History has recorded that Elvis’ return to the stage on July 31, 1969 in Las Vegas was a huge, major success. It was his first live performance in eight years, and he was outstanding. We are quickly approaching the 40th anniversary of this epic concert, so I checked out several sources in my Elvis library to find the best description of the event. The winner, hands down, is from “The Boy Who Dared to Rock” by Paul Lichter. Lichter was a friend of Elvis who saw many of his performances and now maintains an interesting Elvis website. Here are a few choice lines from his excellent 1978 biography:
“There was utter pandemonium throughout the Showroom, and the screams grew louder.”
“His high cheekbones and bronzed face seem to be untouched by the years that have passed.”
“…he flogged himself to near-exhaustion. He was like a wild man! He moved with both grace and animal sexuality.”
“He … lifted the audience beyond belief.”
“When he finished his renditions, there could be no denying the Presley magic.”
“Elvis made believers out of all of us who had ever doubted his talents and abilities. It was a memorable night – a night when Elvis… proved he is still King.”
International Hotel, Las Vegas, During Elvis’ 1969 Run
Based on what you just read, you would imagine that the entertainment critics for the Las Vegas Sun had written glorious praise about Elvis’ return to live performances. Not really. Let’s look at some reviews right after opening night and observe how some of the Sun’s hard-to-please writers didn’t want to say anything too nice about Elvis.
At least, it wasn’t as bad as the hard time they gave Elvis back in 1956, when he last played Las Vegas at the New Frontier Hotel. The critics blasted him pretty good then, and Elvis considered the whole experience as less than satisfying. It did not, however, divert him from his upward ascension as the King of Rock & Roll.
The International Hotel Showroom
Elvis rolled into Las Vegas in July 1969 on top of his game. The ’68 Comeback Special had recharged his career, as did “In The Ghetto,” his huge Top 10 hit in early 1969. But, the Sun’s reviewers still wanted to cut Elvis down a bit.
Joe Delaney ended his August I article with pretty blah and generic praises:
“Elvis is very much for real. Elvis is here to stay.”
However, five lines into his piece, he shifted from Elvis and spent a lot of space talking about Shecky Greene and Sammy Shore. Mr. Delaney obviously liked these two comedians, and there was a reason to give them brief mention. Shecky Greene was the head-liner at those early Elvis shows at the Frontier. Sammy Shore opened for Elvis at the International in 1969.
Mr. Delaney finally did get back to Elvis by writing:
“We predict that Elvis will have his more enthusiastic followers walking around asking, 'Tom Who' and 'Elgelbert Who' when comparisons are attempted.”
“Streisand’s record at the International will be broken.”
“Elvis represents the finest effort by that master promoter, Col. Tom Parker.”
Did you notice something? These were positive statements, but nowhere in them (or anywhere else in the review) did Mr. Delany say something good about Elvis’ performance. No mention of his singing. Nothing.
Elvis and Guitar During July 31, 1969 Performance
Another Sun writer, Ralph Pearl balanced his review with some good, some bad. His first paragraph said:
“Elvis Presley got a constant, roaring approval from his fans who all but threw themselves into the aisles and out of the balcony as the Pelvis sang his many rock and roll hits while fiercely, almost savagely, turning himself outside in.”
Wow, that sounds like a 1956 review, doesn’t it? Elvis still had it! But, Mr. Pearl then joked about being assassinated by Presley fans because of this critical opinion:
“We found the glamorous rock and roll movie hero really cashing in on his reputation and not truly earning the enormous standing ovation at the close of his one hour song session.”
So, Elvis was a wild man moving around with animal sexuality, and the fans were going nuts, but this guy said Elvis was undeserving. Mr. Pearl could have picked a better subject for sneaking in his prejudice against Elvis. Of course, he found other things to quibble about:
“There was a noticeable lack of production or showcasing on his many songs. The lad just got out there, wrapped his lean torso around a guitar and hammered out song after song.”
Ah, gee. There weren’t any chorus girls. Just thousands of people thrilled to see Elvis hammer out song after song. It was a concert, Mr. Pearl, not a Vegas floor show.
Torso Wrapped Around Guitar Song after Song
Elvis played two shows a night (8PM and Midnight) for twenty-eight days. Then he took a break for five months. When he returned to Las Vegas in February 1970, Elvis must have finally won over tough critic Joe Delaney, who wrote:
“Sheer magic throughout… What impresses us is the great aura and attitude that permeates the entire presentation this time in.”
No wonder. The doubts and worries from the previous July were now gone. Elvis knew his first run back in Vegas was superb, and had every reason to believe his second appearance would be even better. Without question, Elvis had this live concert thing well under control. He would go on to do a total of 837 consecutive sold-out Las Vegas performances in front of 2.5 million fans.
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