Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley performed before more than 2,000 screaming fans at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and, in so doing, began his “last comeback,” the final phase of his storied career in popular music and culture.
Elvis took to the stage on July 31, 1969 after an eight-year absence that saw him go from a cultural phenomenon to a movie star to a relic of a time long-since past. Music had changed, the culture had changed, and Elvis no longer appeared to be relevant.
His significance could not be denied. By 1969 a wide array of music superstars could draw their musical lineage back to the King. He had sold more than 250 million records and had the record for most gold albums and gold records (ten and forty-seven, respectively).
And then there was December 1968, when NBC aired a television special that became popularly-known as the “comeback special.” The middle-aged King, looking tan and lean, dressed in black leather from head to toe, stood before a small audience in the round and—without fancy lights, effects, or even electricity pulsing through the instruments—he and his band put his magic on display. It was simple and beautiful rock and roll: blues, country, gospel…Elvis.
Something began to stir in the King, as it did in his manager Col. Tom Parker, and mere months later, Elvis had been signed to be the inaugural act at the largest showroom in all of Las Vegas in the newest hotel on the strip.
A young music reporter at the Los Angeles Times by the name of Robert Hilburn was assigned the task of reporting on Elvis’ Vegas gig. Hilburn penned something of a love letter to the King, a piece titled “History Will Place Elvis in No.1 Spot.” In it, he wrote:
At the time of his initial success, those reviewing popular music didn’t appreciate or understand the sensual, driving, undisciplined music of the singer from Memphis. Having accepted Sinatra and the tradition of Tin Pan Alley as their standard, they couldn’t take the new sound seriously. When they did write about Presley, it was usually in tones of outrage or humor.
When younger writers, who had been moved by Presley’s music, reached an age where their articles would be accepted by editors, Presley was no longer a vital, moving musical force.
With the youthful exuberance of an avid fan of popular music, he cautioned: “But that is going to be corrected now. Elvis is back.”
In some ways, Elvis was back. The King played to sell out crowds for the remaining parts of the summer of 1969, the start of a series of live performances which would carry him through to his death in 1977. From 1969 to the early seventies, some of those performances deserve to be ranked among his best. Film footage provides testament to his sheer, human force, his musical power and raw electricity. Backed by a stellar band and vocal section, and a modern and visual production, Elvis’ Vegas shows were an event, to be sure.
Of course, addicted to drugs and hindered by a physical girth that would match his stardom, many of his live performances in the later era also provide evidence of his decline, both in physical health and performative ability. The famous rock analyst Lester Bangs said it bluntly in his eulogy to the King, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Accusing Presley of having “contempt for the audience,” he wrote: “I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary. Obviously we all liked Elvis more than the pentagon, but look at what a paltry statement that is.”
The “Vegas Elvis”—bloated, in studded jumpsuit, when the person on stage became more an imposter of the image he once embodied than the real thing—provided the last, and, hence, lingering, image we have of the King doing what made him famous. It’s a shame, of course, because there is some greatness in that time, too. But if it must be, then so be it, because there is even a grandeur in his tragic demise.
Forty years ago today, when Elvis began this, the last stage in his hallowed career, he also began writing the final chapter in the archetype he continues to define. Elvis was and remains the very definition of what we call “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” We revel in his house, one built with many a mighty voice and strum, but occupied by only one, then and now.
As the young Hilburn wrote back in 1969: “When all the applause is finished, the stage is cleared and the showroom at the International Hotel is emptied, one message remains: the rock generation was right after all. Elvis Presley was no false idol. He was, and remains, the most important of all.”
All photos came from the wonderful website “Elvis Presley Music” and their section on this special day in rock history.