Remember this? Hotel Heartbreak – CityNews Ottawa
A look back at when late legend Elvis Presley played two sold-out shows in Canada’s capital in 1957.
CityNews, in partnership with the Ottawa Historical Society, brings you this weekly report from director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa’s history.
In 1956 came a musical phenomenon the likes of which the world had never seen before. Elvis Aaron Presley, a poor twenty-one-year-old boy from Nashville Tennessee with a ducktail haircut, good looks and deep blue eyes, took the world by storm. His seductive, wide voice, and his tunes that blended dark rhythm and blues with country music, electrified America’s youth, hungry for fresh sound. “Altar of broken heartsreleased by RCA Victor in January 1956 and Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album released two months later were instant hits. Both rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for weeks. On stage, Presley’s singing prowess and sexually charged performances appealed to teenagers and shocked a deeply conservative American establishment.
After the release of his first album, Presley’s career, astutely managed and promoted by Colonel Tom Parker, took off with the young singer’s multiple appearances on American national television, including the CBS Stage Showthe Milton Berle Showand the Steve Allen Show. An estimated 60 million viewers watched Presley perform on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show in early September 1956. During this appearance, Presley sang the title song from his next film love me tenderly for the first time in public. The song’s advance sales went gold before the film’s release by 20and Century Fox this November. Due to the resounding success of his first appearance on his show, Sullivan invited Presley back twice over the next four months. Many of its viewers were in Canada, able to pick up the American television signal. .
Now a celebrity, Presley toured several Eastern cities in March 1957 which brought him and his backup band, the Jordanaires, in Fort Wayne, St Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo and, across the border for the first time, in Toronto and Ottawa. Other than a stop in Vancouver later that year, it was the only time Presley was scheduled to perform outside of the United States. After back-to-back shows at Maple Leaf Gardens wearing his famous gold lamé Nudie Cohen costume in front of 30,000 adoring fans, Presley and his entourage boarded the overnight train for Ottawa. They arrived in the nation’s capital at 8 a.m. on April 3.
The Ottawa Journal disparagingly reported that Presley lightly skipped girlishly through Union Station in downtown Ottawa, passing bewildered and largely unresponsive commuters en route to a waiting taxi. The singer was described as “red-eyed and wrinkled with sleep”, with “streaks of makeup and what looked like mascara” failing to “hide the tired lines around the singer’s wobbly Greek nose”. Presley, who looked like “any Canadian boy who needs a haircut”, wore a dark suit and velvet shirt, covered in a “crumpled pinkish beige raincoat, with buckskin shoes stained white”. Protected by “a flying wedge” of police guards and his entourage, he was taken by taxi to an undisclosed location for some well-deserved sleep, away from the prying eyes of the teenage fans who besiege the city’s hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of the young singer.
Later that day, Presley performed two sold-out concerts at the Old Ottawa Auditorium, located at the corner of O’Connor and Argyle streets where the YMCA is located today. Ticket prices ranged from $2 to $3 for the 5 p.m. show and $2.50 to $3.50 (about $20 to $30 today) for the 8:30 p.m. was the main performer, Frankie Trent, a tap dancer, and Frankie Connors, an Irish tenor, were also on the programme. Needless to say, the warm-up acts were tolerated at best by the fans who were there to see Elvis in the flesh. Many had come from afar to take part in the celebration. Busloads of teenagers made their way from Cornwall, Ontario, and upstate New York. A special 10-car CPR train called the “Presley Special” or the “Rock N’ Roll Cannon Ball” brought hundreds of Montreal fans who paid $11 round trip, which included the fare of entrance. Some of the runners were the lucky winners of a Montreal-wide contest that asked them to answer the question “Why would I like to go to Ottawa on April 3”. En route, four rock and roll guitarists got the fans in the mood.
16,000 mostly teenage fans saw Elvis at the Auditorium, although a number of adults sporting “I love Elvis” buttons were spotted in the crowd. The singer again wore his gold lamé jacket and gold accessories, but this time opted to wear dark pants. True to the adage of always leaving them wanting more, his sets were just 40 minutes long, consisting of nine songs. But he played most of his big hits of the day, including don’t be cruel, You’re nothing but a hunting dog and Altar of broken hearts. He also sang love me tenderlyhis adaptation of an old American Civil War love ballad Aura Lee (or Aura Leah). Now considered a classic, ranked by rolling stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time, the Ottawa newspaper the reporter called Presley’s rendition a “travesty”. The gate for both performances was reported to be $45,000, of which Elvis’ cut was $20,000.
Elvis’ trip to Ottawa was not without controversy. As was often the case south of the border, many adults viewed Presley’s on-stage gyrations as immoral and unChristian. Students across the city have been warned to behave well and not to do anything that will bring themselves or their schools into disrepute. The nuns at Notre Dame Convent went further, pressuring their students to promise not to participate in the Elvis festivities. The children were forced to copy on the blackboard and sign a letter which read “I promise that I will not participate in the reception reserved for Elvis Presley and I will not be present at the program presented by him at the Auditorium on Wednesday April 3, 1957.” Some went despite the promise.Those arrested were suspended by the school, but were later reinstated following complaints from their parents.
Fearing that crowds of screaming, almost hysterical teenagers would become disorderly as they had been in previous performances of Elvis, around 100 police and special guards were on hand to maintain control and prevent spectators from getting lost. rush onto the stage. But the guards didn’t have much to do except keep the aisles clear. Although the crowd of fans behaved well, it was extremely loud. They were so loud that it was difficult for anyone but those in the front rows of the arena to hear Presley sing. Poor audio facilities in the Auditorium didn’t help either. But most onlookers didn’t seem to care, just watching Presley do his thing on stage and be part of the event. As reported by Log “With each shimmy, the idol’s knees pulled the ground harder. The closer they got, the louder the screams became and when he finally came to rest on the stage floor, the thunder!”
Between performances, a quieter, more understated Elvis Presley was on display. He greeted a number of young female fans who had been chosen to come backstage and was photographed with them. Young Janet Fulton, aged just 13 at the time and, luckily for her, a student at Sacred Heart Catholic School rather than Notre Dame Convent, not only met her idol but received a kiss on the cheek. Presley also gave an interview to Gord Atkinson, host of the popular weekly CFRA radio show. Campus corner. Presley politely answered Atkinson’s questions about his sudden popularity, his purchase of the Graceland mansion the week before, his music and his family life. Atkinson then presented him with a scroll indicating that he had been chosen the “Top Artist” by the listeners of Campus corner. Presley courteously thanked him and replied that he had received more fan mail from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal than anywhere else.
Photos were also taken of Elvis Presley with Ottawa jazz musician, drummer Arni May. As union rules required local talent to be hired for the show, Presley requested that the Ottawa drummer, then only 18, and his orchestra perform with him and the Jordanaires. May recalled that Elvis was a “first class gentleman” and treated him like a friend. May was paid $30 as the leader of the group; his band members each received $20. May resumed his performance in August 2007 at an Elvis tribute concert at the Pacific National Exposition, fifty years after the singer’s only event in Western Canada.
At the end of the evening, Elvis left the stage and quickly left the Auditorium never to return to Ottawa again. But behind him, he left memories of a lifetime for thousands of Ottawa teenagers.