Elvis in Las Vegas 1969-1976:
Variety Reported the Ups & Downs

In Elvis Presley’s career, the 1970s are sometimes collectively referred to as “The Las Vegas Years.” While he also toured nationally during those years, Presley’s most enduring image of the decade remains that of the sold out Vegas showroom entertainer. Between 1969-1976, Elvis played 15 engagements in Las Vegas, performing a combined total of 641 shows.

The basic format of all these performances was the same—Presley’s music and personal interaction with the audience carried the show. Many musicians, both instrumental and background vocalists, supported Elvis, but once he took the stage, he was the center of attention until he left it. The song titles changed through the years but never Presley’s absolute responsibility to entertain the audience.

Variety reviewed all of Presley’s 15 Las Vegas engagements, starting with his historic return to the stage in the summer of 1969. The passages from each of those reviews below reveal how Elvis’s Vegas shows played out over the final eight years of his life.

• International Hotel: July 31-Aug. 28, 1969 (57 shows)

“He has become ‘ELVIS,’ not only in huge electric letters on the International’s marquee, but in most publicized and verbalized affirmations of his superstar niche … Presley has had to get in shape physically as well as musically for this month. Long, grueling rehearsals have put him back into the old groove, with warbling synchronizations emerging from okay to excellent. The typical body turbinations, however, leave him huffing and puffing after several particularly wild onslaughts to recapture the early physical and sexual image.” (Variety: August 16, 1969)

• International Hotel: Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 1970 (57 shows)

“Elvis Presley, who in his previous four-weeker in this 2,000 seat theatre restaurant broke all Las Vegas attendance records, is back for four more. Presley’s appearance, delivery and anatomical gestures—the same as he pioneered with 15 years ago—leave no doubt about his influence on present-day Presleys. He offers oldies (‘All Shook Up,’ ‘Teddy Bear’) and freshies (‘Kentucky Rain,’ ‘Suspicious Minds,’ ‘Polk Salad Annie’) in a well-balanced program, punctuated with pleasant down home patter.” (Variety: February 4, 1970)

• International Hotel: Aug. 10-Sept. 7, 1970 (58 shows)

“Cameras and crews were dotted throughout the showroom and onstage opening night, filming Presley and the audience … Presley is cool and very collected all the way through his full hour, knowing just what to do every minute. His breaks for liquid refreshment (soft) are very much a part of the routine as he tosses over the ad libs, some choice, some callow, all received with intense respect. His occasional ringside tours for more liquid sustenance and napkins to wipe the sweat from his face are also a part of the calculated show biz plastic fertility rites, with kisses for femmes and awkward postures and little kidding remarks, as much a part of the act as his strong warbling.” (Variety: August 19, 1970)

• International Hotel: Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 1971 (57 shows)

“Bolstered by three prior months at the International, he comes on stronger than before. The programming is better with amounts of the goldies along the past 15 years spaced out well, intersliced with contemp fare and—a stroke of a master planner—a couple of his gospel hits. Amazingly, his trump tune brings down the curtain with a roaring surge of applause. It is his subjective treatment of ‘Impossible Dream,’ after more than an hour of belting and much physical exertion, that wins the surprise sweepstakes of the year for a Vegas performer … Presley has also designed his karate chops for better frequency, so that when he does give the moves, the effect is dynamite in topping off a rhythm tune.” (Variety: February 3, 1971)

• Hilton International Hotel: Aug. 9-Sept. 6, 1971 (57 shows)

“The teddy bear fixation is capitalized upon during Presley’s indefatigable venture inside the Internationale Room, where he tosses out several of the multi-colored stuffed animals to eager, clutching hands … Moded in white and black and gold applique, Presley tours his tune route in fine style. He has relaxed a great deal since the early appearances. There is straight, serious singing and some cut-up capers as well, including the donning of a rubber monkey mask. Presley has evidently been in training for the physical side of his art. He does some modern dance stretches that are most difficult to accomplish without much training and practice. The karate exercises are also a part of his movements to the point of a well-rehearsed demonstration at the close of one of his hit ballads, ‘Suspicious Mind.’” (Variety: August 25, 1971)

• Hilton International Hotel: Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 1972 (57 shows)

“This time out is the best one yet for Presley. His format is taut, he pays attention to his songs and audience, the karate exercises are quite vigorous and his ringside kissing technique is like a dozen midway attractions rolled into one. He has almost ceased the pelvic sex symbolism, retaining a wee bit of the guitar’s phallic thrust near the top of his vocalistics … Wearing a white cape, orange scarf and white jumpsuit studded with brass buttons and open nearly to his mid-section, he comes on ready and belting strong. Par for his course is about 20 tunes, big, bigger, biggest, either in his own or the general pop catalog. If he keeps up his opening pace there will be no need for repeat of grumbles, heard at the close of his August 1971 month, that Presley was sliding by, generally goofing off and otherwise acting bored with the whole thing.” (Variety: February 9, 1972)

• Hilton Hotel: Aug. 4-Sept. 4, 1972 (63 shows)

“The Elvis Presley phenomenon is like a landslide, and it’s sliding again in this big (cap. 2,000) room, which means the r&r pioneer will be playing to about 4,000 admirers nightly through Labor Day … Showing more discipline this time than last, he has a smooth-running turn with a welcome absence of horseplay and inside gags with his musicians. It’s a pleasant party with the legend at his best, tossing many disclicks echoes and many (for him) freshies such as ‘My Way.’” (Variety: August 23, 1972)

