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Elvis Presley's 1969 rebirth in Las Vegas

Back in 1969, Elvis Presley’s return to the stage brought him a much needed jolt of energy. The 50th anniversary is commemorated with the release of two box sets. "American Sound 1969" and "Live 1969."
 Elvis in Vegas, 1969. Images by Bob Klein/©Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Elvis in Vegas, 1969. Images by Bob Klein/©Elvis Presley Enterprises.

By Gillian Gaar

It was July 31, 1969, and Elvis Presley was all keyed up. It was opening night at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, and he was about to give his first full concert appearance since 1961. In June 1968, he’d taped four shows before a live audience for his television special, Elvis, but that had been in an intimate setting, not a 2,000-seater showroom. And there would be no opportunity for any retakes tonight. It was make-or-break time.

“He was ready to fly around the room,” his bassist, Jerry Scheff recalls. “His leg was going a million miles an hour, and his hands drumming on things. He was nervous about how people were going to receive him after all those years. And a lot of stars were in the audience that first night.

“When we ended our first song, the place went crazy,” Scheff continues. “And I could see the look change on his face; like, ‘Oh God, they still love me!’ From then on it was too easy for him.”

And over the next 28 nights, the response was the same. By the time the engagement closed, Presley had performed for a record 101,500 people, selling out every show. The night after his show closed, Presley was again at the International, in the audience for Nancy Sinatra’s opening night performance. A return engagement for Presley was already scheduled for January-February 1970.

Elvis Presley was back. In a big way.

1969 was one of the most important years in Presley’s career. After being discharged from the army in 1960, things had initially gone well; the next few years saw the release of hit records like “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” the classic album Elvis Is Back, and one of his most successful films, Blue Hawaii. But as he focused on films over live performance, the quality of the material declined — along with sales and chart placings.

The Elvis special, broadcast on December 3, 1968, helped stop the slide; the soundtrack gave Presley his first Top 10 album in three years. His sessions at American Sound Studios in Memphis in January and February 1969 produced hits like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” Then, on February 26, came the announcement that Presley would appear that summer at the International Hotel. What Presley had been talking about to reporters for years was about to become a reality; he was returning to the concert stage.

The 50th anniversary of this momentous year is being commemorated with the release of two box sets. American Sound 1969, available digitally from RCA/Legacy, and in a limited edition physical release from official collector’s label Follow That Dream, will feature 90 tracks from the sessions.Live 1969 (shown in photo) will feature all 11 shows taped during the first Vegas season, many released in their entirety for the first time, and will be available in physical and digital editions from RCA/Legacy.

Presley first appeared in Las Vegas in a two week run at the New Frontier Hotel’s “Venus Room” in April 1956. It was a disappointing debut, largely because teenagers, Presley’s core audience, weren’t allowed in the lounge, though a matinee performance was eventually set up for them. This appearance would make more of a splash. The International was the biggest casino in Las Vegas at the time; an impressive setting in which to unveil the new Elvis. The final deal called for Presley to play a four week engagement of two shows a night, seven days a week, for a fee of $100,000 a week — out of which he would be expected to pay for his own musicians and singers, not to mention Parker.

Now all he needed was a band.

The Vegas production would be entirely Presley’s own creation. He reached out to nearly every musician he had worked with, most of whom made a more lucrative living as session players. But guitarist James Burton was interested in the job. Burton had played with Ricky Nelson in the 1950s, then worked as a studio musician (he’d play on the soundtrack for Presley’s film Viva Las Vegas), and was in the house band of TV’s rock program Shindig.

Burton was hired, and asked to help put together the rest of the band. Among the musicians he contacted was Jerry Scheff, whom he knew from Shindig (Scheff had also played on the soundtrack for Elvis’ film Double Trouble), asking him to audition. Scheff wasn’t an Elvis fan, and showed up more out of curiosity. He found Presley to be “just a really, really nice guy, who just welcomed me. He was so gracious. And then he started singing. And he was singing all the stuff he thought we would like, blues things, and stuff like that. And I was blown away. I thought, ‘You know what? I think I’ve got something to learn here.’”

Larry Muhoberac, a keyboard player who’d also appeared on numerous Presley film soundtracks, was hired, and recommended a drummer he’d worked with, Ronnie Tutt. Like Scheff, Tutt was not initially interested in Presley. “But all you had to do was meet Elvis one time, and he gotcha!” he says. “He had such charisma — I mean, the guy had it. And upon meeting him and looking into his eyes, we just clicked. And from that particular moment on, I watched him, and I watched his eyes, I watched his movements, I watched everything he did. And as he told me, ‘What impressed me about you, Ronnie, was the fact that you weren’t looking around doing your thing, you were watching me. Everything I did, you got, and accented it.’” Tutt got the gig.

