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50 Years Ago, Elvis Re-Entered The Building — In Las Vegas

Piano virtuoso Liberace is shown playing the guitar with Elvis Presley at the piano in November 1956 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)
Piano virtuoso Liberace is shown playing the guitar with Elvis Presley at the piano in November 1956 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)

With David Folkenflik

Fifty years ago this week, Elvis revived his career and reinvented the Vegas show when he took to the stage on the Strip.


Richard Zoglin, author of “Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show.” He’s also written a biography of entertainer Bob Hope, “Hope: Entertainer of the Century.” Time magazine contributor. (@rzoglin)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Elvis in Vegas” by Richard Zoglin

Elvis’s comeback at the International established a new template for the Las Vegas show: no longer an intimate, sophisticated, Sinatra-style nightclub act, but a big rock-concert-like spectacle. “Elvis didn’t go in saying, ‘I’m doing a show for Vegas,’” said Jerry Schilling. “He did a touring show onstage in Vegas.” It was, by Vegas standards, a relatively pared-down spectacle—no chorus line of showgirls, levitating stages, laser-light shows, or much production at all. But for the sheer size of its musical presentation (not one but two backup singing groups, a rhythm band, plus a full orchestra—nearly sixty people onstage), the almost superhuman energy Elvis displayed, and the electricity he created in the showroom, Elvis’s show set a new standard for Las Vegas. The star was now his own spectacle.

His show was, most of all, an event. In the old days, people would plan their trips to Las Vegas and then book their shows: if Frank or Sammy wasn’t in town, there were always plenty of others to choose from, among the many stars who were constantly circulating in and out of Vegas. Now people began to schedule their trips to Vegas around Elvis shows. He was the first major star to establish something like a regular schedule in Las Vegas: two four-week engagements a year, one in the winter, one in the summer —a forerunner of the “residencies” of latter-day Vegas stars like Céline Dion. Elvis fans came from all over the world, and some would get tickets for a whole week of shows. The big gamblers who didn’t care for Elvis could plant their wives in the showroom and spend their evening at the crap tables. The International would give complimentary tickets for Elvis’s shows to high rollers from other hotels; in return, the Riviera or Caesars would comp the International’s guests for their headliners. When Elvis was in town, everybody did well.

Elvis hardly enhanced his stature in the rock world by becoming a Las Vegas star. The gaudy setting, the showbiz affectations, the sentimental ballads, the mostly middle-aged, middlebrow audience, the housewives with bouffant hairdos who sat swooning in the front rows—it hardly jibed with the motivating ethos of so many rock performers in the late sixties. They saw their music as an avenue for personal expression, social-political protest, and artistic experimentation. All Elvis wanted to do was sing.

And sing to everybody. Las Vegas wasn’t just a creative resurrection for Elvis; it was also his grand statement of inclusiveness. No one was more responsible than Elvis, back in the mid-1950s, for driving the initial stake that split the music audience, and eventually the entire culture, in two: the adults who listened to the pop standards and Hit Parade tunes sung by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Rosemary Clooney; and the kids who embraced a new kind of music called rock ’n’ roll. By the end of the sixties, the battle had grown awfully lopsided: rock was becoming mainstream, while the old-style crooners were reduced to a few creaky TV variety shows, a diminishing roster of nightclubs—and Las Vegas.

Elvis wanted to bring everyone back together under one tent. He was a rocker and a child of Memphis blues, but also an unabashed romantic; he loved Mario Lanza as well as Bo Diddley. He could kick ass in “What’d I Say” or go for the tears with “Memories.” For Elvis, it was all music. He was a great populist—a uniter, not a divider—and Vegas gave him his greatest platform. He brought his showmanship, his matchless voice, and the urgency of an artist on a mission to redeem himself. Las Vegas brought the crowds. Neither would ever be the same again.

