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Elvis Presley and his backing band played shows night after night to adoring audiences. Though Elvis’ feelings about his music career varied over the years, he went through periods of caring deeply about it. During these times, he wanted to make sure his band was as focused as him. To ensure this, Elvis employed a trick to keep them on their toes.

Elvis Presley kept his band focused during performances

When Elvis was in high school, he performed in a talent show. Here, he learned how much he loved to draw a reaction out of his audience. He wanted his band to help him achieve this, and it drove him to frustration when they didn’t seem to be taking this task seriously. Elvis recalled one concert during which he heard his band discussing home renovations.

“Those guys were reading Better Homes and Gardens and stuff like that — they play music so well they can play their part and they’d say, ‘Think I should build that patio on my house?’” Elvis recalled, per the book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick. 

A black and white picture of Elvis Presley performing on a stage with his band.
Elvis Presley | Gerald Smith/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

While they were still playing the songs, Elvis didn’t want them comfortable and complacent onstage. He realized he had to keep them on guard.

“So what I did, I switched songs on them,” he said. “And the orchestra was there, they’d go into the intro, and I’d say, ‘Woah, I don’t want to do that song, let’s do something [else].’ So they’d go through the sheet music real quick, and consequentially I got them; they had to watch me.”

He grew less interested in his performances

If Elvis felt a performance was not satisfactory, he did everything he could to fix the problem.

“I change the songs around,” he said. “I’ll go back and stay up all night and work — working on it, you know, worrying about it, I find out what it is that’s not getting off the ground, you know, the first four or five numbers. Because it’s very important.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. While Elvis approached some performances with vigor, he slept walked his way through others.

“There have been actual shows that he has done that he can’t remember,” his bodyguard Sonny West said in the book Elvis: What Happened? “The audience must know something is going on. Sometimes, he gets up there and talks and talks to the audience instead of singing. He will give his philosophies on life, and it’s very boring. People go there to see the old Elvis magic.”

Toward the end of Elvis’ life, his loved ones felt he had lost all interest in his music.

Elvis Presley’s band was often on edge for a different reason

Offstage, Elvis’ band also felt as though they had to keep on their toes. The members of his entourage were constantly present, lending an uneasiness to all interactions with Elvis. 

Elvis Presley walks with his bodyguards in front of a concrete wall.
Elvis Presley | Tom Wargacki/WireImage

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“The little bit of time you had with him, he always treated you so good,” backup singer Joe Moscheo said. “But there was always an underlying nervousness: you never knew when it was okay to talk to him and when it wasn’t; there was always somebody telling you what you could and couldn’t do. [And you sometimes got the feeling that] Elvis didn’t even know it.”