The rest of the band was rounded out with John Wilkinson and a member of Presley’s entourage, Charlie Hodge, both on guitar. But Presley wanted a bigger sound behind him. While Parker had envisioned a typical Vegas-style show with dancing girls — “a cross between a movie set and the Elvis special,” says Tutt — Presley had other ideas. In addition to the band, he’d have the International’s house orchestra to work with. And he added two vocal groups, The Imperials gospel quartet, and The Sweet Inspirations, who had provided backup vocals for many artists, including Aretha Franklin, as well as releasing records under their own name.

Rehearsals with the band began July 18 in L.A. The band rehearsed well over 100 songs, for Elvis’ personal enjoyment as much as seeing which numbers would work best live. “We learned maybe 100 songs with him, and only some of them were in the show,” says Scheff. “One of the fun things about playing with him was that as long as it fit, you could play pretty much whatever you wanted to play.” And though the set list would call for a number of Presley’s ’50s hits, he was determined that they sound fresh and contemporary, telling Tutt, “Don’t play like we played those things back then. You play the way you hear it, and if there’s something wrong with it, then we’ll talk about it. But don’t worry about it. You do what you do; that’s why you’re here.”

“It was great,” says Tutt. “It really freed me up to try different things.”

Rehearsals in Vegas began on July 24, and Presley’s nervousness became apparent as opening night approached. He shared his growing unease with his friends, admitting to Sandi Miller, an acquaintance from LA, “I went to Vegas and I bombed. What if I bomb again?”“He was scared to death,” she says. “He was so afraid he was going to bomb again.”

There was only one show on July 31; for the rest of the run, there would be a dinner show and a midnight show. The star-studded audience included Cary Grant, Petula Clark, Burt Bacharach and his wife Angie Dickinson, and Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Margret. A contingent of journalists from New York were flown in by private plane, courtesy of the International. On each table was a gift box, with a program, Presley albums, and other memorabilia. The waitresses each sported an Elvis button.

The Sweet Inspirations opened the show, followed by comedian Sammy Shore. Presley’s set began around 10:30 pm, the gold lamé curtains rising, and Presley, clad in a black suit patterned after a karate gi, strode to center stage, grabbed the mic, and tore into “Blue Suede Shoes.” The audience was on its feet cheering before he even began to sing, and their enthusiasm didn’t let up the entire show.

The first half primarily featured songs from Presley’s past: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” and a medley of “Jailhouse Rock” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” an early sign of how he’d rush through his ’50s songs as quickly as possible. “He didn’t want to be a rock and roll singer anymore,” says Scheff. “He felt that he was an adult.” He showed off his more mature side with “Memories,” which had been featured in the Elvis special, along with “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” The latter quickly became the show’s highlight. The song had not yet been released as a single when the Vegas engagement began, and Presley built it into a seven minute-plus showstopper that virtually guaranteed it would become a hit (released in August, it would become his first No. 1 single since 1962).

Presley’s off-the-wall, self-deprecating humor was on display as well. In the early part of the show he’d joke, “Before the evening’s over I will have made a complete and total fool of myself. And I hope you get a kick out of watching it,” and his extended monologue about his life story also had plenty of humor; speaking of his army days, he said, “The guys in the service get awfully lonely, because they call each other ‘mother’ a lot.” The show closed, as all future Presley shows would, with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” from Blue Hawaii.

Presley and his manager, with tears in his eyes, embraced backstage after the show, displaying a warmth and an openness no one had ever seen before. Presley received a standing ovation when he arrived for a post-show press conference at 12:30 am, and the look on his face was one of unadulterated delight. He admitted he’d been nervous until after getting through “Love Me Tender”: “Then I thought, what the heck, get with it man, or you might be out of a job tomorrow!”

The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Ray Connolly, of London’s Evening Standard, called him “sensational — better than any of us could ever have imagined.” And the excitement continued throughout the Vegas run. “He was almost catlike,” Ronnie Tutt remembers. “He was like a black panther out there onstage, his hair was all black, and black clothes, just kind of stalking around. And the showroom was never big enough for what he was doing. He was like a caged animal there in Vegas, just the way he moved around stage and the energy he had was very animalistic. He loved that adrenaline rush.”

RCA began recording shows on August 21, by which time the musicians were all thoroughly comfortable with the set. The first material issued was on the double-album set From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis, released in November, featuring a live album with 12 performances from the Vegas engagement, and 10 tracks from the American Sound sessions; it reached No. 12 (both albums were later released individually, asElvis In Person At The International Hoteland Back in Memphis).

Presley would return to Vegas for future engagements through the end of 1976. By then, live performance had become more routine. But back in 1969, Presley’s return to the stage brought him a much needed jolt of energy. For Jerry Scheff, being on stage, “was the only time that Elvis really felt at home. I don’t think it was so much the music, as the contact with people, and the reassurance that people gave him.” In a very real sense, he had been reborn.

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