Bob Pietrafeso on Elvis's last Denver concert in April 1976 and how The King was all nervous
Thursday, August 16th marked the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. The iconic singer spent a great deal of time in the Centennial State and had many adventures. In honor of the King, Backbeat is sharing some of these stories.
A ticket stub from Elvis's last Denver concert on April 23, 1976 at McNichols Arena
Elvis's last Denver gig took place at McNichols Sports Arena on April 23, 1976. According to former Jefferson County Sheriff's deputy Bob Pietrafeso, who vividly remembers doing security at the singer's final concert in the Mile High City, the King was nervous -- scared, even -- in the final moments leading up to the performance. This was far from Elvis's first visit to Denver. By the time he showed up in the spring of '76, he had become close friends with a number of locals, most notably law enforcement types, Pietrafeso among them.
McNichols Sports Arena circa 1994, nearly two decades after the King's last Denver performance, and a half-dozen years before it was razed.
Pietrafeso, like other officers, fondly reminisces about the singer's generosity, including the time Elvis bought him a brand-new Dodge truck, a truck he still has ("He put his arm around me and had the keys dangling in my face. Then he says, 'It's yours.'"). Elvis also gave Pietrafeso one of his famed TCB necklaces. "There's nobody like him, and there will never be another one like him!" says Pietrafeso, launching into a litany of Elvis compliments barely a minute into a conversation about the King. "I couldn't put into words what kind of a guy he was. I feel so fortunate to have known him."
But one of Pietrafeso's many Elvis stories reveals a characteristic of the man that is hard to fathom: his profound stage fright. The night Elvis performed his last concert in town, he was staying on the top floor of the Hilton downtown. The King always stayed on the highest floors of hotels, so that it would be more difficult for overzealous fans to get to him. Pietrafeso was there, as was his brother, Denver police officer Ron Pietrafeso. When it was time to leave for the show, the brothers joined a small convoy of other cars carrying the singer and his entourage, and five or six vehicles slowly made their way to McNichols Arena.
They entered the middle of the venue, passing through massive utility doors large enough to swallow an eighteen-wheeler. After parking and seeing Elvis's crew file off to their dressing rooms, Ron asked Bob to turn all the cars around to face the exit, so that Elvis and company could make a quick getaway after the show.
Soon after, Pietrafeso found himself in one of the long, circular hallways that surrounded the innards of the arena, doing his normal security doings, looking for anything abnormal. Along comes Elvis and his road manager, Diamond Joe Esposito, ready for the gig -- or almost. Esposito excused himself for a moment to run back to his dressing room, leaving Elvis and Pietrafeso there in the hallway with scores of arena personnel milling about.
Page down for Pietrafeso's account of what happened next
"For just a couple of minutes," Pietrafeso recalls, "it was like all these people disappeared, and it was just Elvis and me in that hallway. He's got on his white jumpsuit and all these scarves around his neck. He had his fists clenched and is looking down. Then he looks up at me and says, 'Are you nervous?' I said no. And he said, 'Yeah, I am. I really am.' And it struck me: Here's a guy who's been an icon since the '50s, has probably performed in front of millions, and he's nervous?"
Elvis was so nervous, he could barely stand on his own in the final moments leading up to the concert. Pietrafeso and others literally had to hold him up. His opening act, the Sweet Inspirations, had just finished and the entire arena went dark.
"Are you ready, Elvis?" Pietrafeso recalls Esposito asking.
"Yeah, I'm ready," he replied.
Esposito threw the curtains open and a million camera flashbulbs went off. A Rocky Mountain News review of the show estimates that a total of 19,000 were in attendance at McNichols Arena that night, a sell-out crowd. If Elvis had seen his star fade, as many critics at the time suggested, it sure wasn't evident that night. The show ended, and the King was rushed away instantly. You know the saying, "Elvis has left the building"? It's a real thing; an announcement was made on the PA system moments after the final note rang out.
Pietrafeso remembers an Elvis crippled by the performance he had just given. "When he was done, he was done," the former deputy says. "He had given so much energy that, when he got done, he felt like he'd been hit by a Mack truck. He'd go to bed while everyone else stayed up to party."
Elvis would return to the Centennial State, but only to visit. He was tight with the officers, once even flying in from Los Angeles just to have lunch with Pietrafeso and his colleagues. For a performer who never felt quite comfortable in the limelight and whose humble upbringing was hardly reflected in the fantastical over-the-top lifestyle he later built around himself, it's reasonable that Elvis would just want to feel normal. To be, as Pietrafeso says, "one of the guys."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.