There’s a first time for everything, the praying mantis said to his new bride, and she smiled.
The great ones have eras. Sinatra had the Teenybopper years, and the Rat Pack, and Bored, Old, Mean Frank. Madonna was a Boy Toy, and then the Material Girl, and is now Crazy Aunt. Mohammad Ali: His mama called him Clay; No Viet Cong ever called me n—-r; ALI BOOM-AH-YAY; a shaky finish.Even the bush league ones have eras. Baby Dead, Keith Dead, Brent Dead, Sad Dead. The last chapter’s always the same.
Elvis had Vegas.
The first era was Tupelo Elvis. Truck-drivin’, hip-swivelin’, mama-lovin’ Elvis with his two goober buddies on guitar and bass behind him, atop a flatbed truck at the county fair, captured in black-and white. Resetting his leg after he boogedy-shooped his way down the stage. The Elvis whose crotch was a danger to teevee audiences, possibly democracy itself. The Elvis about whom 50 million fans weren’t incorrect regarding. Tupelo Elvis still lived with his mother.
Army Elvis buried his mother. Army Elvis also met Charlie Hodge, who would thereafter procure for him both scarves and water,
Hollywood Elvis was next. Let’s play a game. I’m gonna ask you a question, and you’re not going to look it up. No googling. Follow the tenets of Without Research. Here we go:
How many movies did Elvis star in?
Wait! I didn’t give you the time frame. 1960-1969. Honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant in 1960, donned the jumpsuit and cape in 1969. How many movies did Hollywood Elvis make?
No, you’re wrong. Guess again.
Stop guessing. 27. Twenty-seven. 3^3. Two-and-a-quarter dozen. Hollywood spat out 27 Elvis movies in a decade; there aren’t 27 Godzilla movies in total. In the 60’s, Elvis movies came out on the same schedule as Marvel movies do today. All the same thing: Elvis tries real hard to deliver his lines like a big boy, and then he sings, and there’s a girl. Give him credit: the King tried, real early on, to make serious pictures. To get his teeth into a real character. To act, man. The craft, maaaaaan. Elvis made Flaming Star–he was a half-Kiowa rancher torn between love and country, or something like that–and he made Wild In The Country, which was written by Clifford Odets; nothing begs “Please take me seriously” more than letting Clifford Odets write your script.
“Oh, no,” the Audience responded. “This is not the Elvis for us. This is not our preferred Elvis. Bring back the one who sings and dances.”
Blue Hawaii was his next movie. The King saw as true and beautiful what the Audience had declared: they could never see him as anyone but himself. He was singular in their eyes. How could Elvis hide beneath a bushel? Let Tony Curtis do all the acting. Elvis must be Elvis.
Sometimes, Elvis was a stuntman. I think he was a professional water-skier once. He raced cars in at least several films. Carnivals, rodeos. All kinds of manly shit. And Elvis is always in a band so that he could serenade the girl. The rest of the run-time was taken up by rear-projectioned action scenes and light comedy.
After some years of this, the King became bored with being a movie star, and wanted to go back to being a rockyroll star. Did his ennui begin around 1967’s Clambake? I would imagine his feelings of frustration began earlier, but were crystallized upon production of Clambake. There’s no way Elvis didn’t pitch a fit upon initial receipt of the script.
“CLAMBAKE? WHAT IS THIS SHIT? JOE ESPOSITO, TELL ME AH AIN’ CRAZY!”
And then the black leather suit, the teevee special.
The mob built Las Vegas, but did not control it for that long at all. The city made too much money for the honest businessmen not to steal it from them. Big money always wins, even when the big money is pissing in jars and cosseting itself with Mormons and buying the local teevee station so it’ll play your favorite movies late at night. (That last one sounds pretty cool, actually.) If nutty Hughes could make bank in Vegas, than so could any half-bright fink with deep pockets.
Kirk Kerorkian was that fink. He built this:
FUN FACT: That’s Pauly Shore’s dad!
FACT FACT: You literally never have to stop playing baccarat.
“The baccarat, my sister, does e’er it cease?”
“Blessed one, no, it does not. The baccarat gallops on like time THE BACCARAT CANNOT BE BROKEN!”
And so on. It was at the time the largest hotel in the world, and the theme was international, because the name was the International, and so there was all variety of foreign bullshit everywhere. Henry the VIII furniture on top of rugs woven by sherpas who had become scared of heights. Tons of African masks. Lederhosen nailed to the walls of the elevators. Real classy joint. But it was not on the strip, and so needed a greater draw than the other casinos; the enticement would be the entertainment. Liberace! The Coz! Ann Margaret! (And you know Ann Margaret put on a high-energy show.) And the King.
