Aloha from another royal age

While the event likely lacks the gravitas of many “where were you when” moments, Elvis Presley’s Jan. 14, 1973 concert in Honolulu, Hawaii is a night that should be remembered. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the event. While that point needs no reiteration for the legion of still-devoted fans, there are reasons the uninitiated might also reflect a little.

Whether one waxes poetic about the man from Tupelo, the concert was the locus of many notable firsts and set viewing records that are still intact. Looking tanned, perfectly coiffed and unmistakable in his bright white “American Eagle” jumpsuit, Presley took the stage to the now-familiar strains of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (better known as the theme from the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey). In so doing, it became the first concert by a solo entertainer to be broadcast live via satellite.

When the lights came up on the Honolulu International Center’s stage, 6,000 lucky fans were packed into the small arena. They were hardly even the tip of the iceberg.

As his orchestra blared the final notes of the intro music, Presley’s image was broadcast instantly to more than 40 countries, from Asia to Europe. Establishing a record that stands even now, the billion-plus viewers comprised the largest audience ever to tune in to a single performer’s show.

A great irony for American audiences outside those in the International Center that night is the fact that the special wasn’t broadcast in the continental United States until April 4. Jan. 14, 1973 just happened to be the date for Super Bowl VII.

The Hawaii broadcast wasn’t merely a marketing choice — though it was most certainly an astute marketing decision. It was personal for Presley. The Hawaii concert was in many respects a tribute to the late Hawaiian composer Kui Lee, who’d written the song “I’ll Remember You,” which was a hit for the entertainer Don Ho. Presley recorded the song in June 1966, the year Lee died.

The concert itself was used as a fundraiser for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this detail comes from the fact that the concert tickets were free. Audience members were asked to pay whatever they could. The event raised $75,000 for the Lee fund.

More than this, Hawaii was personal to Elvis. He made three movies there and had done a benefit concert for the USS Arizona memorial.

The concert will be rebroadcast this week by networks all over the world. If you’ve not seen it, it’s certainly worth catching. It is a time capsule of Presley in full, svelte, resplendent glory. If latter-day Elvis is your thing, this is the seminal performance. Even so, there’s another telling of the Hawaii concert that gets much less “play” but is perhaps more revealing.

Originally released in an underwhelming vinyl edition with liner notes only a sound engineer could love, The Alternate Aloha, was recorded two days before the broadcast concert. It was done as a kind of failsafe against technical glitches.

Fortunately, it wasn’t needed. Even more fortunately, it was preserved, remastered and rereleased in 1990.

The Jan. 12 rehearsal concert shows Presley much more loose. He jokes with the band. He wanders into self-parody with goofy “alternate” lyrics. He sounds like a guy who’d be fun at parties. It is somehow warmer and more inviting than the royal performance that’s so familiar.

Interviewed by National Public Radio, John Jackson, president of Sony’s Legacy Records division, described Presley as the first “multi-media” human being. As Jackson contends, “you couldn’t just hear his music without seeing his photograph, or you couldn’t see the photograph without seeing the motion of him on television, or you had to take in everything or he didn’t make sense. And then after that, everything changed. And, you know, the world is now a multimedia place.”

Indeed. Elvis changed a lot of things, broadcast media, perhaps the least of them.