A Comprehensive Book About The King’s Last Peak
Elvis Live Photo by Dave Crimmen.
Saturday marks the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Graceland is hosting its annual “Elvis Week” to commemorate the King and his passing. Of course, they celebrate Elvis pretty much all the time. The only other place you can say that about is Las Vegas. But why is that? In his comprehensive book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, Richard Zoglin examines the “Vegas Elvis.” As he points out at the end of his massive tome, no one has ever written a work that focused specifically on this period. There has been concert documentary (The Way It Is, 1970), a Vegas four-CD boxed set (2001), and countless official bootlegs from the FTD (Follow That Dream) collectors’ label. To coincide with the 50thanniversary of Elvis’ first residency, RCA/Legacy has just released an 11-disc set of his International Hotel comeback shows.
But Zoglin’s book is about more than just Elvis’ career resurrection on stage. Last year’s anniversary of his ’68 comeback special, with its own box set and “all-star” tribute concert, chronicled how the Singer/NBC special led to Elvis leaving the movie screen and returning to the concert stage. Zoglin dedicates the first half of Elvis In Vegas to the birth of Sin City and how it eventually became the entertainment capital of the world. There are great stories about the early singers, musicians, and comedians, some entertaining mob tales, and, of course, a lot of Rat Pack stuff. All this material sets up the Vegas part of the book.
By 1969, it was definitely not a place that rock musicians would play. As Carlos Santana lit up the stage high on mescaline he got from Jerry Garcia, it was unthinkable that one day he’d be playing his own Las Vegas residency. This book argues that Elvis’ initial appearances invented the very concept of a residency.
Of course, the author devotes the final part of the book to the decline and death of the Vegas Elvis. As David Simon pointed out in the documentary The King, the deteriorating Vegas Elvis is an image hard to shake. Las Vegas was the setting for Elvis’ last great peak, but it led to him and the city being inexorably intertwined for eternity. In some ways, Elvis really died in Las Vegas rather than Graceland. It was in Vegas that the bad habits that killed him started to really take shape.
But as we look back once again on his passing, it’s probably best to focus on those amazing 1969 performances when Elvis reminded the world in a big way why they cared so much about him in the first place. His zenith, in a town he “bombed” in during his first performance in 1956, was so bright it changed the city in the process. Yes, the city changed him too, and not always for the better. But it’s worth appreciating that “high and beautiful wave,” in the words of Hunter S. Thompson. Elvis took us all on an amazing ride before it came crashing down.
(Simon & Schuster, July 23, 2019)