Elvis of the white bellbottom jumpsuit era embodies Las Vegas. His star is planted there on the sidewalk, and his image is to be found everywhere, fitting testament to his seven year reign over the city. But when the King first rolled in to play the Strip back in 1956, the Strip played shy.

Suspicious Minds at the New Frontier Hotel, April 1956

elvis-suspicious-mindsBy the time Elvis and his musical trio arrived in Vegas for a fortnightly residence of two shows a night at the New Frontier Hotel, they had been on tour for over two months, building a buzz of publicity from town to town. The 21 year old “Atomic Powered Singer” was a star in the ascendant, with a growing legion of adoring fans – many of which comprised an audience demographic entirely separate to that frequenting the bars and casinos of the Strip.

The virtuoso energy of the Elvis act was crafted to appeal to a youthful audience crowding a bandstand, not a plush dining hall full of jaded Vegas twenty-something sophisticates. The audience watched in bemused silence, they clapped politely and sipped their cocktails, someone at the back coughed…

It was the wrong act, pitched to the wrong crowd, at the wrong time. Each night, Elvis appeared at the end of the show, after an exhausting parade of some 59 performers. His 4-piece sound stood in brash contrast to the formalised big band extravaganza of the Freddy Martin Orchestra and music-hall comedy of the previous acts.

Bill Willard writing up his review for the Las Vegas Sun Link newspaper noted drily that Elvis  had little to offer to a sophisticated adult audience, and declared the rising Rock ‘n’ Roller “a bore.” Later for Variety magazine, he changed “bore” to “fizz” but still, one feels he was unimpressed. The Elvis musical sound, he added, was “uncouth,” the singers’ lyrics “nonsensical.”

I don’t think the people there were ready for Elvis,” drummer D. J. Fontana would say later of the Vegas audiences. “We tried everything we knew. Usually Elvis could get them on his side. It didn’t work that time…”

When the two weeks were up, neither band management nor hotel tried to renew the engagement, and for the most part, this first brush with Vegas is regarded as something of a flop. It wasn’t a total washout however. The inspiration for 1957 hit ”Hound Dog” stemmed from an encounter here with Freddie Bell & The Bell Boys, and the band had occasion to meet Liberace, who was performing at the nearby Riviera.

‘Viva Las Vegas’, 1964

viva-las-vegas-posterElvis spent much of the 1960s making Hollywood movies, with varying degrees of success. ”Viva Las Vegas” is generally acknowledged to be one of the better ones.

The film proved a popular hit at the movie theatres upon its 1964 release, helped in large part by the natural onscreen chemistry in evidence between Elvis and his co-star, the glamorous Ann-Margret. It is listed as the 14th top grossing film of that year.

In many ways, this exuberant musical comedy painted city and star boldly into the public imagination. From the Grand Prix racing plot device through to grand poolsides and lounge bars, against a glittering backdrop of casinos and a whirling roulette of dance troupes, scenes from this film have become firmly embedded in the folk memory of what Vegas is. History, music lore and movie myth are now forever entwined. It’s all become rather meta.

Call it the Hollywood touch if you will, but today’s visitors to the Strip take from it much the same impressions as conveyed by the 1964 movie experience. It is said of the city still that a little bit of Las Vegas goes a long way. The Strip is still rife with casino and poker-related events and tourneys, as well as entertainment extravaganzas. The box office allure of Viva Las Vegas may just have something to do with this: Las Vegas entertaiment may have reached the point of massive, dedicated poker and blackjack events, but the glamour is still there.

It certainly didn’t do Elvis any harm. And Vegas being Vegas picked up on style points from the movie and wove them deftly into the city infrastructure to entertain future tourists. Here then lies the first connection in popular culture between Elvis Presley the showman and Las Vegas, the show.

Unchained Melody at the International Hotel, July 1969 to December 1976

The International Hotel & Casino in Winchester, Nevada, opened its doors in 1969 to a fanfare of publicity. Of its time this was the largest and most ambitious hotel structure in the world; the site covered 64 acres and accounted for 2,956 hotel rooms. Rising to a height of 30 floors, it was an instant hit on the Las Vegas skyline, known for many years as the New York Hilton. As of 2014, the hotel complex operates under the new name of Westgate Las Vegas.

Barbara Streisand took top billing on that opening night, with Peggy Lee lined up to play the lounge afterparty. On July 31, 1969, immediately following Streisand’s engagement, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was installed in Room 3000, the penthouse suite on the topmost floor, and booked at the hotel to perform the first of what would become 58 consecutive sold-out shows, ready to smash all Vegas attendance records.

At his audience peak, it is reckoned that Elvis performed in one month to upward of 130,000 hotel customers, to great public and critical acclaim. He went on to break his own attendance record in February 1970, and again in August 1970 and August 1972. In total, he notched up more than seven years as resident artiste at the International, performing his final show at the hotel in December 1976.

Following the singer’s death in August 1977 at the age of 42, his manager Colonel Tom Parker was based at the hotel until the mid-1980s.

From the above clip, it’s not hard to see why the name Elvis Presley held such star attraction for the International. Despite his failing health, Elvis in performance was Elvis in his element, and Elvis in his element was absolutely electric. Who wouldn’t pay good money to see up close what was by any measure the biggest and best show at the top hotel in town?

Always On My Mind, The King and the Neon City

The legend of Elvis Preslely and the myth of Las Vegas are tangled in our minds; the racing circuit glitz, the hotels and bars, the casinos in the glitter of the Strip. All these visions squeezed together in the passing of time.

The neon city in the sand stays with the visitor, long after they leave, a mirage on the horizon of their lives. When you’re there, you can’t be sure its really there. And after you leave you need to get back there, to make sure you were right the first time round. It’s the Hollywood effect, the Vegas carousel. Just ask Elvis.


Categories: Stories of artists

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