From Tibby's Bowl Entertainment Magazine
As we approach the 24th anniversary of his death, Elvis Presley is still entertaining the masses. And probably doing a better job of it than the last 5 years of his life. Another boxset and a return to Madison Square Garden are amongst the Elvis related festivities.
First up is "Standing Room Only," a 4 CD set that's a tribute to the years Elvis played Las Vegas.
There's always been a harsh debate about Vegas Elvis. Was this really a proper place for The King of Rock 'n Roll to perform? Two shows a night in a gaudy theater? Was he demeaning himself on the Strip? Wasn't Vegas a refuge for the washed up and the barely was?
After reading "Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley" by Peter Guralnick, I can safely say that Vegas was a harsh mistresses to Elvis. It built him up in 1969 and when he neglected himself from 1972 onward, it publicly tortured him. At the end of his career, he exposed too much of himself on the stage of the International (later Hilton) Hotel.
While Elvis might have let down his audience toward the end, his audience never let him down. Every night Elvis was booked in Vegas, he walked out to a packed house.
But Vegas was perhaps the greatest place to relaunch his career. He'd spent the 60s making too many crappy films. He'd come to everybody's town and hung around the cinema three times a year. Towards the end of this relationship, the people weren't coming around. Vegas was perfect for Elvis. He only had to sell 4,000 tickets a night - a lot less than if he was playing arenas around the country. He also knew he had to give the people a real show since this wasn't a crowd that hopped in the car and drove a couple miles to see the show. These were travelers who had crossed the desert to witness Elvis. He had to deliver a religious experience. For the lucky ladies during, "Love Me Tender," he'd give them a kiss. For those first few years, he did it. You only have to watch the recut "That's The Way It Is" to experience the majesty of his performance.
Vegas also allowed Elvis to open up his song selection from the crappy soundtrack tunes. He had his Memphis sessions hits so the audience wasn't there to enjoy a complete nostalgia show. He also picked through other singer's hits. "Sweet Caroline" and "Funny How the Time Slips Away." He wasn't shackled by the Hill and Range publishing chains. He even played Beatles hits (although later he would tell Nixon that the Beatles were responsible for drugs in America). All this is found on the four boxset.
Plus Elvis became a fashion icon during his Vegas days. The high collars, the strange jumpsuits with the rhinestone eagles, the big belts that look like wrestling titles, and the scarves. He made sure that people saw him on the stage. He also understood that he was fighting with all the rest of neon and blinking lights of the Strip. As Liberace once said, "If you're going to be a spectacle - remember to call attention to yourself."
Then he let the drugs, the donuts and his divorce take too much control of his life. He started saying weird things. He did karate demonstrations on stage. He lost it and it showed. Perhaps the most telling moment recorded was his threat to anyone spreading gossip about his drug problem. "I will pull your goddamn tongue out by the roots!" he tells an uncomfortable Vegas crowd. This can found on "Celebrities At Their Worst." But it's not on the boxset since it's a celebration of Elvis and the town and not a bittersweet document of highs and lows.
Of course there is one "low" that is covered on the boxset. It's his first attempt to be a Vegas star. Elvis' first visit to Vegas is featured with four tracks from his 1956 visit. You can sense the pain of rejection in his in-between banter. He sounds less like he's playing the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel and more like he's trying to talk his way out of a police ticket. The audience is used to the big shows full of glitz and glamour given by Liberace and Sinatra. They are confused by this little combo plucking away on songs that their kids owned. They probably are too busy chatting about Shecky Greene's routine to pay attention. Or maybe they're pondering why the orchestra only takes part in the fanfare and farewell. This short four song set is also featured on the Silver boxset - but when has repeating material ever been a sin in the selling of Elvis? Because this short set isn't included on the first CD, it doesn't make much sense for the casual listener.
The only bad part about this boxset is that it comes so soon after BMG released two Vegas related Elvis CDs. "On Stage" features his Vegas shows during Feb. 1970 with bonus tracks from the original release. The 3 CD "That's The Way It Is - Special Edition" features the entire midnight show from August 12, 1970 along with rehearsals and other numbers. Once again Elvis finds himself the victim of too many records coming out too fast. The only thing left to mine from Elvis' years in Las Vegas is the shrimp cocktails.