SAY “ELVIS IN THE ’70s” and a lot of people immediately think “Fat Elvis.” This is partly due to caricatures of Elvis as grossly obese, leading many non-fans to believe that he was sloppy-looking during his life. This was not true: while his face puffed out and his waistline expanded, Elvis never had the sloppy look one associates with excess fat in the stomach, the butt, the arms, or the legs.
One can see all the evidence one needs in the documentary movies That’s The Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972) and the television special Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite (1973). The trajectory shown is one of Elvis looking like an exceedingly trim young man in his twenties (he was 35 at the time) fleshing out his physique into a well-built man approaching his forties.
Presley did have issues with his weight: his fluctuating weight and how it affected his looks goes back to the ’60s, and can be partially attributed to diet. His love for starchy foods often gave him a soft look, padding his face so that his jawline was almost lost.
Presley’s fluctuating weight goes back to the ’60s and can be attributed to diet and his increasing use of prescription drugs.
And there was his increasing use of prescription drugs for maladies real and possibly imagined. These became the dominating force on his health and his appearance as the ’70s moved on.
All of this was brought home to me as I was working on an article titled “Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 8.” It collects caricatures based on Presley’s appearance in the 1970s.
While selecting the images for inclusion, I remembered the first tasteless “Fat Elvis” caricature that I had seen back in 1976.
Elvis Presley entered the new decade in peak condition: he had trimmed his physique for the taping of the NBC-TV special in June 1968 and had remained fit through the rest of his movies and his return to live performance in July 1969. The photo above was taken in Las Vegas in August 1970 and was used as the front cover of the That’s The Way It Is album (1970).
That’s the way it wasn’t
While Presley’s weight ballooned up and down, he was usually trimmed and toned when touring. He shed excess pounds by extreme dieting (dangerous to his health) and drugs (ditto). This was the pattern until 1975, when he began appearing onstage noticeably heavier.
This beefier Elvis is the Elvis that fans saw at the concerts of the last two years of his life.
This beefier Elvis has since “inspired” countless clueless caricaturists, comedians, and impersonators.
Presley should not have been on the road performing during the last two or three years of his life. He may have been suffering from a form of chronic depression—although few of us recognized it as such then–and self-medicated his way through his life. He often looked bad, and often performed poorly on stage.
It is no secret that Presley took a lot of “prescribed” medication. The effect of some of the drugs was that he retained water, giving him a swollen, bloated look—notably about the face and mid-section.
But to critics, fat was fat and that was that!
This did not go unnoticed by journalists reviewing those concerts, few of whom were attuned to noticing a distressed and depressed person. Instead, they saw the beginnings of a joke—the “Fat Elvis” joke.
The July 1976 issue of National Lampoon featured a caricature of a grossly obese, sloppy-fat Elvis. The artist mistakenly drew the guitar strapped on Presley’s back for a left-handed player—a rather egregious error for such a widely circulated publication.
Nationally lampooning Elvis
None of this was helped by the July 1976 issue of National Lampoon, which probably hit the newsstands in May. It featured what would become one of the most widely seen caricatures in history: a nasty drawing of Elvis with a huge beer-belly and thick thighs, both straining the seams of his jumpsuit.
Unfortunately, the magazine cover received far more attention than Presley’s new recordings were receiving at the time.
This image of Elvis seems to be the basis of many artists doing caricatures of Elvis forty years later—despite the fact that Presley never came close to looking like this.
Nonetheless, it is this image of him that remains in many people’s memories—although that’s the way it wasn’t in the ’70s.
This is what Elvis actually looked like at the time that National Lampoon hit the newsstands. This photo as taken at the Philadelphia Spectrum on June 28, 1976. The rounded bloating of his face is obvious but what is surprising is his rather trim waist.
They captured me just perfect
Prior to the release of National Lampoon on the nation’s newsstands, another caricature made the deadlines, at least in the Cincinnati area. On March 21, 1976, Elvis was performing at the Riverfront Coliseum when he was given a copy of that morning’s Sunday Enquirer newspaper. It featured a caricature of him by local artist Jerry Dowling.
“They captured me just perfect,” Elvis said to the audience while laughing. “All I want to say is whoever drew this … I hate the son of a bitch.”
It is likely that Elvis saw Dowling’s drawing before he saw the National Lampoon, as March was early for a magazine cover-dated July (unless it was a comic book).
On March 21, 1976, Elvis was performing at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. He was given a copy of that morning’s Sunday Enquirer newspaper, which featured an unflattering caricature of him. I assume the drawing above is that drawing, as it’s the only caricature of Elvis that I found on the Internet attributed to Mr Dowling. Oddly, it could easily be mistaken for a caricature of Mick Jagger.
Wrapping things up
While Presley’s appearance—good and bad—are fair targets for any caricaturist, for the aforementioned “Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 8” I did not select any art that I thought reflected inspiration from the National Lampoon cover. And assembling that article led me to write this article.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken during Elvis’s appearance at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, on March 25, 1977. While hardly the svelte sex idol of yore, he doesn’t come close to any of the more insulting “Fat Elvis” caricatures that have been drawn of him during the past forty years.
Less than five months later, Elvis would be dead …
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I have planned four volumes of caricatures of Elvis in the ’50s, and two each for the ’60s and the ’70s. There are at least two artists who have done enough high-quality caricatures of Presley to merit a volume of their own, Al Hirschfeld and Alberto “Sting” Russo. Plus there are a few special articles:
• The First Published Caricature of Elvis Presley
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 1 (Rockin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 2 (Rollin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 3 (Rattlin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 4 (Shaggin’ the 50s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 5 (Stuck on the 60s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 6 (Wild in the 60s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 7 (Elvis by Hirschfeld)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 8 (Love Letters from the 70s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 9 (Aloha from the 70s)
• Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 10 (Elvis by Russo)
This is one of the Fat Elvis figure that I didn’t use in Elvis’ Golden Caricatures Volume 8, but I thought I’d include it here because, in its way, it’s just so darn cute!