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Viva Las Vegas: How The King Met The Colonel.

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“The basic mistake that people make about Elvis was that he came along and got lucky. No, he didn’t get lucky. He worked hard and he created the music with great musicians. He had a drive that motivated him, and it was there from Day One.”
-​Ernst Jørgensen (Producer of the new two-part 2018 HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher)

“He was a light for all of us. We all owe him for going first into battle. He had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. We should dwell on what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music.”
-Tom Petty

“The highlight of my career? That’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.”
-Bob Dylan

“Before Elvis there was nothing.”
-John Lennon

“He sings like an angel and moves like a ballerina, and he left me struck dumb.​”
–John Landau (Producer of Elvis Presley: The Searcher and Bruce Springsteen’s manager, upon seeing Elvis for the first time.)

“It Was Almost As If I’d Been Waiting For It To Happen.”
-Keith Richards (On hearing Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on Radio Luxembourg)

“He would lose himself in an artistic way in order for people to feel it. That’s called soul.”
–David Porter (Songwriter’s HOF/”Soul Man”, “Hold On I’m Coming”)

A Miracle is Born

I included the quotes above to point out how enormously influential Elvis was to musicians all over the world. He literally changed the game forever.

It is worth noting that a miracle graces Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Movie. The actor Austin Butler becomes a living, breathing Elvis Presley before your eyes. The film is flamboyant, richly textured, gorgeous to the eye, loud, and unforgettable. Butler also displays, and this is very difficult for any actor, the charisma that made Elvis different from almost anyone of that era. He had it all, looks, world-class dancing ability, the voice of an opera singer, and Mr. Butler delivers.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker is the very definition of a villain. And, there are many critics and fans who consider it to be the worst performance in Hank’s long and storied career. However, as with every complex tale, there is one very good thing that comes out of Colonel Parker’s dark motives. Elvis made perhaps his greatest music at the International Hotel in Las Vegas at the tender age of 35. His band, backup singers, and orchestra is simply the penultimate that money could buy. The best wanted to play with the best. It’s that simple. Presley’s commanding presence is what Butler brings out for all to see. So, despite his nefarious, gambling debt based motives, the Colonel Tom Parker was right in having his charge ignore Europe for Las Vegas. Elvis revitalized his career, and, in the bargain, reached the apex of his musical boundaries at The International Hotel in Las Vegas.

The proof of this is all over the screen. In fact, the best moments in the film are at the International Hotel when Elvis takes his band through the paces over what he wants from them. He’s nervous as hell, but, supremely confident about his abilities and vision.

The Colonel’s Troubles Were the King’s Salvation

Here is what others recall about Elvis Presley’s incredible resurrection. In fact, many, not just myself, offer a counter-narrative to the movie’s main thesis that Parker sabotaged Presley’s career. Instead of hampering Elvis’s career, with his nefarious greed, and numerous gambling debts, Colonel Parker gave him an ever-lasting boost.

Here’s a different perspective on Elvis’ Las Vegas opening.

“By the end of the 1960s, Elvis Presley’s career was in disrepair — treading water in a sea of bad movies, records that no longer made the charts and a decade of increasing irrelevance in the fast-changing world of rock’ n’ roll. He had made a splashy comeback in a widely acclaimed NBC special in December 1968. But he hadn’t performed live onstage in more than eight years. So when he opened in Las Vegas on July 31, 1969 — the start of a four-week engagement at the brand new International Hotel — it was a make-or-break career gamble, at the ripe old age of 34!

Elvis was as ready as he could ever be: well rehearsed, backed by first-rate musicians, and heralded by the biggest publicity campaign in Vegas history. Yet his show still had something of a homemade, seat of-the-pants quality. Elvis hadn’t been on a concert stage in years and knew little about modern sound systems and other technical matters. The showroom was daunting: twice as large as any other venue in Las Vegas, with room for 2,000 people. The opening-night audience was filled with Hollywood stars, Vegas entertainers, and assorted high rollers, along with rock critics and entertainment reporters from around the country. Even in a town used to star-studded opening nights, the array of celebrities—Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., Ann-Margret, Paul Anka, Dionne Warwick—was impressive.” – Richard Zoglin, Author Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show

“I never saw anything like it in my life,” said Mac Davis, who was in the audience, flattered when Elvis gave him a shout-out—“Hiya, Mac”—before singing “In the Ghetto,” the hit that Davis had written for him. “He was physically beautiful at that age, just a specimen. You couldn’t take your eyes off the guy. Women rushing the stage, people clamoring over each other. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face the entire time.” Ann Moses, editor of the teen magazine Tiger Beat, said, “I saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Rolling Stones at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. But there was something about that night that was so special. Everyone was dumbstruck and didn’t want the night to end. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.”

