April 23 - The Night Elvis Rocked San Bernardino

Elvis Presley is featured on the cover of the April 2016 issue if Inland Empire Magazine. As part of it's 40th anniversary this year, the magazine is be looking back at notable events that rocked the region. Elvis’s 1972 concert at swing auditorium in San Bernardino certainly did that.

The review by Richard Lorenzi.

Sunday night, Nov. 12, 1972. The Santa Ana winds were howling, so typical of San Bernardino in November. And it was cold. But a sold-out crowd stood patiently to have an audience with The King. Elvis was in the Swing Auditorium. 

The Swing was the place east of L.A.’s Fabulous Forum to see virtually every top name act in the rock world, circa 1964 through 1981. Located on E Street, the auditorium was built in 1949 on the grounds of the National Orange Show and was named for Senator Ralph E. Swing, a San Bernardino legislator. What a glorious barn it was and what history played out on that stage. The Rolling Stones did their first American concert there in June 1964. The place rocked until a small plane crashed into it on Sept. 11, 1981 and the auditorium had to be demolished. One of the last shows played there featured Iron Maiden.

In between, rock royalty were regulars. Fleetwood Mac played more than five times. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Ramones (as opening act), Chicago, Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, the Grateful Dead (multiple times), Faces with Rod Stewart (also multiple times), Santana, the Kinks, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys, and more. Look up how many of these acts are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just about everybody but the Beatles made it to the Swing. 

Prior to the modern rock era, Bob Hope was almost an annual fixture at the Swing during the National Orange Show Fair. Other notables who performed there in the ’50s and ’60s included Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, and George Burns. But never had a King played there before that night. 

Yet, it wasn’t as if Elvis had never been to the IE. He did own a house for several of the Priscilla years in Palm Springs and was known to do some boating in Big Bear Lake. Many scenes of the totally forgettable remake movie Kid Galahad were shot in Idyllwild. And, some of the outdoor footage in 1964’s Kissin’ Cousins was shot in the San Bernardino Mountains. Still, this was different. 

Elvis’ nationwide tour began at Madison Square Garden in New York, a city he had never before performed live in. The four concerts there were sold out and got rave reviews. At 37, he was “lean, tanned and greasily handsome, his coal-black hair glistening with an oily 1950s sheen,” as the New York Times’ Grace Lichtenstein put it. At a press conference before the Madison Square Garden appearance, he was asked about the secret of his longevity on the pop music scene. “I take Vitamin E,” he told reporters. 

From New York, the tour moved west, passing through cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Wichita and Tulsa before continuing on to Las Vegas. Elvis stayed there for most of October before continuing the tour, which took him to Texas, Arizona, and into California. He hit Oakland, then San Bernardino, where he performed two sold-out shows—one on Nov. 12 and another on Nov. 13. rom there, he headed to the Long Beach Arena for two shows, the last stop before catching a plane for Honolulu where the tour would wrap up. Originally, the Honolulu show was planned to be broadcast worldwide by satellite, but the broadcast date was changed to early 1973 so it wouldn’t conflict with the release of MGM’s musical documentary Elvis on Tour. No matter. The show (actually four of them) went on. And in Honolulu, as well as in other cities on the tour, fans of all ages crowded concert venues to get a live view of the King. 

So it was in San Bernardino. The Swing could hold about 10,000 people with a concert take of around $60,000. On that cold November night, fans crammed into the sold-out auditorium. With reserved seating, there was none of the festival seating chaos that marked the Swing rock shows—kids pushing and shoving and fighting to get to the stage area. This crowd was real diferent. I was way too young at 21. For the usual Swing rock show, most of the concertgoers were my age or younger. The guys had long hair, wore boots, Levis and denim work shirts (think the cover of a Creedence album.) The girls went braless, wore tight jeans or peasant dresses. There were always more guys than girls. 

For Elvis, though, these fans had jobs, mortgages, and kids. The women clearly outnumbered the guys. They wore bright yellow or orange dresses, lots of makeup. Hairspray was huge. And, there were more than a few suicide blondes with hot pants and go-go boots. (I would never have sat on anything in the Swing in hot pants.) Jean Naté was locked in mortal combat with Charlie in a fragrance war. My Sin perfume held its own. Smoke from the bathrooms came from real Marlboro men (and women.) 

My seat was in the cheap section—off to the side and high up, close to the glued-on tinsel that was a prominent feature of the Swing. The place always had a peculiar smell. Close to show time, Colonel Tom’s minions were at the stage hawking T-shirts, photos, and other assorted gee-gaws. I wonder just how much of that cash Elvis received. 

Finally, the lights lowered. The band started playing the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then, there he was—The King. He was resplendent in a black and red concert suit. 

Though his show was typical of his Vegas show that he performed at the International Hotel (later known as the Las Vegas Hilton and now called the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino), it didn’t matter to his loyal subjects. He was live in San Berdoo! Old ladies screamed. It was hard to tell from my cheap seat, but I believe there were a few panties thrown at him. 

His voice and physique were in A-plus form. He ripped through concert standards such as “Polk Salad Annie,” crooned to crowd favorite “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and did a couple of religious numbers with the gospel group J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. 

No Elvis show would be complete without the hits “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “American Trilogy.” 

His band and entourage—the Sweet Inspirations, legendary guitar hero James Burton—provided a full sound that could not be duplicated by the typical four-man rock act. It was a show truly becoming of a King. The crowd responded as if seeing him for the first time. Bedlam broke out among the thousands of fans. 

After about 90 minutes, despite fans calling for more, Elvis left the auditorium for the San Bernardino Hilton, about $60,000 richer. I was a poor college kid. I went to Del Taco. What a Sunday night!

(Source: Twitter / Inland Empire Magazine)

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