As David Stubbs wrote in “Uncut Legends,” “Elvis Presley’s look is beyond cliché. It’s ingrained in the collective consciousness.”
Bono appropriated The King’s gold suit for U2’s “Zooropa” tour (as have Phil Ochs and Jerry Seinfeld). In his stage show, Morrissey spelled out his name in large red letters as had been done in the opening and closing sequences of the ’68 Elvis special, when a giant E-L-V-I-S had filled the screen.
And while the Clash might have sung “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977” (in the song “1977”), the group nonetheless replicated the cover art of the “Elvis Presley” album for “London Calling.” And Joe Strummer’s rockabilly coif couldn’t have been inspired by anyone else but the King.
When James Brown observed that Elvis “taught white America to get down,” he was referring to his performing, as well as his musical style. Elvis’ physical movements on stage and TV in the ’50s might have scandalized adults, but they also changed the relationship young male performers had with their bodies forever, a freedom to which artists like Mick Jagger owe a huge debt.
At the other end of the spectrum (as far as movement) are the two “sit-down” concerts taped for Elvis’ 1968 TV special, which guitarist Scotty Moore has described as “the first Unplugged”-type show. The concerts weren’t entirely unplugged — Scotty Moore played an electric guitar — but they did set up the format of an intimate, scaled-down performance.
“This was a concept that wasn’t out there yet,” said Sandi Miller, a friend of Elvis’ who attended the shows.
“This was something totally new, to throw a bunch of fans in a little room with a performer, throw him up on a little stage and say ‘Have at it.’ That hadn’t been done before.”
By the ’70s, arena acts like Wings and Queen began having acoustic segments in their shows in an effort create a sense of intimacy, something that’s still a staple of rock shows today. By 1989, this concept had evolved into MTV’s “Unplugged” series, with performers reworking their songs in an acoustic setting, thrown up on a little stage with a bunch of fans in a little room.
And it’s no exaggeration to say that Elvis Presley helped transform Las Vegas to a town where rock ’n’ rollers are now as welcome as Rat Packers. Elvis’ first performances in Las Vegas in 1956 had not been hugely successful, in part because the city was geared toward adult entertainers (and audiences). This was true even when Elvis made his triumphant return to Vegas in 1969. As Ronnie Tutt, Elvis’ concert drummer from 1969 on said, “Rockers didn’t want to do Vegas because of what they had to do; there was just no real vehicle there of what to do. And so Elvis established this thing, this look, this approach.”
In 1969, Elvis put together a live show that proved you could rock in Vegas, and he played the International (later the Hilton) more than any other venue. As a result, where rock acts previously had regarded a Vegas appearance as an indication that their careers were on the downswing, it now became a hip place to play — hip enough that Vegas was chosen as the site for what was billed as “the world’s first rock ’n’ roll hotel and casino,” the Hard Rock Hotel. Plans even had been made for an Elvis-themed hotel/casino in Vegas, but those plans were scrapped in the wake of the recent economic slump.
Nonetheless, Vegas remains very much an Elvis town, and there are probably more Elvis-related things to do in Vegas than in any other places besides Memphis, Tenn., or Tupelo, Miss. Elvis slot machines are among the most popular in the casinos (this year rivaled by “Wizard of Oz” slot machines). Sadly, the Elvis-A-Rama museum has closed, but you can still get your Elvis memorabilia fix at “The King’s Ransom,” an exhibit drawn from the collections of Russ Howe and Bud Glass that is currently on display at Imperial Palace hotel and casino (www.thekingsransom.com).
There’s memorabilia on display at the Hard Rock Hotel, as well, and a commemorative statue of Elvis stands in front of the Hilton. Cirque du Soleil’s latest production is the lavish “Viva Elvis” show, not as imaginative as the Cirque’s “Love” show, based on the Beatles’ music, but still entertaining.
And then there are the impersonators.