Elvis was not the showroom’s first headliner when it opened in 1969; Colonel Parker would not allow that. His boy was the star, let someone else do the soundcheck. Booked to inaugurate the room was Barbra Streisand, whom the gentile crowds did not appreciate. The building having been shaken down, the King entered. This was to be his West Coast Graceland, his seat of power in the scorching desert beyond the mountains. This was a fine land to rule, the King thought. It is suitable for my guests, who are high-toned kind of people, and deserve luxury and comfort.
Million dollars. Twice a year, summer and the holidays. Four weeks. Two shows a night. Elvis did ’em straight through, too. The International Theater did not go dark on Mondays when the King was in residence. That first engagement in 1969? He did 57 shows in a row. Now, Elvis only did an hour and change, so perhaps we can liken each show to one of the Dead’s individual sets; thus, we can equate his contracted run to 28 Dead shows. The Grateful Dead would have openly and violently revolted had they been scheduled to perform for 28 nights in a row. At least two members would have simply stormed off somewhere around day 11.
Elvis was a working man.
It wasn’t a rock concert. Your ticket didn’t buy you a seat; it allowed you entrance to the showroom. You were assigned placement by a maitre d’, who needed to be bribed. The eight o’clock show was the dinner show. Food was served while the King sang, and displayed karate. Can you imagine such impertinence? Slurping spaghetti in his presence. While the man is singing to you about the ghetto, among other subjects. Fuckin’ disrespectful, that’s what the dinner show was.
1969 was not Elvis’ first engagement in Las Vegas. There was a misbegotten booking much earlier in his career, when he was a different man and it was a different town. He appeared at the New Frontier alongside Shecky Greene and a pared-down version of Oklahoma. The crowd was older, and had dibs on sophistication, and so sniffed at the youth. He was uncouth, that youth. That redneckery was not going down in ’56 Vegas. The Audience wanted Xavier Cugat and an end to the Missile Gap.
The reviews were poor, and the crowds unreceptive, but Elvis used his time in town to befriend Liberace.
The big stars came out for Elvis. Nowadays, big stars hang out backstage or in VIP, but big stars would sit at tables just like they people at Elvis’ shows. He’d introduce them from the stage.
“STAN’UP, CAROL CHANNING! EV’RYBODY SAY HELLO T’ DOLLY! THASS CAROL CHANNING RIGHT THERE!”
It was an event, the ’69 run. It was glamorous, and so attracted the big stars. Sinatra didn’t go, because Sinatra was an asshole, but Sammy Junior Davis was in a booth making sure the whole room saw him being present. Cary Grant, and two of the three Catwomen from the Batman teevee show, and Tom Jones. Mac Davis. There were writers, who planned on writing things, and reporters, who planned on reporting on things.
Stonewall was a month before, and the moon just two weeks. Woodstock would be several weeks after.
Whether or not Elvis founded the city of Las Vegas depends on if you put your stock in history or historicity. It is believed by some that the King erected the first city walls, or at least had Sonny and Red do it.
The first band was two pieces. Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on upright bass. You could fit the whole touring group in one Cadillac. Not so much for the Vegas band:
“AH TRAVEL HEAVY!”
We see that. This is ’69, and Elvis had not quite figured out his presentation yet. The iconic jumpsuit would not appear until 1970, along with a fancier set, a new piano player, and the legendary Also Sprach Zarathrusta theme he stole from Stanley Kubrick. (You know that’s what happened. Elvis rented out the local theater so he and his slackjawed buddies could watch 2001 at three in the morning, and when the tune played he said, “THATSS GONNA BE MAH WALK-OUT MUSIC. THEM KETTLE DRUMS GONNA HERALD MAH ARRIVAL.”)
James Burton has the telecaster, and rhythm guitarist John Wilkinson is next to him. Piano player is Larry Muhoberac. Jerry Scheff on bass. You know Hard-Hitting Ronnie Tutt. Behind them is Buddy Morris and the Buddy Morris Orchestra. At stage left are the Sweet Inspirations, one of whom was Whitney Houston’s mother, and behind them–out of frame–are the Imperials. On the acoustic guitar which was never plugged in is Charlie Hodge. Charlie also snag backup, and fetched scarves and water.
It was a fine band.
This is from that opening run. It was a fine band, and Ronnie Tutt surely is due a place in the heavens of all theologies for his playing here. He was a nuclear reactor, he was a fierce attractor, he every drum at once on every single beat; it worked well. Ronnie Tutt eyed the King like a border collie. Never distracted. Keep your eye in, Ronnie Tutt. And when there was karate, it was accented.
It was a fine band.
Is he not everywhere?
Is he not everything?
Is he not everybody?
Is he not still the King?