These Powerful Images Of Elvis’ Final Performance Shine A New Light On The King’s Last Days

Few who attended Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977, could possibly have known that they were witnessing a major piece of history. But that was the date of Elvis Presley’s final live concert ever. Indeed, less than two months later the King of Rock and Roll would be dead.

As you would expect from the days long before camera phones, footage of the show remains relatively scarce. Yet the details that have emerged suggest that the music icon did his live farewell in style. And, perhaps, that he appeared to sense that he might not ever return to the stage, either.

The historic show was certainly an emotional one. As well as delivering strong renditions of his biggest chart hits and several well-chosen covers, the musical pioneer also welcomed a whole host of pivotal figures in his life to share the spotlight. So, here’s a closer look at that momentous concert.

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It’s fair to say that Elvis Presley wasn’t in a very good place at the beginning of 1977. What’s more, various members of the press appeared to take great delight in his downfall. In a particularly scathing piece, writer Tony Scherman described the star as a “grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self.”

To be fair, though, Elvis did give journalists lots of ammunition. He lasted barely an hour during a show in Alexandria, Louisiana, for instance. Meanwhile, a show in Baton Rouge had to be pulled when he couldn’t summon the energy to crawl out of bed. And three other dates also had to be canceled owing to the faded star’s erratic behavior.

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Presley himself either wasn’t aware of or didn’t particularly care about the outside world’s opinion of him, mind you. He spent his spare time reading spiritual books or staying in his room, sometimes inviting his cousin to discuss his favorite sketches from Monty Python. But he also regularly fell into a state of paranoia – inevitably thereby drawing comparisons with famed recluse Howard Hughes.

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Presley released what would be his final single, “Way Down,” in the first week of June that year. And shortly afterwards, he recorded two live shows for CBS’s Elvis in Concert special. One of the writers present at the first gig, Peter Guralnick, said that the singer was “a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others and is virtually unable to articulate or project.”

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That said, the same writer was a little more impressed by Presley’s second performance in South Dakota’s Rapid City two days later. Guralnick in fact noted that the star both “looked healthier” and “sounded better.” And yet the critic also said that the King’s face was “framed in a helmet of blue-black hair from which sweat sheets down over pale, swollen cheeks.”

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But despite the less-than-stellar response to his shows and his worrying general wellbeing, Presley returned to the stage just days later. Yes, on June 26, 1976, the rock-and-roll legend hit the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis for what would be a historic show. And almost 18,000 fans showed up to see him in action.

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And doubtless some of those attendees had only booked last-minute tickets for the event thanks to The Indianapolis Star’s cheeky article about the show. The local newspaper read, “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back, you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” This price tag, for the record, would amount to roughly $60 in today’s money.

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Concertgoers were then treated to various opening acts – ranging from a brass band to a stand-up comedian – before the King took to the stage at 10:00 p.m. The set opened with a version of Richard Strauss’ late-19th-century tone poem “Also Spake Zarathustra.” And Elvis then performed 12-bar-blues classic “See See Rider.”

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Meanwhile, the crowd left waiting in anticipation was reportedly a mixed one. Indianapolis News reporter Zach Dunkin wrote, “The conservative audience was vintage 35-ish, sprinkled with several curious teenyboppers. There were foxy ladies dressed to impress and would-be Presleys in jumpsuits. A few tots had to be carried through the turnstiles because mom and pop couldn’t find a babysitter. Make room for a second generation of Presley fans.”

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In any case, over the next 80 minutes those fans got to hear various uplifting Elvis classics performed live – including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Little Sister.” He also sometimes slowed things down with more melancholic tracks such as “Hurt” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” And in addition, he coupled “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Teddy Boy.”

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During the show, Presley covered several songs that had been made famous by other artists, too. These included Simon and Garfunkel’s signature hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode.” And the set list also comprised a few solo performances from various members of Presley’s highly gifted backing band.

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Presley wasn’t alone on the stage, after all. With support provided by the Joe Guercio Orchestra, the King had also assembled a group of accomplished musicians to accompany his famous dulcet tones. These artists included pianist Tony Brown, keyboardist Bobby Ogdin, guitarists John Wilkinson and James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Larrie Londin.

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Presley introduced each and every musician on stage, as well as several other key names in his life, to the sell-out crowd. And it’s worth noting that this was an unusual practice by the King, too. Indeed, it led some to believe that Presley had had an inkling that he was nearing his end, and perhaps he even wanted to pay tribute to those who had supported him while he still could.

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However, there’s another theory as to why the star appeared to be in such a reflective mood. A revealing biography penned by his ex-bodyguards Red and Sonny West was due to be published shortly after the gig. And the chapters about Presley’s substance-abuse issues had reportedly left him fearful about the damage that they could do to his career.

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Meanwhile, those who were given shout-outs by Presley while he was on stage included his father and his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, and her family. The King had first started stepping out with the model the year before, and he had later presented her with a diamond-encrusted engagement ring. Tragically, moreover, Alden was to be the first person to discover Presley’s body on the day that he passed away.

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Presley then brought the show to a close with an affecting rendition of his popular ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” And before leaving the stage for what would sadly prove to be the last time, the star bade farewell to his captivated audience with the following words: “We’ll meet you again. God bless. Adios.”

