Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season


The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.