Though there were a few Elvis impersonators working when Elvis was still alive (the late comedian Andy Kaufman being one of them), their number has expanded immeasurably since his death. It’s quite likely that there are more impersonators of Elvis than any other star, now including impersonators of every race and gender. Further broadening the appeal, some who are very serious about their impersonations, while others take an irreverent approach, satirizing showbiz conventions (as the performance artist-inspired “Extreme Elvis” does), or making social commentary (as in the work of “El Vez,” the “Mexican Elvis”).
It’s the impersonators who really make Vegas a place of true Elvis-dom. Without them, the city would have quite a different character. Most wedding chapels offer the opportunity to be married by an Elvis (or at least serenaded by one during the ceremony). Impersonators can be found in the Legends and American Superstars shows. Peter Vallee, aka “Big Elvis,” offers a free show Monday through Friday at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon on the Las Vegas Strip. Any vendor passing out flyers to tourists knows that the quickest way to attract attention is to dress up like Elvis.
Jesse Garon is one of the premier Elvis impersonators in Vegas, even dubbed “the Official Elvis of Las Vegas” by Mayor Oscar Goodman, though Garon himself prefers the term “Elvis Emulator.” A native of Dallas, Garon has been in Vegas since 1993. After working in a touring version of the Legends show, he went into business for himself, and performs at weddings, escorts guests to the Viva Elvis show in a pink Cadillac, and generally involves himself in “Anything and everything having to do with Elvis” (check www.vegaselvis.com).
A world without Elvis would mean a world without Elvis impersonators — and who could imagine that?
“It’s so hard to say what the world would be like without him,” Garon said, “because Elvis was the first to shake things up like he did. He was the first one who created a rock ’n’ roll entourage — he created what a rock star was, with his jumpsuits and his belts and his entourages and his planes. So if we hadn’t had him, what direction would it have taken? Would we have been a whole bunch of people listening to Andy Williams and idolizing him and the way of his life? Had we not had that influence, boy, I’m scared to think where we might have went. It would just be a terrible thing to think of if Elvis hadn’t been around. Who knows? Neil Sedaka could’ve been King!”
Though without Elvis’ success in Vegas, we’d at least have been spared that embarrassing “Viva Viagra” commercial, sung to the tune of the Las Vegas’ official theme song, “Viva Las Vegas.”
Elvis-related catchphrases, like “Thank you, thank you very much” and “Elvis has left the building” have become part of the cultural lexicon (the latter phrase especially cropping up in films ranging from “Men In Black” to “Showgirls”). Bizarrely, Elvis references were even used to score political points in the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. President Bush, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, criticized the Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, for his changing views on how to balance the budget, saying, “He’s like that on a lot of issues, first on one side, then the other. He’s been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley.”
Bush later added, “If [Clinton] gets his way, hardware stores across America will have a new sign up, ‘Closed for despair.’ I guess you’d say his plan really is ‘Elvis economics.’ America will be checking into the ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”
But Clinton embraced the Elvis analogy and turned it around in his favor, playing a saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on “The Arsenio Hall Show, and saying in a speech, “You know, Bush is always comparing me to Elvis in sort of unflattering ways. I don’t think Bush would have liked Elvis very much, and that’s just another thing that’s wrong with him.”
At the Democratic National Convention, the vice presidential nominee, Sen. Al Gore, joked in his speech, “It’s always been my dream to come to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis.”
After he was elected, Clinton’s secret service code name was “Elvis,” giving the agents multiple opportunities to legitimately tell each other “Elvis has left the building” while guarding the president.
Elvis Presley means many things to many people. And certainly anyone interested in popular culture from the mid-’50s on has been touched by his influence, whether they’re fans of Elvis or not.
“Elvis made an imprint on the world of pop music unequaled by any other single performer,” said Dick Clark.
For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• A great resource for record collecting is Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records, 1950-1975, 6th Edition,” in large paperback and DVD
• Check out an informative read in “The Everything® Rock & Blues Piano Book with CD, Master riffs, licks, and blues styles from New Orleans to New York City”