When the show was over, Elvis got a standing ovation—“one of the rare occasions,” Myram Borders reported; “when a Las Vegas standing salute was sincere rather than rigged with a few cronies of an entertainer planted down front to stamp and scream approval.” Over the next seven years, he would perform more than 600 shows in Las Vegas, every one a sellout. The show was a clear triumph.

‘He tried to crack Vegas in the ’50s and they weren’t ready for rock and roll then’, relates Tom Jones. ‘So he always wanted to go back to Vegas and become a success there’.

“There’s a lot of good men and women around me, it was just a matter of finding them, Elvis remembers.They all just fit in, and fortunately they knew most of my songs. I wanted voices behind me to help add to the fullness of the sound and dynamics of the show.” Backed by the TCB band, which included guitarists James Burton and John Wilkinson, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Ronnie Tutt and keyboardist Larry Muhoberac, his expansive sound was augmented by not one but two vocal groups, the Sweet Inspirations and The Imperials, each disparate in styles and sensibilities, but somehow coalescing into a weighty stew of gospel, soul, R&B and country. The addition of Bobby Morris & his orchestra helped broaden the sound into a huge cinemascope sized production.

Rolling Stone writer David Dalton was on hand to review the show for the magazine: ‘I went to the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and Altamont. I covered the Manson story for Rolling Stone so to cover Elvis’ first live show in many years was a must see for me. Elvis was still a huge idol. We saw him as a god. It was a quasi-religious experience. It was one of those wonderful symbiotic events where the audience and the star are both creating a combined energy field. Elvis was getting off on it. It was like some sort of a strange play starring this little kid from Tupelo, Mississippi who was made King. That show was a really ecstatic event for me to witness. Much of the audience was the same age as him but they looked a lot older. Time had somehow taken its toll on them, but Elvis seemed ageless, almost like a folk hero’.

LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer is a major Elvis fan and was lucky enough to be in attendance at the historic opening night show and offered his first-hand report.

‘I remember seeing celebrities everywhere. I took notes and wrote down all the people I saw: Fats Domino, Governor Pat Brown, Phil Ochs, Barbara Stanwyck, Sonny and Cher, Paul Anka, Donald O’Connor, Henry Mancini, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Rivers with Lou Adler, Mac Davis, and Herb Albert.’

From 1969-1976, Elvis was the must see concert attraction in Las Vegas and his legacy in ‘Sin City’ set the stage for decades to come with musical luminaries, Elton John, Celine Dion, Cher and countless others following the path that Elvis forged. Always ready to rise to a challenge, Elvis’ transformative return to live performances in Las Vegas established him once again as a giant in rock and roll music.

Elvis is the all-time king of Vegas. He set attendance records that no one is ever going to break.

Some More Perspective on the Elvis impact.

“Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn’t New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically.”
-Bono (U-2)

“It was pentecostal. We were cheering before we had fully comprehended what had happened, and by the time it was over, one critic was standing on her chair and the publicity assistant from RCA was shrieking in a most unflacklike manner. Every sclerotic scene-maker in the room evinced a comparable nutsiness. Elvis was fantastic. His clothes were stylish but not showy. His sideburns swept forward, and his hair was just long enough. His baby-fat jowls had disappeared. And his material was perfect, ranging from “That’s All Right, Mama” to “Yesterday” but concentrating on the rock and roll.” – Robert Christgau (Reluctant fan, The Village Voice, on seeing Elvis for the first time in Las Vegas at The International Hotel)

“Elvis was not a “phenomenon.” He was not a “craze.” He was that perfect American symbol that would outlive us all​.”
Greil Marcus (Author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music)

“He sings like an angel and moves like a ballerina, and he left me struck dumb.​”
–John Landau (Producer of Elvis Presley: The Searcher and Bruce Springsteen’s manager, upon seeing Elvis for the first time.)

“The voice is so melodious, and – of course, by accident, this glorious voice and musical sensibility was combined with this beautiful, sexual man and this very unconscious – or unselfconscious stage movements. Presley’s registration, the breadth of his tone, listening to some of his records, you’d think you were listening to an opera singer. But…it’s an opera singer with a deep connection to the blues, which leads me to the role of the great enunciator because he delivered us the greatest cultural boon. Nobody ever did more for the American people. He gave them the great present of black music transmitted through his own sensibility, his own sensitivity. Of course Elvis was a different kind of white purveyor of black music because it was naturally black and it was real, and he was a conduit. And America was really changed. I’m talking about American music and our culture in general. We owe far more to Elvis Presley than all the British groups put together.”
–Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records, whose bid of US $30,000 came up short of the US $35,000 offered by RCA, for the purchase of Elvis’ contract with Sun Records in November of 1955.

The Only Credible Explanation is That Elvis Was from another Planet.”
–Lester Bangs

See Elvis, and soak in the excitement and energy that started it all.