On July 31, 1969, a visibly very nervous Elvis Presley stepped out on to the stage at The International Hotel in Las Vegas after a major absence from live performances. The show was a triumph; a combination of a long hard journey for Elvis and the desire to show the world who he really was — the greatest performer on earth and the greatest exponent of the American song book that ever existed.
However, two years earlier things were not as rosy. Elvis’s career had crashed, the main problem being the movies he had been making. He was cast in a series of frivolous dramas designed to showcase his singing, but the template had become increasingly boring.
“Hollywood’s image of me was terribly wrong and I can do nothing about it,” Elvis was quoted as saying. With his manager Colonel Tom Parker calling the shots and saying “No Elvis movie ever lost money”, the dollar sign was all the Colonel ever saw.
Around Elvis the music world had changed dramatically, the British invasion had been dominating the charts since 1964, led by The Beatles, who were writing their own material. Elvis relied on song writers for his recordings, but Parker’s obsession with the deal was getting in the way. Parker demanded 50 per cent of all the songwriter’s publishing royalties.
However, Elvis’s absence from the charts meant that only second rate songwriters applied for the gig. Elvis needed to reconnect with the young record buying public, so he made the career-defining decision to regain control of his musical career.
First were the songs themselves. Elvis knew he could not re-record his past rock ‘n’ roll hits so he looked to his idol when he was starting out. Elvis’s musical hero was an obscure RnB singer, Roy Hamilton. Hamilton managed to extend his career by abandoning the rock ‘n’ roll style of his earlier success for a measured string of ballads aimed at a more mature audience.
One of his recordings was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which had been recently been a big hit for the British group Gerry and The Pacemakers.
In September 1967, Elvis booked into RCA Recording Studios in Nashville and recorded ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. This was not an instant success but Elvis determined that his future lay with the big ballads aimed at the older audiences. Again this brought conflict with Colonel Parker.
Parker had planned a Christmas Special where Elvis would come on say hello, sing about 20 Christmas songs say goodbye, the end. Yet, hot-shot young TV producer Steve Binder had other ideas and along with Elvis ignored the Colonel and plotted an entirely different show, they would use the TV special to relaunch Elvis’s career.
The first job was to show that the Elvis that once shook up the world would, 10 years later, still do it. Binder noticed Elvis was never happier than when he was jamming with his band in his dressing room and recalled this phenomenon really started at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in 1954 when an impromptu jam session with guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Bill Black produced ‘I’m Alright Mama’, which turned out to be arguably Elvis’s most important recording.He decided to recreate this for the TV special.
On June 29, 1968, Elvis — dressed entirely in black leather and playing an electric guitar — sat on a small stage with his band and jammed ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do?’ with a pounding RnB beat and the effect was sensational. It was an extraordinary piece of pure rock ‘n’ roll coming together live at that moment. The King was back, he proved he still had it.
At the end of the show, in front of a large red ELVIS sign, he sang ‘If I Can Dream’, a salute to Martin Luther King who had been assassinated in April that year. When it aired in December, it was the most watched TV show that year in the United States. In the public consciousness Elvis was back, but now he needed to consolidate by recording some hit records after his absence from the charts.
The answer was not far away where Memphis had recently discovered a soul sound at Stax Records with Chips Moman and American Sound Studios. With the help of a group of musicians, The Memphis Boys had just re-energised Dusty Springfield’s ailing career adding to her soulful voice for the album Dusty In Memphis, and producing the worldwide hit ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’. Elvis’s first recording was ‘In The Ghetto’, which Colonel Parker did not want to be released, but when Chips Moman said, “Okay, we’ll give it to someone else”, Elvis stepped in and demanded it be released and he was vindicated when it reached number three in the US Billboard chart.
At the end of a session Mark James produced a song for Elvis. It was a song he had recorded with little success before but reckoned with Elvis’s name could become a great hit. The same musical arrangement from the Memphis Boys and a commanding performance by Elvis produced ‘Suspicious Minds’. Again the Colonel stepped in wanting 50 per cent royalties, but he hadn’t reckoned on the formidable force that was Chips Moman who threatened to take the master-tape out to the parking lot and set fire to it. Again Elvis stepped in, standing up to the Colonel. The record sold more than 40 million copies.
The Memphis recordings should have been the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Chips and Elvis, but Parker put an end to that making sure they would never work together again. The Colonel’s next move, however, was to negotiate a $1 million residency the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
Elvis managed and choreographed the whole show and when he walked on stage the first night the applause was deafening. Elvis had a wonderful time, his confidence was back and the show was a huge success. Live recordings of ‘The Wonder Of You’ and the show-stopper ‘American Trilogy’ were huge hits. The ‘American Trilogy’ summed up how Elvis felt and what he meant to America in this period, a good old-fashioned southern boy with a deep infinity to American music and a patriot to the core.
The King was back to his peak and Elvismania had returned. This was great for the Colonel but the crippling schedule of nine shows a week took its toll on Elvis. The show was so high in energy that Elvis turned to prescription drugs, uppers, downers and anything. He began to gain weight. At the end he was bloated and obese, but tragically Elvis seemed to be dying inside, not strong enough to stand up to the Colonel.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977. Sadly his end casts a shadow of Elvis’s rebirth in the city of lights. By taking control of his own career during the last 10 years and the impassioned delivery of his most endearing songs he reached the heights that may never be reached by a performer again.