Elvis in Vegas: Book Review by Janet Bostic

Elvis was a flop in Vegas. Can you believe it? 

“I wasn’t ready for that town and they weren’t ready for me.” …. Elvis Presley

A new book on The King of Rock ’n’ Roll and his relationship with Las Vegas, by journalist Richard Zoglin states just the opposite.

Elvis In Vegas


How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show Elvis in Vegas.

Of course, Zoglin is referring to the 1969 return to live performances by the King. The King was referring to his Hollywood in 1956 but the same was said for his Vegas debut.

D.J. Fontana, his drummer said, ‘I don’t think the people there were ready for Elvis. He was mostly for teenagers, kids.”

The earlier, 1956, was a disheartening dud, the latter, 1969, was explosive and powerful. What made the difference?

Elvis had been away from the stage eight years, his faithful followers flocking to the theater and drinking in the hot to lukewarm to downright cold formula films, the bright spot being the star who sang his way into different scenic locales. The rock and roll relevancy was dissipating fast with the changing music scene and Presley needed a new momentum, and the public needed a new view of Presley.

And a new Presley they got, in the biggest and boldest way possible. It’s the 50th anniversary of his triumphant return to his rightful appointed throne, a Vegas run of performances at the new International Hotel (now the Westgate Las Vegas) in lovely sin city – a new Elvis for a new age in a new hotel with new shows and a new crowd, July 31st, 1969. Zoglin’s book Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show ($28, 304 pages, Simon & Schuster) is set for release on July 23.

The glamorous International Hotel in 1969 was a far cry from the dusty New Frontier Hotel in 1956. I’ll tell you what made the difference. The entertainer, though matured, was the same man. But was he? The crowds and the town were changed as well as how he related to them. Middle aged every day folks who adored Elvis in the 50’s, now got the chance to relive their own youth through the shakes and swivels of Elvis on stage in 1969. He was no longer public enemy number one to the middle class conservatives, as he was still the outlaw in 1956. He was proof of their aging relevance and outwardly showed himself worthy of their continued adoration since his explosion onto the dull vanilla music scene of the 50’s. If other 50’s and 60’s singers were a double dipped cone, he became the triple scoop split complete with whipped cream and cherries. He was the dessert Vegas was looking for and the public ate him up. He’d gotten older, matured but Las Vegas had gotten younger – at least in attitude. He wasn’t a kid in Vegas playing to stuffy adults, but now a contemporary with the adoring crowds.

Earning $125K a week, a record at the time, he quaked and shook his way onto the stagnant Vegas music scene, selling out two shows a night during his initial four week stint in the new and huge 2,000 seat showroom. Vegas acquired a new life source, adding a new dimension beyond the faraway galaxy of aging lounge singers of the past two decades. His was a concert, not an act. He paved the way for themed hotels and glamour and glitzy casinos. Vegas was cool again.

The 50’s had seen over the top Liberace ruling and the 60’s housed the infamous Sinatra and his Rat Pack – both top Vegas performers with monstrous, yet still sedate showmanship compared to Presley. Both were also kind to him, proving there was room for talent and knowing the shot in the one armed bandit Elvis’ shows provided were good for the entire town.

The King was understandably nervous but his crowds were understandably thrilled. They fed voraciously off one another. This was music history being made. Elvis took the stage that first night with his “Blue Suede Shoes,” and the flames were fanned igniting performance perfection. All was again right with the world. The crowds reaction to Presley and Presley’s intake of the crowd was a perfect storm set in a perfect place at a perfect time. 

Houston native Mark James had written “Suspicious Minds” and Elvis introduced it to the world via Vegas. The audience was thrilled. It showcased all he was about, moving the audience as he moved with the song, and was repeated throughout his Vegas run, going on to be his biggest hit.

The Vegas shows also allowed Presley to rule creatively. No dancing girls or costumed scenes provided the backdrop. It was pure Presley, with his band and his group of singers and his gut decisions to pick his songs and direct his actions. He surrounded himself with those that got him and made him feel comfortable and it  clicked. Vegas had always been a city Elvis enjoyed and now the city was also able to enjoy him, both offering their best to one another.

Vegas was ready for the change of a new image and Presley was ready to be that catalyst. Zoglin states “I think Elvis always felt bad about how poorly he’d done in 1956 and before these (1969) shows, he was incredibly frustrated. It was a career reaffirmation for him. Not just to prove something to Las Vegas, but to prove something to the world.” Prove it he did, in a way never to be topped.

All these years later, Las Vegas and Elvis Presley are still synonymous. They provided one another with a much needed boost, both reaping the benefits. He set the stage for the next era, the next phase, and the expected excitement Vegas has come to represent. Presley concert tours took Vegas to the masses for those that weren’t able to catch him in what became a natural habitat. Vegas came to expect the best because they had had the best representing them.

Zoglin gives a perfect understanding of how Presley shaped Vegas and how Vegas shaped Presley. The timing was right. It is highly recommended painting of a perfect picture of the evolving Vegas and the evolving Elvis and how they set in motion together, a lifetime of second nature Viva Las Vegas thrills and frills, still highly relevant to this day.