Back in 2008, I got curious about what hits Elvis sang at his first live appearance in nine years. Here is a repost of the resulting article. It was in the days before I started adding lots of pictures to my posts, so I hope you enjoy reading all the text.
After Elvis signed the contract to do a four-week engagement at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas, he began making all the necessary preparations. He had to put together a band, chose a group of backup singers, and hire an orchestra. But most important, he had to decide what songs to perform – and in what sequence. Elvis turned to old buddy and accomplished singer/musician Charlie Hodge for help.
Elvis and Charlie worked overtime considering a long list of possible songs. At this point, Elvis was still thinking like a rock & roller, not like a master Las Vegas showman, as he would later. So, he naturally wanted lots of hits from his breakout 1956-57 period. A taste of the earlier Sun Records singles would be good, too.
Another rich creative period for Elvis was the early sixties after he returned from the Army, and it needed to be represented. Certainly, there had to be some of his recent 1969 hits from the famed recording session at American Studios in Memphis. There should also be some material from the ’68 Comeback Special. And why not a few surprises?
We know what songs Elvis performed on his return to live concerts thanks to a bootleg CD titled, Opening Night 1969, on the Fort Baxter label (AS CD 731-69), released in 1993. We can only wonder why such noteworthy soundboard tapes stayed under wraps for twenty-four years.
Let’s look at what Elvis and Charlie decided would be the playlist of songs. The concert was loaded with Elvis’ rockers from 1956 and 1957: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” These had all been #1 hits, as was “Love Me Tender,” a ballad added to help pace the show.
Elvis’ days at Sun Records were represented by “Mystery Train.” One song had never previously been recorded. “Baby What You Want Me To Do” was one of the killer acoustic songs Elvis sang in the pit session of the ’68 Comeback Special.
Another song selected from that special was “Memories,” a poignant ballad to change the pace after the up-tempo songs. The last song from the ’68 Comeback Special to make the cut was never released as a single, but Elvis must have liked it a lot. “Tiger Man” made the opening night playlist.
Elvis and Charlie went back to the early sixties to come up with two powerful love songs to showcase his versatility: “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
There wasn’t much doubt that Elvis’ two biggest hits of 1969 would be part of the show. “In the Ghetto” had been his first Top Ten hit in four years, and “Suspicious Minds” was his first #1 chart topper in seven years. For his Las Vegas show, Elvis worked out an extended version of “Suspicious Minds” that lasted over eight minutes. With repetitions of the big build up, the dramatic fade, then the big build up again, it proved to be a real show stopper.
For surprises, Elvis decided on two songs he never recorded – but the Beatles did. He performed “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” back-to-back, and in time, the band figured out a way to run them together as a medley. Another song in the surprise category was “What’d I Say,” which Elvis recorded in 1964 for the movie Viva Las Vegas. It was released as a single and became only a minor hit for him, but Elvis knew this icon of rock music would be a crowd pleaser, and he was right.
One more song on the opening night playlist could fit into several categories. Elvis recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956 and cut a better version in 1960 for the movie G.I. Blues. It was a far bigger hit for its composer Carl Perkins than it was for Elvis, but by 1969, the song was strongly associated with Elvis. As a rock classic, it was ideal to include in the show.
So, those are the nineteen songs Elvis and Charlie decided on. Next, they had to work out the best sequence. If you study the list below, you will note that Elvis started off with the eight songs from his dominating 1956-57 period. Three rockers, a ballad, and four more rockers. He slowed things down with “Memories” from the Comeback Special, and then got moving again with a medley of two songs from disparate periods in his history. “Mystery Train” dates back to Sun Records in 1956, and “Tiger Man” came from the ’68 Comeback Special. Next was a song from both the Sun days and the TV special (“Baby What You Want Me To Do”).
By this time Elvis would need to get his second wind, so he did four slow songs in a row. This set up his workout on the long version of “Suspicious Minds” and an extended take on “What’d I Say”. Finally the show ended with “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” supported by a full orchestral climax.
The Playlist for Elvis’ Return to Live Performing in 1969:
Blue Suede Shoes
I Got A Woman
All Shook Up
Love Me Tender
Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel
Mystery Train/Tiger Man
Baby What You Want Me To Do
Are You Lonesome Tonight
In the Ghetto
What’d I Say
Can’t Help Falling In Love
It should be noted that Elvis revised the song line-up a bit as the engagement at the International continued. Usually, this involved dropping “Memories” and “What’d I say,” and replacing them with two or three songs from this list: “Runaway (1961 hit for Del Shannon), “Rubberneckin” (from Elvis‘ last movie Change of Habit), “Reconsider Baby” (from 1960 album Elvis Is Back), “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1958 hit for Don Gibson), “Words” (1968 Bee Gees hit), “Inherit The Wind” and “This Is The Story” (both from the 1969 American Studios recording sessions), and “My Babe” (a classic country blues song recorded by several people).
How about that: Elvis sang a Bee Gees hit. And, he sang two songs from the American Studios sessions that the audience couldn’t have known, because they weren’t released as singles and they weren’t included in his 1969 album From Elvis In Memphis.
Much has been written about the outstanding quality of Elvis’ performances during his August run at the International Hotel. Other articles in this issue will cover that thoroughly, but here are two one-word summaries that say it all: “Supernatural” – Rolling Stone; “Incredible” – Newsweek.
A regular feature of Elvis’ 1969 Las Vegas concerts was the break he took from singing to talk to the audience. These conversations typically came after Elvis sang the “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” medley. He would always begin by talking about how he got started in the music business, but usually Elvis would veer off to cover anything else that he thought was interesting. At some point during the Vegas run, Colonel Parker asked Elvis to tone it down a bit. Parker felt that long rambling monologues were not what sophisticated Las Vegas audiences paid their money to hear. However, much of what Elvis said was funny and well-received by the audience. Here are a few samples.
“I’d like to thank you for coming out. This is my first appearance, first live appearance in nine years. (Applause) Thank you. Appeared dead a few times.”
“… a lot of singers have a problem with what they call Vegas throat. It’s either too dry or you swallowed too many chips.”
“is that him?… I thought he was bigger than that… That’s why he ain’t been in public nine years.”
“I’d just gotten out of high school, and I was driving a truck… and I was studying to be an electrician. And I got wired the wrong way, man.”
“Memphis. That’s my hometown. You gotta be loose when you say it. Wher’re you from, boy? Memphis. If I get any looser, I’ll just fall apart.”
“They threw me off the Grand Ole Opry. I went to the Grand Ole Opry, man, they gave me six dollars and said, ‘Look, go home, man.’”
“I auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey Show. He said: ‘Nah, nah, he’s bad, vulgar, bad.’ So I didn’t get on there either.”
“And then I met Colonel Sanders… ah, Parker.”
“Let’s see, I got a list of two hundred and twenty-eight songs on it, and I can do only two hundred, so I gotta drop the twenty-eight.”
“Hey Charlie. I got my cord hung on your thing, man. Ya ever get your cord hung on your thing? That’s bad, boy, bad.”
Good quotes, but it was still the music and Elvis’ presentation that defined his 1969 Las Vegas shows. We all know what kind of effect Elvis had on his young audiences in 1956, and it looks like he still had it in 1969. Here is a quote from Bill Jost, Assistant Maitre’d, of the International Hotel Showroom:
“I watched the audience as he walked out on stage, and so many had their faces in their hands. They’d sit there and cry. It was almost Biblical, as if the clouds had parted, and down a shaft of light came the angels.”
Wow!! What an outstanding quote about Elvis.
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