Elvis Presley

elvis vegasLas Vegas has become so identified with The King's career that  it's hard not to think Las Vegas without thinking of Elvis. From "Viva Las Vegas,"    to more recent films like the Flying Elvises in "Honeymoon in  Vegas," Elvis lore is now a permanent part of Vegas history.   He  married Priscilla at The Aladdin,   his run  at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) was the most successful  act in Vegas history, pre-Siegfried and Roy, and a statue of the King is still  in the Hilton lobby.

Yet the conventional wisdom is that Elvis' Vegas period were years of  decline, garish excess and self-parody. This is really unfair when you look at  the totality of The King's run in Vegas, particularly in the beginning.    The fact is that the concerts at the International were some of the commercial  and critical highlights of his career, and gave the chance for many of his fans  to see him perform in person.  

What most people don't know that the International run was Elvis' second  attempt at making it in Vegas.   At the start of his career, Colonel Parker  booked Elvis for a 2-week run at the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel. On  April 23, 1956, he was put on the bill with the Freddie Martin Orchestra and got  little response from the mostly middle-aged, convention audience.   While he  didn't quite bomb, Elvis wasn't doing well and the Colonel asked Liberace,  performing across the street at the Riviera, to stop by for moral support.    The two posed for publicity pictures, and Elvis never forgot the favor. From  then on, whenever Liberace had an opening, roses arrived backstage courtesy of  The King.

In the late 60s, after  a run of increasingly mediocre movies, Elvis got the itch to perform live again,  and the Colonel signed a deal with the International Hotel , following Barbra  Streisand opening the new International showroom. Prior to the opening, he  expressed concern to his guys...would people still accept him? He spent months  auditioning and rehearsing his band.   On July 31, 1969,   despite  pre-show panic, he opened to  an invited audience of show biz celebs including Cary Grant.   Donning a  2-piece karate-inspired outfit, he led off  the show with "Blue Suede Shows" and then tore into his hits,  including "All Shook Up" and "Hound Dog." According to producer  Felton Jarvis,  "He was all over that stage. I mean, he almost hurt himself  - he was doing flips and cartwheels and all that kinds of stuff; on  "Suspicious Minds" he'd be down on one knee and do a flip across the  stage and just roll. "  

Critics raved about his performance.  The picture of Elvis at the press conference following the concert show Elvis at  perhaps the most confident and happy moment in his career. From that point on,  Elvis became the most successful entertainer in Vegas history.

In February,  1970, Elvis began his next run at the International.   Now more relaxed,  Elvis chose to focus on   more contemporary material.   Besides his own recent hits of  "In the Ghetto," "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky  Rain," he also did covers of "Polk Salad Annie," and "Walk a  Mile in My Shoes." He also injected more self-deprecating monologues and  interplay with the audience in the show.    

Elvis had always idolized  Dean Martin and was very influenced by his style of singing ballads. One night,  spotting   Dean   in the  audience,   he began an  improvised version of "Everybody Loves Somebody."

With the show  format pretty much set, Elvis again opened in August of 1970, this time being  filmed for an MGM documentary (that came to be called  Elvis - That's the Way  it Is).   The Colonel declared it an Elvis Presley Summer Festival, and  decked out the employees in straw hats. On the final night of the engagement, a  3:30 am show was added. When Elvis gave the vocal cue for "Hound Dog,"  the band missed their cue. Elvis turned around angry until he saw a little  basset hound come onstage. He fell down laughing.

Joe Guercio, Music  Director of the International's orchestra (who later came up with the idea of  opening with  Also  Sprach Zarathustra, the theme from 2001) explains Elvis'  appeal:

elvis 2Opening night was when I was impressed with Elvis Presley. I mean,  I've been onstage with a lot of stars - I hate to let the air out of their  balloons, but they have no idea what a star is. Jesus Christ! It was unreal. It  was just a group of song, very little production - it wasn't as organized as a  lot of Vegas shows. But, buy, if you want to talk about going out and grabbing  people - Elvis Presley was a happening, and what he had going will never be  again. There was a vibe you can pick up in the audience - it was unbelievable.  I'm not going to say to you musically it was the best in the whole world. It was  charisma. He just loved to put other people around his little finger and do it,  and he did.  (from the book Careless Love)

On February 18, 1973, one of  Elvis' fears came true. He had been through an assassination threat in 1970.  This night 4 men rushed the stage, and Elvis' guys rushed to protect him. Elvis  took up his karate moves and knocked one of them into the audience, but he  couldn't be calmed down. "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen. I'm sorry I  didn't break his goddamn neck is what I'm sorry about."   The guys  turned out to be   fans who just got a little too rowdy, but later that  night Elvis couldn't stop talking about it. He speculated they were sent by the  karate instructor who was now going out   with Priscilla.

Elvis continued  many engagements at The International, now The Hilton, throughout the 70s.  However, an increasing dependence on prescription medications eventually started  to affect him and the show. Perhaps he felt he needed to come down from the  intensity of the shows in order to get to sleep and get up; maybe it was his  divorce from Priscilla, or maybe he just became bored. But as the decade wore  on, the number of cancellations   and doctor visits increased. His fans  still loved him, and there still moments of greatness in the shows, but by 1974  he appeared more tired onstage with more strange stream-of-consciousness  monologues.   Elvis began adding more karate moves to the act, and on one  night put on a 15-minute karate exhibition.   One time he put on a karate  demonstration during Tom Jones' show at Caesar's Palace.  

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At this time  one of Elvis' strangest albums came out.  Having Fun with Elvis On Stage  was nothing more than these monologues and jokes, with no music at all. The  Colonel released this album as a spoken-word recording to avoid royalties to  RCA.  

By December, 1976, it was clear something was wrong. December 12th  was Elvis' last night performing in Vegas, he seemed to have trouble  concentrating. A Memphis music critic wondered   "how much longer it  can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly, and why the King of Rock 'n Roll  would subject himself to possible ridicule by going onstage so ill-prepared."    Nine months later he would be gone.

Perhaps it was just too hard to live up to  being Elvis Presley night after night. Some authors on Elvis (below) can better  explain what happened to Elvis. But for most of the 70s, Elvis Presley displayed  his immense talent in Las Vegas, a star that still shines just as brightly as  when he was with us, and shows no signs of fading.   He's Classic Vegas!

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