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Elvis in Vegas: An Artistic Resurrection, Part II

In Part I, we learned about Las Vegas entertainment prior to Elvis, an era dominated by the Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra. It was frankly a digression in Richard Zoglin’s book, Elvis in Vegas. In Part II, we finally get to Elvis’s time in Vegas as a performer, a time in which he would remake entertainment in the city as we know it. But first, we will explore Elvis’s relationship to Vegas before he became so closely associated with the city.

The ‘60s 

In the 60s, Las Vegas was a kind of getaway for Elvis.  Though he was no gambler, he could appreciate the all-night shows and excitement, given his nocturnal lifestyle.  By this time, Vegas was out of step with the cultural revolution.  The Beatles passed through Vegas to much acclaim, but the Beatles represented something that was contrary to the more traditional style of entertainment which Vegas audiences wanted to see.  

When the Beatles visited Elvis in his home, it was a meeting of two distinct branches of Rock and Roll.  The meeting felt stilted and at times they were at a loss for words. But Elvis was pleased later to hear that Lennon said of him, “If it hadn’t been for him, I would have been nothing” (152).  

The Beatles were a part of the 1960s cultural revolution which Elvis decidedly was not.  They were a disruptive force, just as Elvis had been in the late ‘50s.  Elvis was resented by the old guard such as Frank Sinatra, and maybe Elvis also resented the Beatles stealing some of his thunder.  Yet he performed Beatles songs in his Vegas comeback, such as “Get Back” and “Something” (Sinatra also recorded a version of “Something,” which perhaps bests Elvis’s rendition).   

As portrayed in the film Elvis, starring Austin Butler, the 1968 comeback special for NBC was a pivotal performance for Elvis’s career.  Throughout the 60s Elvis had concentrating on churning out movies, which are generally considered to be of low quality. On this show performing live, however, Elvis showed himself to be once again relevant as a rock artist. 

Colonel Parker, Elvis’s notorious manager, did indeed envision this as a Christmas special.  In the film, Tom Hanks portrays the rotund manager’s chagrin when it becomes apparent that the special will not have too much to do with Christmas at all.  Maverick NBC produce Steve Binder steered the show in a direction more authentic and relevant to the social/ political context at the time.  

Riding the elation of this performance, Elvis told Parker, “I want to tour again” (168).  

…Elvis told Parker, “I want to tour again”  

Colonel Parker

Colonel Parker is not depicted as quite as diabolical in Elvis in Vegas as he is in director Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis.  It is true that Parker took a 50 percent cut of the profits along with a 25 percent management fee.  Yet Elvis in Vegas shows that Elvis was ultimately in charge of his own career.  If he sometimes put Colonel Parker out front, it was because “he preferred that someone else take responsibility in case a decision turned out to be wrong” (177).  It is not so much that Elvis was a naïve, victimized performer; but rather that he was a petulant star, whose insecurity made him defer to Parker’s leadership rather than taking responsibility himself.  

But when it came to his Las Vegas comeback, the musical direction and production was a product of Elvis’s own vision.  Elvis in Vegas describes Colonel Parker as having done an excellent job promoting Elvis’s Vegas residency while prudently not interfering with the creative direction of the show. In other words, Parker was a man that also brought value, despite his other failings.

Colonel Parker saturated the hotel and surrounding billboards with Elvis’s name and image to an extent previously unseen; setting a new standard for show biz promotion.  Such redeeming qualities in Parker are omitted from Elvis the film, perhaps for the sake of simplifying the narrative, making Parker the eccentric antagonist. Instead, he was a three dimensional human being with redeeming qualities as well as flaws.   

Furthermore, the negotiation for Elvis’ residency in Vegas by Colonel Parker is not as sinister in Elvis in Vegas as it seems in Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis.  Elvis’s first four weeks of shows at the Internationale in 1969 were compensated at 100,000 dollars per week.  Moving forward, Parker negotiated two four week residencies per year at 125,000 a week for four years– a million dollars per year.  In the film, it is portrayed as though the whole purpose of this deal is to cover Parker’s gambling debts: he is given a blanket forgiveness by the casino.  But according to Elvis in Vegas,  “the hotel was willing to cover at least some of his heavy gambling losses” (217).  There is speculation about how pivotal this element of the deal was, yet it appears this was more of a perk to sweeten the deal of booking Elvis, rather than Parker’s sole motivation.  Elvis himself commented on his Vegas residency:

“The time is just right.  The money–I have no idea about that. I just don’t want to know.  You can stuff it” (217).  

