Welcome to Las Vegas, where Elvis has not left the building. Graceland may be home to his shrine but Elvis forged a lasting bond with the Las Vegas, thanks to a seven-year run between 1969 and 1976. Rob Brydon, an Elvis fan, revisits this golden period in a remarkable career.
The 1969 Memphis Sessions at American Studios in Memphis re-established Presley as a musical force, returning him to the charts and producing some of his most acclaimed work. Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, was planning Presley’s return to live concerts with a series of shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas later that year.
Elvis assembled a new live band for his first Las Vegas concerts. We hear about rehearsals in the summer of 1969, and the buoyant mood within the Presley camp, from lead guitarist James Burton and legendary Presley road manager Joe Esposito. On July 31 1969, Elvis walked out on stage in front of a paying audience for the first time eight years.
The band, as we hear through live recordings, were superb. Singers Myra Smith and Estelle Brown reveal what it was like performing on stage, night after night, with Elvis. Things went well and Elvis went on to perform regular shows there for seven years – a total of 637 consecutive sold-out performances in front of 2.5 million people.
Presley completed his four week stint on 28 August 1969. His fee for that initial season was in the region of 100 thousand dollars a week. That month the Hilton took one and a half million dollars…and that figure doesn’t even include takings from the casino!
When Presley returned in January 1970 for his winter season, he and his entourage made a considerable impact on life at the Hilton International Hotel, as we hear from valet Lonnie Pope and bell boy Dan Hakata. When Elvis swept into town, he would set up in his hotel suite and establish a routine: karate, rehearsals with the band and then two shows a night – at 8 pm and midnight. After the shows, he would retire to his 30th floor suite, sit at the piano and sing the gospel songs of his childhood.
But things did get pretty intense on the road and the FBI and Presley’s personal body guards were on full alert following a death threat which claimed the King would be shot on stage. Jerry Schilling, one of Presley’s inner circle and Memphis Mafia, talks us through the events surrounding Presley’s security.
Any programme exploring this period has to acknowledge Presley’s use of prescription drugs and his escalating weight. The Presley jump suits in white, blue and orange would become synonymous with Elvis in Vegas but the bespoke jumpsuits had to adjust to his expanding midriff. Band members reveal how Elvis’ personal problems affected life on stage and off.
That winter of 1976 was Presley’s 15th season at the Las Vegas Hilton International Hotel and his last. Grappling with his weight and personal problems, it was while preparing to play yet another series of concerts, the Presley heart gave up in the bathroom of Graceland on 16 August 1977.
Over thirty years later, Elvis remains an iconic figure and his presence can still be felt on the streets of Las Vegas, in the bars and in the showrooms. It would be fair to say the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll changed the way we see the city. It’s not just the scores of Las Vegas Elvis impersonators, or the hundreds of images you see in the tacky gift shops and hotels. The city’s profile was shaped by him as he brought glitz and a new glamour.
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