From ELVIS IN VEGAS by Richard Zoglin. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Zoglin. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

New York Times: “Elvis Presley Needed a Reboot in July 1969. So Did Las Vegas.” — “The 1960s may have been a wildly transformative decade in the history of popular music, but for Elvis Presley it was something of a black hole.

“When he returned from his two-year hitch in the Army in 1960, the king of rock ’n’ roll essentially retired from live performing, confining himself to making movies (which were growing steadily worse) and recording disposable pop songs (that were no longer reaching the charts). A much-praised television comeback special on NBC in December 1968 had put him back on the radar. But when he finally returned to the stage for the first time in more than eight years, for a four-week engagement at Las Vegas’ new International Hotel, there was no guarantee he could still deliver onstage.

“This week marks the 50th anniversary of Elvis’s Vegas comeback show, on July 31, 1969 — a milestone being celebrated by a new Sony 11-CD boxed set of his ’69 Vegas performances, a reunion concert in Memphis next month and probably some snickers from the rock classicists. Elvis’s Vegas years are mostly recalled as a period of commercial excess and artistic decline: the bombastic shows, the gaudy white jumpsuits, the ballooning weight, the erratic stage behavior, the drugs. ‘For many,’ wrote Dylan Jones in ‘Elvis Has Left the Building,’ ‘Vegas Elvis was already Dead Elvis.’

“But for that 1969 comeback, and at least a year or two after, Elvis was at his peak as a stage performer, and he created a show that not only revitalized his career, but changed the face of Las Vegas entertainment.”

The Daily Beast: “The Comeback of the King: How Elvis Triumphed in Vegas” — “Reading Elvis in Vegas by Richard Zoglin requires a journey into YouTube, to watch the same videos Zoglin used in his book’s research. There’s Presley, high-collared jumpsuit opened halfway down his chest, huge shock of black hair, heavy eyes and thick cheeks, lips curved into a half-smile of a hidden joke.

“His Las Vegas concerts have sweetened through the ages just like wine.

“Elvis taps his leg, swings his arms, kicks and spins on the International Hotel’s stage without the pretense of choreography. Behind him, the stage is filled with an orchestra, two singing groups, and a full rhythm band; all a spectacle never really seen before.

“We know that Elvis’ 1969 Las Vegas comeback began his life’s twilight—but from the purple haze of Nevada’s western desert, Zoglin recaptures the horizon-filling blast of that spectacular sunset.”

Las Vegas Weekly: “On The 50th Anniversary Of His Sin City Comeback, A New Book Explores Elvis’ Vegas Reign” — “On July 31, 1969, Elvis made his Las Vegas comeback. Fifty years later, you can read about the phenomenon in Richard Zoglin’s new book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show. We spoke with the author and Time magazine contributor about the musical icon.

You’ve written books about entertainer Bob Hope and stand-up comedy in the 1970s. Why did you want to write Elvis in Vegas?

“I actually wanted to write a book about Las Vegas’ golden age of entertainment. But I got into it and realized what a long connection Elvis had with Vegas—I didn’t even realize he played Vegas in 1956. [It] was his favorite getaway; he really had a strong connection to the place. So I decided to use Elvis as the framework for the book and tell two stories: the story of Vegas in its golden age and the story of Elvis and his career and how Vegas rejuvenated his career and took him in a new direction and also to Vegas in a new direction.

What explains the enduring appeal of Elvis in Vegas?

“He came along at a time when the classic Vegas stars were getting older—Sinatra and the Rat Pack. The culture was changing, and Vegas didn’t really know what to do with rock ’n’ roll. Here was the original rock ’n’ roller coming back to Las Vegas and really giving it a shot in the arm at a time it really needed it, kind of bridging the generational gap. Elvis could appeal to everybody.

“I don’t know why he became the iconic figure. Partly, he was such a larger-than-life personality. He was so flamboyant [with] over-the-top costumes. He was easy to imitate. Everybody could put on a white suit and a wig and look like Elvis. Maybe that’s why he’s still such a fixture in the city.”

Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.

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