Elvis' Las Vegas Comeback Turns 50: How the King Conquered His 'Toughest Challenge'

Elvis Presley
Bob Klein

Elvis Presley

Fifty years ago this week, Elvis Presley was closing out a run of concerts at Las Vegas' International Hotel. From an invite-only July 31 show (which Billboard reviewed in its Aug. 9, 1969 issue) to the Aug. 28 closing date, Presley laid the groundwork for a Sin City comeback that ratified his near-mythological status in pop culture.

As you can hear on the recently released box set Elvis Live 1969 (which covers 11 complete concerts from Aug. 21-26), Elvis took the goodwill and renewed interest generated by his '68 Comeback Special on NBC and proved it wasn't just a one-off -- not only was he every bit as explosive on the mic as he'd been back in his hip-swiveling rockabilly days, but his sound had (finally) matured, too. "This is a new record I just recorded, I hope you like it," Presley said during a midnight Aug. 22, 1969 show prior to an explosive eight-minute exorcism of "Suspicious Minds."

He needn't have been so coy: The song, released just days later, shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in Nov. 1969, becoming his first leader on that chart since 1962. Coincidentally, '62 was the last year he'd made a personal public appearance (at a Memphis charity benefit) before focusing on putting himself in front of the public via the silver screen instead of the concert stage.

Of course, any rock fan with a passing interest in the King knows what happened next: After those first few shows, Elvis had the Vegas crowds eating out of the palm of his hand -- just listen to those women screaming just to touch the hem of his garment. Presley's Vegas success opened the doors for an extremely lucrative final phase of his career, which solidified his status as an all-time live legend.

But when he arrived at the International Hotel back in '69, no one knew what to expect -- and failure was conceivable, as Billboard's own history points out. The headline from that Aug. 1969 article gets straight to the point: "Presley Faces Toughest Challenge In Las Vegas."

"The greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom," writes James D. Kingsly of the July 31 preview show. "It was probably Elvis' toughest musical challenge since he rocked out of the South with long sideburns, rotating pelvis and a banged up guitar."

There was reason to be skeptical: He hadn't performed on stage for live audiences since 1961 in Honolulu and Memphis. His two-week Las Vegas stint in 1956 was a bomb, with Newsweek reporting the audiences "sat through Presley as if he were a clinical experiment.” And with The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan pushing a genre he helped popularize into territory far beyond what he'd imagined, both musically and lyrically, some were starting to wonder if Presley was past his peak.

So when he took the stage at the International Hotel, he did what he always did best: inject audiences with electric countrified energy. While Hollywood might have muted some of his ineffable charm with saccharine, formulaic films, there was no denying that when Presley hit the stage, he came across like the flash of lightning he proudly wore across his chest. Even when breathing heavily between songs and demanding Gatorade ("If it aids my gator it's all right," he quipped during that Aug. 22 midnight show), you see why this guy earned his royal moniker. There's an effortless charisma when he opens his mouth and that laconic drawl drips out like honeyed molasses. While some of his jokes would be painfully hokey in the hands of another ("I'd like to do a medley of some of my biggest records – they were actually no bigger than the rest of them, they were all about the same size"), they acquire an off-kilter charm coming from a guy who went from Tennessee truck driver to international star without changing his disposition.

If his personality remained the same, his musicianship had certainly matured. Perhaps still smarting from the drubbing he took from the press after that '56 Vegas run, Presley and his five-piece backing band delivered raucous rock and scorching soul with workman-like precision. Even when cutting loose on wild cuts like "Hound Dog" or the aforementioned "Suspicious Minds," there's a smoothness to his delivery and polish to the production that points to the sound he'd mine successfully in the '70s.

The Billboard reviewer at the time said as much. "It was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s on stage Thursday," Kingsly wrote of the July 31 show. "It was a polished, confident and talent artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when."

Even if the band relentlessly rehearsed, it seems that even in the midst of their debut, they were still hashing out final set list plans. The Aug. 9 Billboard article reads, "Elvis does not plan to keep his shows the same. He has between 50 and 80 songs he will work with during the International stay, he told me." Well, a look at the August set lists doesn't quite bear that out -- there's nowhere near 50-80 different songs during this initial Vegas run, and during the 11 shows documented on the Live 1969 box set, the set lists remain fairly consistent.

Still, there are surprise songs that provide a few thrills. His voice is bluesy and loose on a cover of "My Babe" (written by Willie Dixon for Little Walter) that appears on just three of these 11 set lists, and he's downright unhinged when he tackles Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode"; incidentally, the harmonies provided by his soulful backup singers on that Berry cover aren't a far cry from what the Stones were doing around that time.

Ironically, Presley is less impressive when delving into rarities from his own catalog. "This Is the Story" is a bit maudlin, and when he kicks into a decently crunchy live run through his top 10 hit "Rubberneckin'," he has to stop mid-song and correct the band: "Let's start it over and do it right," he chides them, adding, "It could be a little faster." There's probably a reason both songs appear just once during this 11-show run.

Overall, though, these newly available shows are a testament to an icon's remarkable comeback that -- while part of pop culture lore at this point -- was far from a foregone conclusion 50 years ago. And perhaps it's that nervous energy on these half-century-old recordings that makes them crackle with such vitality. The King wasn't ready to abdicate his throne, and in revamping his career with a pivotal Las Vegas residency, he retained the crown and set the stage for the final phase of his career.


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