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Presley’s final performance certainly appeared to satisfy most of the nearly 18,000 fans who had visited the Market Square Arena. But it was a different story when it came to the critics. The most scathing response came courtesy of Zach Dunkin; and the writer for the Indianapolis News definitely wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

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First, Dunkin questioned why the King had put on the show in the first place. The writer said, “[Presley] obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.” Yes, the critic also took umbrage with the entertainment that had been lined up ahead of Presley’s arrival on stage.

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“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room,” Dunkin wrote about the support acts. And the reviewer also wasn’t a fan of the techniques that had been deployed by the merchandise sellers. You see, fans reportedly had to listen to several P.A. announcements imploring them to buy souvenirs.

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Perhaps inevitably, however, it was the King who incurred the wrath of Dunkin the most. In fairness, the writer did concede that he’d admired the renditions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Hurt.” But he was left unimpressed by the fact that Presley had had to perform those songs while looking at their lyrics on a sheet.

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Dunkin ended his review with the kicker, “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.” And yet the critic’s suggestion had the opposite effect. You see, Presley’s supporters sent Dunkin a wave of hate mail in response to his takedown of their beloved idol.

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Speaking to John Krull, Dunkin recalled how many fans had told him that he was simply jealous of Presley’s talents. Others, meanwhile, made more personal attacks. And yet the critic claimed that not every fan was so hostile. In one letter, for example, an admirer of the King agreed with Dunkin, saying that the star “should’ve stayed home.”

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A more sympathetic review of the gig came from The Indianapolis Star’s Rita Rose. She wrote, “As the lights in the Arena [were] turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: please, Elvis, don’t be fat. At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection. But it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.”

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And while Rose may have started off her piece in skeptical mode, she soon changed her tune. She praised Presley’s performances of “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain” and “It’s Now or Never” in particular. Plus, the critic noted how excited the sell-out crowd had been to see their idol in action.

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Rose wrote, “Elvis has limited his karate movements. But the stances he takes with his guitar generated screams and shrieks from delighted fans.” Many female audience members also jostled to catch one of the various scarves dangled by the King from the stage. In fact, Zach Dunkin claimed that the King threw no less than 46 different scarves during the set.

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And in 2018 fan Todd Slaughter discussed how thunderstruck he had been by seeing his hero on stage in Indianapolis. He told The Big Issue, “It was a special show. He sang his heart out. Having only seen Elvis on stage in Las Vegas in previous years in front of an audience of 2,000 people, the atmosphere was equally electrifying [at this show]. And the whole audience erupted when he announced that in the audience there were 250 Brits.”

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Slaughter, for his part, himself holds a special place in the history of the King of Rock and Roll. Indeed, the Brit – who has presided over a U.K. fan club for more than half a century – later met his idol at the airport in Indianapolis. And the footage of this event is reportedly the last ever to have been captured of Presley before his death.

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There has never been an official release of the concert’s recording. However, grainy footage of the show can be viewed on YouTube. And years later an unofficial bootleg of the gig was made available by A.J. Records under the title of The Last Farewell before being re-released as Adios: The Final Performance.

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Presley had made his last ever official recording at the end of October the year before. Yes, the star had entered the Jungle Room studio at his Graceland home to record a vocal overdub on a track called “He’ll Have to Go.” And the song appeared on Moody Blue, Presley’s 24th LP, which hit stores just a month before his passing.

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Yet the last number that Presley ever sang wasn’t actually at Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena. In fact, it was a piano-led version of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” performed just hours prior to him passing away at his Graceland home. The song had been a hit for country legend Willie Nelson two years previously.

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Presley was in fact due to head out of his Memphis hometown that same day to kickstart another wave of live shows. But the King never stepped foot outside his Graceland home again. You see, early that afternoon Presley’s girlfriend, Ginger Alden, found him lying completely unresponsive on the floor of one of his many bathrooms.

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Alden’s eyewitness account read, “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while [he was] using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it. It was clear that, from the time whatever [had] hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn’t moved.”

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Presley’s death was officially confirmed at the Baptist Memorial Hospital at 3:30 p.m. later that same day. Around 80,000 fans subsequently thronged the processional route from his Graceland home to Forest Hill Cemetery following his funeral on August 18. And the King was buried alongside his mother, Gladys Presley, who had died in 1958.

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Sadly, the venue of Elvis’ historic final gig is no longer standing. After its demolition in 2001, the space once occupied by the Market Square Arena would serve as a parking lot. However, a memorial marker was placed there to celebrate and commemorate such an important piece of rock-and-roll history.

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This plaque was later moved along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail before being displaced during the building of the distribution headquarters of engine manufacturer Cummins. Then in 2018 it was moved to 320 E. Market St., just outside a Whole Foods store. And a time capsule featuring a recording of the gig was also sealed during the ceremony to celebrate the plaque’s new home.

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Taking Care of Presley Memorial Benefit Committee co-founder Kay Lipps helped to organize the memorial. And interestingly, Lipps was also one of those lucky 18,000 fans who had crammed into the Market Square Arena on that historic day in June 1977. She was in the very front row, in fact.

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Lipps told the Indianapolis Star that she had enjoyed Presley’s rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in particular. And the fan added, “It was one of his better late shows. I was happy to see him. He was in a good mood, and he was Elvis. His vocals, of course, were amazing.”

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