played shinier stages, he signed with RCA Records and, according to graceland.com , began dying his hair black.
In March 1958, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was discharged two years later after advancing to sergeant. Then he resumed his career in entertainment: more music, more movies, more television specials.
His biggest hits, in a career that spanned more than 20 years, include “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
All told, Elvis sold more than a billion records, earned three Grammy Awards (stemming from 14 nominations), starred in dozens of movies — and twice, later in his career than he could know, landed on stage at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Heffernan, who retired from the New Tribune in 2005 (but continues to write columns), has a few times told the tale of covering Elvis’s concerts — namely that at this point in the musician's career, his keepers didn’t want press coverage.
“He wasn’t looking good,” Heffernan recalled in a career retrospective published in 2005.
Elvis’s staff didn’t offer review tickets (a rare diss back then, but in the modern era, the News Tribune pays for its own tickets to performances) and the shows were sold out.
Heffernan, however, had connections.
“I cooked a deal with the manager of the Duluth Arena Auditorium,” he wrote in a 2006 column.
The late Joe Sturkler let Heffernan and photographer Joey McLeister into the concerts, but said that if they got caught by The King’s men, they were on their own.
The show started at 8 p.m., but merch sales ate the first 30 minutes. Then there was a male quartet, a comedian who riffed on Twig, and Sweet Inspirations, a trio of women.
Elvis took the stage around 10 p.m. in his signature fashion.
His set list from the performance includes 21 tunes — starting with “See See Rider Blues” by Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Jazz Band and ending with “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” In between, according to setlist.fm , were a lot of covers: “O Sole Mio,” Marty Robbins’ “You Gave Me a Mountain,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel.
The Elvis-magic was still intact, Heffernan wrote in his review. Women crashed toward the stage, with police and usher fighting them back. Elvis’s white scarves, damp with neck sweat, were passed to fans.
“…And one young woman fell and broke her leg at the foot of the stage. Her only regret, as police and Gold Cross ambulance attendants worked on her backstage, was that she was missing the performance. ‘I wanna go back and see Elvis,’ she cried, her knee bulging as though a golf ball had been implanted in it.”
Heffernan and McLeister also staked out the Radisson, the News Tribune’s next-door neighbor and the hotel where the musician had taken over three floors. The photographer, according to a caption on a photograph that ran in the News Tribune after Elvis died, “had to wait hours and make friends with members of his entourage to record the above scene as Elvis steps off the Radisson Duluth Hotel elevator with members of his party …”
Heffernan, too, got a piece of The King. “I got within about 6 feet of Elvis over at the Radisson parking lot,” he wrote in 2005, in a column about how, at Graceland years after the concert, he stood 6 feet above Elvis at his gravesite.
On the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death, the News Tribune caught up with people who had connected with The King. The man who drove Elvis' limousine while he was in Duluth and recalled him wiping his neck with a white towel and chugging icy green Gatorade after the concert.
Just before Elvis got in the car, Bob McDonald said he heard the iconic announcement: "Elvis has left the building."
McDonald also recalled showing off the view near Skyline Parkway.
"When we came over the crest of the hill, well, you know how breathtaking it is. Elvis was just mesmerized," McDonald said in the 2002 article. "He was impressed. He really liked the town. He said 'This is beautiful.' He said he'd been all over the world, and this was as pretty as anywhere.'"
But it was a Radisson employee who got the biggest Elvis prize. When the presidential suite at the hotel got an upgrade about a year after the concert, she called dibs on the king-size mattress Elvis slept on.
This story was told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the News Tribune Minute podcast .