Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Greg Shaw, “Elvis Presley at Cobo Hall, Detroit,” 1972

by justindburton on August 15, 2012

Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go to or

Elvis Presley at Cobo Hall, Detroit

Phonograph Record, December 1972

(Nearly 40 years since this piece was written, and 35 since he died on August 16, 1977)

• written by the late Greg Shaw, founder and editor of Mojo Navigator and Bomp magazine

I’m getting pretty sick of all this talk about what a gross Tom Jones imitation Elvis has become. Baby fat and other people’s songs, indeed. Christ, Elvis is almost 40, why can’t we let him age gracefully?

So he’s getting paunchy, so he doesn’t shake his hips but instead does a few abrupt deep-knee bends, and especially so he does big production numbers like ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ instead of hard-out rockers.

So what? Look at Chuck Berry. When he was a young man his antics would astound today’s audiences. He was all over the stage, playing jump-rope with his guitar, the band blowing like a hurricane. Nowadays he does a limp pantomime, a few duckwalk steps and that’s it – with pickup bands who’d never heard one of his songs an hour before. And who complains or points out that a man of 45 looks ridiculous singing a juvenile song like ‘My Ding-A-Ling?

Shit, man, he’s done enough. He doesn’t have to put out for us dumb kids 15 years out. We’re lucky just to see him. His old records speak for themselves, and a man’s gotta ease off sometime. The same’s true for Elvis.

There’s another thing Elvis and Chuck have in common, and another reason they’re both still popular and always will be: sex. Sex was always at the root of rock & roll’s effectiveness. You know the girls didn’t appreciate the savage wildness of Scotty Moore’s guitar or the Beatles’ good taste in playing Carl Perkins songs. It was always the shaking hips/hair, the stud sneer or the boyish smile, the image of quintessential male sexuality coupled with the driving force of rock & roll that attracted the girls, reinforced the guys’ own self-image, and made giants of those lucky few who caught the image vector at the right moment.

And they’ve still got it, of course: they’ll charm the nurses onto their deathbed and knock ’em up too, I’d wager. And that’s why they’re still around. Chuck’s an obvious lecher, but Elvis plays it cool. All he needs is a glance over the shoulder and a whole quadrant of the audience is screaming, jumping up, begging for that tiger’s smile to be aimed a little more closely at them. And maybe that malarkey you read about middle-aged ladies doin’ the screaming is true in Vegas, but at this show it was the teenagers who were acting some role out of a movie, recognizing his songs at the first note and freaking, especially at the rockers, like they were really into his records. Some girls behind me, who couldn’t have been older than 21 and looked pretty hip, were discussing the show and comparing the number of scarves thrown into the audience to a seemingly vast number of past shows they’d attended.

Yeah, he did the big numbers, but he didn’t do anything hopeless like ‘The Impossible Dream’. It was all believable, the kind of stuff you could hardly object to a 35-year-old singer wanting to sing. And where I was expecting the oldies medley to be a slam-bang affair with 15 seconds for each song, I was quite satisfied with the dozen or so old songs he did almost all the way through, and with James Burton’s superb guitar work. No ‘Big Hunk of Love’, but he did ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Teddy Bear’ and plenty more, closing of course with a fantastic ‘Burning Love’. And lest we forget, the larger portion of his hits, all the way back to ‘Love Me Tender’ in 1956, consists of slow mushy ballads.

As a final defence for the poor old guy, lemme just ask you this. How would you like it if the world expected you to keep doing what you were doing in 1956? I don’t know about you, but I was barely outgrowing tricycles and finger paints. We all gotta grow up, ya know.

© Greg Shaw, 1972

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