A look back at The King’s hot August nights in Sin City ’69
“This is my first live appearance in nine years,” Elvis Presley says, a little out of breath, “and, uh – I’ve appeared dead a few times before…”
Whether he was just being playful or actually commenting on a decade lost to Hollywood, it’s not hard to flash back to his increasingly zombified turns in his latter-day films. But here he was, live on stage, on the first night of an extended stand at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. He was three songs in and these were his first words from the stage (bar the weird “Aw, shut up!” at the start of “I’ve Got A Woman,”) and he had something to get off his chest.
“But this is my first live appearance,” he continued, “so I hope you enjoy. Before the end of the evening I will…have made a complete fool of myself…” While he was laughing at himself a bit, from all reports the jitters were real. All of Elvis’s insecurities prevented him from seeing that here, in August 1969, he was on as great a roll as he was from the day he dropped “That’s Alright, Mama” to the day the U.S. Army took an electric razor to his lustrous blue-black locks.
Less than a year earlier he had defied his scheming manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and industry naysayers to collaborate with Steve Binder to create ELVIS, aka “the Comeback Special,” which was aired on NBC to rave reviews in December 1968. He then went straight into American Sound Studios in Memphis and recorded enough songs – all new material by contemporary songwriters – for at least two albums. The first batch was put out as From Elvis In Memphis and may be the single best album released during his lifetime.
Now here he was, onstage at a place filled with “weird dolls” and “funky angels” on the walls, the curtain rising at midnight to a brief overture played by Bobby Morris and His Orchestra and supported by the King’s all-new band, soon to be dubbed TCB for “taking care of business.” Anchored by the core of James Burton (guitar), Larry Muhoberac (keyboards), Jerry Scheff (bass) and Ronnie Tutt (drums), the business they took care of was pure excitement and energy on the rockers and sensitive details on the ballads. TCB, for better or worse, quickly became Elvis’s new comfort zone. Additional armament came from two groups of background singers, the Sweet Inspirations and the Imperials.
Now, I have often complained about how RCA treated Elvis’s material in the 70’s. But in 1969, they did some brilliant work, including the release–50 years ago this month–of his first live album. Originally put out as a double album called From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis, the live material was on the first disc, subtitled In Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, and consisting of a tightly edited 36 minutes drawn from the first three nights of that Vegas run. The mix of early hits (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Mystery Train,” “Love Me Tender”) and recent songs (“In The Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” The Bee Gees song “Words”) is nearly perfect, bridging the gap from his early days as the King of Rock & Roll to what I like to say he became: the King of American Song. There’s a couple of previously unrecorded oldies, too, like Little Walter’s classic 1955 blues “My Babe,” and hearing Elvis dig into it is like dropping a V12 into a Cadillac – a smooth ride, with power to spare.
Also trimmed and tightly packaged are his remarks, some of which likely made more sense in the moment. The reason we know that is because earlier this year, Legacy Recordings put out a new box set called Live 1969, which contained 11 complete shows selected from the 57 played at the International that month. While I’m often a fan of the completist ethic, in this case it’s overkill, even soul-crushing when you realize The King is going to repeat the same one-liners and anecdotes almost verbatim every night. Even though there are rare moments of spontaneity (The desert was so dry it “felt like Bob Dylan slept in my mouth!”), by the time I listened to fourth or fifth show it became almost painful to hear him say “It’s my first live appearance in nine years…” I’m sure he saw it all as part of the entertainment he was offering and, in theory, there was a different audience at every show. But there was also likely an aspect of his dented self-esteem that needed the crutch of scripted dialogue to help him deal with the 2,000 expectant faces looking up at him in the dark. I even wonder if he hired a writer to help him come up with some of the material.
In any case, RCA was wise in the moment to make a judgment call about what happened in Vegas staying in Vegas, offering up something well-crafted for repeat listens. A centerpiece of the shows was a ten-minute monologue about how he got started. It’s interesting enough, but almost all you need is conveyed in the snippet RCA preserved on the album: “When I first started out in the business, I had three instruments. I had a guitar, a shaky leg, and another shaky leg.” The gap between those spare beginnings and the huge forces backing him on stage tell a story all by themselves. So does comparing a 1955 live recording of “I Got A Woman” to what he laid down onstage in 1969. The rhythmic acuity in the later recording is sharp enough to be startling when played side by side. Even singing sub-par songs for soundtracks, he had found time to improve his singing and was likely at his vocal peak.
Fortunately, the large band doesn’t swamp his energy and the updates to the old songs are almost entirely successful. The one exception is “Love Me Tender,” which finds the Sweet Inspirations leaving their usual tastefulness behind and contributing an overwrought vocal backing that gets more irritating each time I listen to it. The TCB is consistently excellent, however, with Tutt’s drums crisp and propulsive, Scheff’s bass concrete solid and Burton’s guitar a sweetly overdriven update on Scotty Moore’s fingerpicked flamboyance. Moore had in fact been asked to be apart of the show, but turned down what he considered a lowball salary of $500 a week. Burton is likely more versatile and is equally fine in blasts from the past like “Johnny B. Goode” and new country-soul standards such as “Suspicious Minds.”
The original double album was fairly well-received, although there was some sense that the best American Studios recordings had been on From Elvis In Memphis. But there’s certainly nothing second-rate about “Like A Stranger In My Own Home Town” Or “From A Jack To A King” and this was the only and only place to get a sense of Elvis’s new live show. While Robert Christgau, who was at the show, thought the record failed to fully capture the magic, he still pronounced it “good enough,” and gave the whole package a B+. Just two years after Elvis’s death the Rolling Stone Record Guide gave the album four stars, noting in hindsight that the live material “gave a hint of the uneven quality of what was to follow.”
Yet on that initial series of shows, Elvis and crew were so consistent that there is little to be gained in listening to 11 versions of “All Shook Up” or the other songs he performed each night. I would argue that a considered deluxe edition would consist of those original 36 minutes supplemented by some of the songs they didn’t include. So you don’t have to slog through the entire set to find the additional gems, here are a few suggestions to help you celebrate Elvis’s 1969 rebirth anew. Eddie Rabbitt’s epic “Inherit the Wind,” from the May 26, Dinner Show is loose, funky, and soulful, Muhoberac sparkling on the Fender Rhodes. It almost feels like a live rehearsal and at the end there’s a clue that they might not have played it much: “Nothing like shaping up the troops back there,” Elvis says, after catching his breath. Del Shannon’s wonderfully moody “Runaway” was played at every show, with the best being from the May 26th Midnight Show – Burton’s solo is especially sharp. When Elvis reveals that Shannon himself is in audience, it’s impossible not to feel his thrill at having one of his heroes there.
Speaking of thrills, the performance of “Rubbernecking” from that same show gives insight into Elvis’s perfectionist nature. After an almost false start, he tries to get it back on track and almost succeeds. But he’s not satisfied with being halfway great – this much pure fun is serious business! He calls a halt after about a minute and gives a brief instruction to the band: “Could be a little faster.” They launch in and Elvis takes command. Goaded on to a perfect take by the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, the TCB Band, and Bobby Morris and His Orchestra, the man with one guitar, two shaky legs, and a voice for the ages rides the mystery train of song one more time to glory.
AUDIO: Elvis Presley Live 1969 (full album)