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Elvis in Vegas: An Artistic Resurrection, Part I

Published 2019

Richard Zoglin’s Elvis in Vegas concerns not just Elvis, but also chronicles the beginnings of Las Vegas.  From a stop for settlers on their way to California in the 19th century, Vegas transformed into the glitz and glamour of the mobbed-up, Rat Pack city in the ‘50s.  Then came its modernization during Elvis’ time performing there from ‘69 to his death in ‘76.

Before this modernization, there was Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Marlene Dietrich and Luis Prima. This traditional Las Vegas was hip and macho. The Rat Pack’s mischievous antics set the tone.   

The Golden Age 

For a book that’s purportedly about Elvis, there’s a lot of amount of information unrelated to Elvis.  It isn’t until past page 100 of Elvis in Vegas until the focus turns to…Elvis.  Zoglin explains that the book was originally envisioned as a chronicle of the “Golden Age of entertainment,” the Rat Pack era of Vegas in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, until Elvis’s comeback in ‘69.  He then decided to focus on Elvis’s time in Vegas specifically.  Yet he leaves nearly half the book to what was his original intent, the era prior to Elvis’s comeback.  So the book does not really match its purported subject.  Yet both these eras of Las Vegas entertainment are of great interest.  

There are obscure singers and comedians lost to history; whereas elsewhere in the book the focus is on Frank Sinatra.  The digressions on Sinatra are rewarding, as he was a larger than life figure perhaps equal to Elvis. Both had such a profound impact on the popular imagination.   

Sinatra went to Vegas to revive his career, as Elvis later would too.  The image of Vegas was in no small part molded by the Sinatra persona, along with the Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.).  Whereas Las Vegas had previously been defined by a Western style, boots and cowboy hats, Sinatra brought “an aura of New York glamour and sophistication” (59); dressed in a crisp tuxedo as he fronted big bands and orchestras in casino showrooms. Here was an image to which middle class tourists could aspire. 

Sinatra went to Vegas to revive his career, as Elvis later would too.

The Rat Pack’s banter and politically incorrect humor reflected a growing sophistication of American entertainment, more relevant to adults’ lives and less infantilizing than it had been previously.  Sinatra was known as the “leader” of the Rat Pack. He was also the most formidable presence in Las Vegas, commanding every room he walked into.  His large gambling debts were forgiven or his credit extended because he was that good for business and had that much clout in town.  Thus, his ego grew and his swagger onstage projected his supreme confidence and talent.  Unfortunately this sometimes resulted in drunken rages. 

Sinatra and Elvis 

Sinatra and Elvis make for an interesting study in contrasts.  Initially, Sinatra did not like Elvis’s music; yet he would go on to do a fun collab with him when Elvis returned stateside from his two years in the Army.  Was Elvis was on Sinatra’s show to kiss the ring? Yet the living record of this duet is delightful and seems friendly enough. To say that Sinatra did not like Rock n’ Roll, though, would be an understatement.  He called the new music:

“...the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear…it fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.  It smells phony and false.  It is sung, written, and played for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its imbecilic iterations and sly, lewd–and in plain fact–dirty lyrics, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the Earth” 
--Frank Sinatra, 1957 (Zoglin, p.78).  

Both Sinatra and Elvis embarked on film careers, though Sinatra had more acting chops.  For Elvis, just looking good did not quite translate into a creditable film career.  (One exception is Viva Las Vegas, released in 1964, in which Elvis plays a love-struck mechanic charmingly.)  

While Sinatra enjoyed a drink, and was known to get downright drunk on occasion; he was the man with the greater moral fortitude, given Elvis’ tragic prescription drug problem (or in other words, Elvis’s drug problem).

Under the Sinatra era, the Vegas business model was to draw people in to their hotels for the star power of the musical acts, and then get them into the casinos ASAP.   Elvis’s show generated income for the hotel on its own, above and beyond the casino business. This changed the business model for entertainment in Vegas moving forward.

Elvis’s own debut in Vegas in 1954 is “regarded as a rare misstep in a year of meteoric success” (7); given that it was not really the right crowd for his brand of rockabilly.  Las Vegas in the 1950s represented big band music like Frank Sinatra and was in a sense a rear-guard action against the emergence of Rock n’ Roll.  It was not an audience inclined to be receptive to Elvis–at least at that early stage in his career.  Yet by rubbing elbows with stars such as Liberace, Elvis had a mentorship that would serve him well in his career.   

Part II

In Part II of this book review, we finally get to Elvis and his time in Vegas, something that readers might have expected to come earlier in book which is after all entitled Elvis in Vegas.

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