‘Elvis in Ve­gas’ is a gem of pop cul­ture his­tory

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY DOUGLASS K. DANIEL

For the King of Rock 'n' Roll, the 1960s was a slow-mov­ing ab­di­ca­tion.

Elvis Pres­ley spent the bet­ter part of that decade ap­pear­ing in one silly movie af­ter an­other in­stead of per­form­ing live, a ca­reer strat­egy that tested the pa­tience of his fans and cost him his edge in the mu­sic world. Mean­while, The Bea­tles and the rest of the Bri­tish in­va­sion bands were redefin­ing pop­u­lar mu­sic just as he had done years ear­lier.

In 1969 Elvis de­cided he wanted to re­gain his throne. “Elvis in Ve­gas” is au­thor Richard Zoglin's fas­ci­nat­ing tale of how the king got his groove back and Las Ve­gas re­freshed its own im­age, to­gether su­per­siz­ing live en­ter­tain­ment in Amer­ica's adult play­ground. Blend­ing new in­ter­views with top-drawer re­search fo­cus­ing on how Las Ve­gas evolved as the plea­sure cap­i­tal, Zoglin pro­duces a gem of pop cul­ture his­tory.

For the pro­mot­ers of Las Ve­gas in the 1930s, live mu­sic was just an­other way to at­tract vis­i­tors to the desert, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of sa­loons, pros­ti­tu­tion, easy di­vorce and gam­bling. Af­ter World War II, high-class ho­tels like the Flamingo, the Thun­der­bird and the Desert Inn made their de­buts with the help of mob­sters ea­ger to in­vest in an all-cash in­dus­try ripe for ex­ploita­tion. Ho­tels of­fered head­lin­ers – among them singers Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzger­ald and Mel Torme – and soon Ve­gas was tops in night­club-style en­ter­tain­ment.

The 1950s and '60s were golden years for the city in the desert. Be­sides hear­ing songs from Rosemary Clooney, Vic Da­mone, Di­nah Shore and others, vis­i­tors could see first-rate co­me­di­ans (Shecky Greene, Don Rick­les, Buddy Hackett, Bob Ne­whart), film and TV fa­vorites (Danny Kaye, Mil­ton Berle, Red Skel­ton, Gin­ger Rogers, Betty Hut­ton, Van John­son), and mu­si­cal re­views fea­tur­ing barely dressed if not top­less showgirls. A fu­ture pres­i­dent had a Ve­gas gig at one time: ac­tor Ron­ald Rea­gan, whose open­ing act was a group of per­form­ing chimps.

Even­tu­ally, even the stars who came to define Ve­gas cool – chief among them Frank Si­na­tra, Dean Mar­tin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack – faced in the early 1960s the same prob­lem that would con­front Elvis at the decade's end: a creaky act and in­creas­ingly creaky fans as tastes in mu­sic and com­edy changed.

Elvis was no stranger to Ve­gas. He had been a fish out of wa­ter when he first per­formed there in 1956, and with just one hit, “Heart­break Ho­tel,” to his credit. Rock 'n' roll wasn't what the typ­i­cal Ve­gas pa­tron sought at the time and the gig fiz­zled. But Elvis the man loved the all-day, all-night qual­ity of the city and would fre­quently visit be­tween movies.

Thir­teen years and mil­lions of records later, Elvis chose Las Ve­gas for his re­turn to live per­form­ing. He pulled out all the stops at the In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel and, in Zoglin's words, “es­tab­lished a new tem­plate for the Las Ve­gas show: no longer an in­ti­mate, so­phis­ti­cated, Si­na­trastyle night­club act, but a big rock con­cert-like spec­ta­cle.” Two backup singing groups, a rhythm band, a full or­ches­tra plus the in­de­fati­ga­ble Elvis – “the star,” writes Zoglin, “was now his own spec­ta­cle.” For two shows a night for four weeks, this star filled every seat.

Ve­gas re­vi­tal­ized Elvis' ca­reer – he re­turned twice a year to re­peat his ini­tial suc­cess – and he showed the town the way for­ward for con­tin­u­ing to at­tract peo­ple with money in their pock­ets. It all came crash­ing down for Elvis in 1977 when the drugs that kept him go­ing fi­nally over­pow­ered him.

The King is dead, but Ve­gas lives on, mak­ing it­self over again and again.

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