What then is Colonel Parker’s culpability in Elvis’s death?  In Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis, it seems Parker is extremely indifferent to Elvis’s health to the point that he might ultimately be responsible for Elvis’s untimely death at 42.   But Parker did not ask Elvis to take drugs.  Elvis in Vegas more fairly puts this blame on Elvis himself, who had 14 different prescription drugs, five in “potentially toxic doses” (236) in his system at the time of his death in 1976.  Did Colonel Parker make Elvis take sleeping pills?  No, Elvis asked his own shady doctor for these prescriptions.  But again, putting Elvis’s downfall on Colonel Parker’s shoulders makes Elvis more sympathetic in the film.  More accurately,  Elvis was the author of his own demise.  

…Elvis was the author of his own demise.

Elvis’s Las Vegas Performances 

Elvis’s had almost 60 people on stage backing him up on stage in Las Vegas.  He created a big sound to fill the enormous Internationale Showroom.  This was achieved with the addition of two groups of back-up vocalists.  Elvis was of the opinion that the back up vocalists made his performances less taxing on his vocal chords, allowing him to hang back on a note when necessary.  He likewise had a dynamic backing rhythm section of bass, guitar and drums, not to mention a full Vegas orchestra.  

In the 2,000 seat Showroom Internationale, this ambitious musical arrangement, Elvis’s creative inspiration, would pay dividends.  According to the other musicians, he was easy to work with.  They described him as only gently correcting them when necessary.  The group worked harmoniously, following their musical instincts to great success. 

Elvis and his accompanying musicians and vocalists prepared for the epic showroom of the International, the tallest hotel in Vegas.  It was easily the largest showroom in Vegas, and the only one which could boast of a balcony.  

By all accounts, Elvis’ 1969 Las Vegas comeback performance was a success.  The audience erupted in standing ovations and the critics nearly universally praised it.  Rolling Stone proclaimed: “Elvis was supernatural, his own resurrection at the Showroom Internationale last August” (204).  The spectacular show drew the interest of everyone from Bob Dylan to John Lennon.    

As Zoglin notes, Elvis’s voice and musical stylings changed dramatically between his 1950s rockabilly days and his residency in Vegas.  While the 1950s Elvis is more rock-oriented (if not defining rock as an emerging genre), the 1970s Elvis is ballad-oriented.  The appeal of the latter half of Elvis’ catalogue is more subtle, and has more emotional depth, typified by songs such as the dynamic “Suspicious Minds” or the beautiful and tragic “Unchained Melody.”  The timber of his voice also changed significantly.  By the ‘70s it was a “rich, heaving baritone”; whereas in the ‘50s it was a “youthful, rockabilly twang” (205).  The younger Elvis used his head voice, rasping adeptly through the high notes, whereas the older Elvis used his chest voice, a more resonant and breathy vocal sound. 

The early songs don’t sound quite the same as Elvis performed them over a decade later in Vegas; though Zoglin finds that Elvis’ more mature voice gave the oldies “more body and weight” (205).  That of course is a matter of opinion and taste.  Certainly one can appreciate Elvis’s workman like Vegas renditions of his ‘50s hits, though there is something missing from the high notes by the ‘70s, whether by his own volition in terms of his vocal approach or just due his naturally aging and changing voice.  Either way, there is no doubt that the latter half of Elvis’s career, bifurcated by his two years’ service in the army, is just as artistically relevant as the first half of his career.  That is why his comeback was so pivotal.  

The takeaway from Elvis in Vegas is that Elvis, despite his flaws and overindulgences, was a man worthy of the adulation which he received.  He was a genuinely nice and giving person, a rock star who took the time to shake hands with a fan; someone who sought spiritual meaning desperately, and whose vulnerable sense of yearning ultimately led to his demise.  This was a star with undeniable charisma, and a real artist too. 

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