Special to USA TODAY
For Elvis Presley, the summer of 1969 marked the apex of his legend. With a flurry of concerts in Las Vegas, Elvis took his final stab at greatness. In near-perfect form, the King cemented his legacy before the ’70s took their awful toll.
This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the King’s iconic residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Noteworthy at the time, the shows have since proven to be a crown jewel in the King’s comeback.
Getting to 1969 had been anything but easy. After his stint in the army and nigh on a decade transforming himself into a Hollywood studio relic, Elvis had left his career as a stage-ready rock ‘n’ roller in shambles. The pop idol who had famously shimmied and swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show back in 1956 had faded into the stuff of memory.
Fortunately, the King’s December 1968 comeback special on NBC changed all that — at least for a moment. With a flourish, Elvis regained his throne, topping the Nielsen ratings for his comeback performance and soaring back to the upper echelons of the Billboard charts. Writing about the performance in Eye magazine, Jon Landau observed “there is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home.”
Buoyed by his newfound confidence, Elvis agreed to cement his comeback effort in 1969. Colonel Tom Parker, the King’s notorious manager, had succeeded in wrangling a cool million dollars for 57 shows in July and August at Las Vegas’ newly christened International Hotel, which boasted a 2,200 seat showroom, the largest of its kind in the city during that era.
In many ways, the International was the perfect location for Elvis, who had always been bigger than life, to stage the next phase of his career. At 30 stories tall, it was then the tallest building in Nevada. It boasted more than 1,500 rooms and an expansive casino floor. As if to accentuate its gargantuan proportions, the International’s amenities were rounded out by a mammoth 350,000-gallon swimming pool, 240 miles of carpeting, an 18-hole golf course and 2,500 employees to service the labyrinthine operation.
When it came to Elvis’s performances at the International, Parker pulled out all of the stops. In addition to assembling a band that included the likes of ace studio guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and gospel groups the Imperials and Sweet Inspirations to provide backing vocals.
With zero hour quickly approaching, Elvis and his band fell into a rigorous two-week rehearsal session that saw the King lose 15 pounds. When it came to Elvis’s stage show, Parker left nothing to chance, even securing the expertise of costume designer Bill Belew, who had arrayed the King in leather for the comeback special, to ensure that the look that had wowed television audiences was on full display on the International’s behemoth stage.
When the shows finally commenced at the end of July, Elvis was greeted with a standing ovation. When the roar finally subsided, he launched into a fiery version of “Blue Suede Shoes.” He burned his way through performances of such classics as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” while showing off his revitalized chops with a medley of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude.” With yet another standing ovation, Elvis brought the house down with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” his climactic encore.
Today, RCA/Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony, is releasing “Elvis – Live 1969,” an 11-CD set that commemorates the 50th anniversary of his Las Vegas residency.
For Elvis, the International engagement proved to be the last great achievement of his career. Writing in Rolling Stone, David Dalton described Elvis’s summer 1969 performances as “supernatural, his own resurrection.” His subsequent single “Suspicious Minds” vaulted towards the top of the charts and was Elvis’s first No. 1 song in seven years. It would also be his final chart-topper.
Looking out over the horizon, Elvis would understandably have seen nothing but the promise of continuing stardom in his future. He was relaxed, drug-free and physically fit, and at the top of his game for the first time in as long as he could remember. But as history well knows, the twilight of his career had masqueraded as this fleeting final moment in the warmth of the sun. With the ’70s came his drastic weight-gain, the garish jumpsuits, the kitschy stints in Vegas, and ultimately the discovery of his lifeless body, destroyed by uncontrolled prescription drug abuse, in the bathroom at Graceland, his Memphis estate.
But for one brief shining moment, at least, there had been the late summer of 1969 at the International, where Elvis had rediscovered the great source of his unparalleled stardom.
Kenneth Womack, PhD, is a music historian and Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University in New Jersey. He writes about music legends and his latest book, “Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles,” is scheduled for an October release.
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