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The King Of Vegas Or How Elvis Turned Terror Into Triumph In Las Vegas

By Peter Doggett, July 02, 2001 | Music
The first time, he stood out like a carthorse at Ascot. He was intimidated by the crowds, by their Brook Brothers suits and Broadway dresses, by the bulky wad of dollars which filled their inside pockets. He'd spent the previous two years traveling round honky-tonks and state fairs, playing to hillbillies who shared his humour and understood his drawl, sharing the bill with country stars like Marty Robbins and Slim Whitman. Some night down south, he could look out into the audience and see himself reflected a hundred times over in their eyes. They were his people, and they knew where he came from. But now, he was in Vegas, in a plush showroom, before rows of prosperous businessmen and their wives, who had flown in for a week of decadence, dice rolling and classy entertainment. The one-liners that cracked them up in Alabama and Tennessee slipped out of his mouth, and fell silently to the floor. The songs that had soundtracked the early months of 1956 were greeted with polite applause. And he was too intimidated to move his hips or grind his pelvis in front of people who looked like New York bank managers. Hell, they might run him out of town. Adulation Colonel Parker got there before him. One night in the rear stalls was enough to convince Elvis' manager that his charge didn't belong in Las Vegas' New Frontier Hotel. His four-week stand was cut back to two, so that the terrified teen idol could return to the adolescent adulation that was his natural arena. Elvis quit town vowing never to return - and he didn't, not for 13 years. The second time was worse. By 1969, Elvis wasn't just a country singer, he was a global superstar, a movie idol, the best-selling solo artist of the 60's. But he'd spent that entire decade in seclusion, a virtual recluse save for the three-movies-a-year treadmill which kept his face on billboards around the world.  There'd been a TV special the previous year and, for one day, Elvis had been allowed to perform in front of his fans. He discovered that it really was more fun to sing to an audience than to a film camera, and so he commanded the Colonel to organize a return to the road. But the Colonel was addicted to gambling, spending most of his spare time (and Elvis' money) in Vegas. So why not combine business and pleasure? And that's how a lean, hungry, terrified, adrenaline-wired Elvis ended up stalking the corridors of the International Hotel in Vegas that summer, waiting for the cure music which would summon him to the stage for his first authentic live show in eight years.  Uncertain whether the world wanted his past of his future, Elvis had assembled a set-list that was laden with the rock'n'roll that Vegas had ignored 13 years earlier, spiced with some contemporary pop classics and a couple of his own recent singles. There was a band of studio aces, an orchestra, his army buddy Charlie Hodge to hand him guitars and wipe his brow, and a voice that was at the peak of his form. Elvis looked and sounded immaculate. But he'd been in hiding for so long that he had no idea how to talk to the people. So between the flamboyant ballads and nervously rapid rockers, he burbled - reaching back into his memory for the jokes he'd used in 1956, revealing his deepest neuroses by satirizing his advanced age, and sometimes slipping into wordplay so surreal that, even in that more innocent age, observers wondered exactly what was fuelling his performance. "Feel like Bob Dylan's been sleeping in my mouth", Elvis mumbled, and the audience sat as silent and confused as their predecessors in 1956. If Vegas had kicked Elvis' butt in 1956, he survived to win the rematch. As the first disc of RCA's new 4 CD set "Live in Las Vegas" reveals, it was a close call; this record of the hesitant first 1969 show ends with the bizarre speed freak monologue he spewed out a few nights later, as if his mouth and his mind had long since parted company. Yet Elvis came to regard the scene of his public trials as his second home and, for the rest of his life, he came back to Vegas every six months or so. By 1970, when Disc Two (an entire performance taped for the "That's The Way It Is" movie) was recorded, he was absolutely in this prime. True, he still tossed off the old hits like a card sharp, but his repertoire was now dominated by gloriously excessive arrangements of his contemporary repertoire - the fevered flash of "Polk Salad Annie" and "Suspicious Minds", the epic passion of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and "Bridge over Troubled Water". Vegas was his town, and this was his moment. Mighty 1970 was the peak, but the magic remained through 1971 and 1972. Disc Three of RCA's new box set rounds up many of the familiar cuts taped during those residencies, from "See See Rider" to "An American Trilogy"- the latter a four-minute compression of everything that was mighty (and sometimes mighty ridiculous) about the man, the country, and Vegas itself. But the best of the set is still to come. Disc Four opens with that nerve-stripping Vegas appearance from 1956: when Elvis singled out the celebrities in the audience, and was greeted with stony silence when he mentioned country star Roy Acuff, he knew he was in a foreign country. Then from '56, we're transported almost 20 years to the mid-70's. Legend has it that Elvis had long since sacrificed his majesty by this time, drowning it in drugs and triple-decker cheeseburgers. But this collection of oddments from the '74 and '75 Vegas residencies proves otherwise. Everything was still intact - the voice (if you heart doesn't swell when he hits that unexpected high note in "How Great Thou Art", you're legally dead), the humour (the sabotage of J.D. Sumner's showcase on "Why Me Lord"), even the rockabilly swagger ("Promised Land", "Burning Love" and "My Baby Left Me" all fit that bill). An impromptu version of Bobby Darin's "You're The Reason I'm Living" lines up alongside 1970's "When The Snow Is On The Roses" as an addition to his official repertoire. And almost everything in between - a mix of country, pop, gospel, blues and sheer bravado - cements the myth rather than demolishing it. For the myth has changed since 1977, when the New Musical Express ran a cover picture of the 1956 Elvis the week after his death with the stark instruction: "Remember him this way". Yes, the young Elvis changed the world. But in the 21st Century, that act of impetuous courage seems certain to be overshadowed by an even more unlikely achievement - the way in which Elvis relocated his soul in the most soulless city in America. "Live in Las Vegas" isn't just a historical document, it's a celebration of the resurrection. Remember him this way as well.

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