• Hilton Hotel: Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 1973 (54 shows)

“He comes on in dazzling white jumpsuit, bejeweled cascades of gold and glitter ornament, picking up the light. With flashing rings on his fingers and bells on his toes, the toes on his belles later when the big macho brushes the chicks aside during his deliberate cruises for kissing bait. Presley lays on a helluva show. He struts and preens, exhibits his karate stances, muscular control and strength in his legs on deep bends and stretches, grinning at the salivating girlies piled row upon row at ringside. He lets them pull off scarves in the kissing gimmick, noting with a leering grin the collapse afterward with the silken material covering streaming tears from orbs blinded with superstardust … Presley returns with one of his better programs, inserting many of his primitive rockers juxtaposed with hits along the way to the current ‘Burning Love.’” (Variety: February 7, 1973)

• Hilton Hotel: Aug. 6-Sept. 13, 1973 (59 shows)

“Lines are long waiting to get inside the 2,000-seater. What audiences see in the flesh is a rather somnolent, lackadaisical superstar attired in bejeweled jumpsuit and who, with almost sleepwalking fervor, makes his rounds kissing little girls and throwing sweat-stained scarves out to eager hands. It’s a deja vu time—everybody’s been there before, even to the ‘new’ tunes inserted. They sound old and mid-fiftyish. Colonel Tom Parker could well consider mustering more devotion to in-person performances rather than the surfeit of bally about gold albums numbers 20, 30 or 40. His windup toy is winding down.” (Variety: August 22, 1973)

• Hilton Hotel: Jan. 26-Feb. 9, 1974 (29 shows)

“A chubby Elvis Presley is in the throes of romping through his various exercises with playful glee, animal spirits and bemused kissing games with ringside cuties this fortnight … Despite the thickening around the middle and rather puffy countenance, Presley is the center of attention from femmes who squeal, writhe and grab for his neck scarves whenever he cruises ringside. Certainly the extra poundage doesn’t interfere with his familiar type of belting or mooning ballads. His quips and asides are many, humorous in effect and help to light up delivery of some 15 or more tunes ranging from early rockers to religious and solemn ‘American Trilogy.’” (Variety: February 6, 1974)

• Hilton Hotel: Aug. 19-Sept. 2, 1974 (27 shows)

“Throughout his 70 minutes, he works his way through the scrambling, squirming belles at least six times bestowing kisses and Elvis scarves, receiving gifts in return ranging from bottled champagne to jewelry … All such displays aside, Presley is in good voice, looks fairly trim and seems to be having a ball with his remarks and kidding. He also kids some of the tunes, which is going a bit too far, but this may not be a standard aberration. He really works, pushing over 20 tunes including a few past monster diskhits from ‘Hound Dog’ through the current ‘If You Talk in Your Sleep’ and bows a new ballad, ‘It’s Midnight.’ Presley is still the king, champ magnet, his fortnight a sell-out to 2,500 each show.” (Variety: August 28, 1974) 

• Hilton Hotel: March 18-April 1, 1975 (29 shows)

“Elvis Presley is back in the Hilton’s big showroom for the 12th time (he first appeared here in August, 1969) with a solid session. He looks healthy and sounds good despite recent hospitalization; once he gets onstage, he carries the singing load and minimizes the patter, a wise departure from several previous visits.” (Variety: March 26, 1975)

• Hilton Hotel: August 18-20, 1975 (5 shows)

“To many he may still be the ruler of the poprock kingdom, but in reality his current artistry and appearance has to be a retelling of the Emperor’s Clothes fable as his votaries cover him with things which are no longer in evidence. Presley may be suffering from a continuing physical disability. His overweight condition and lack of stamina, poor vocal projection may spring from such a malady. It is difficult for him to sustain any creditable vocal lines or lyric commitments and his dogging of main intent and purpose—to sing plenty of songs—is very noticeable. Not only has he cut down his vocalog drastically, spending more time in playing with his ringside romps with femmes, but tosses nearly each member of his backup quintet a lengthy solo. In addition he lumbers around in travesties of earlier quick karate moves or trademark pelvic gyrations. Presley admits he spent $2,500 on his jumpsuit costume, an obviously poor design, but he only has to look into a mirror to see how it stresses his ballooning midriff … (Presley bowed out claiming illness.)” (Variety: August 27, 1975)

• Hilton Hotel: Dec. 2-15, 1975 (17 shows)

“Elvis Presley, looking healthy and sounding cheerful after his recent hospitalization (he went home to his Memphis medicos after three nights here) is presenting a show which will delight most of his fans. The medley buffs may complain, but his balance of old and new songs is good programming. To favor his throat, and give other entertainers working in town a chance to see him, he’s doing one show a night at 10:15 (8 and midnight on Saturdays) … Aggressive groupies at ringside shower him with vocal admiration and gifts which he graciously acknowledges.” (Variety: December 12, 1975)

• Hilton Hotel: Dec. 2-12, 1976 (15 shows)

“Presley, trimmed down somewhat, seems to have enough energy to get through his nightly ordeal. After fooling around in the beginning, mumbling, and trips to his guy Friday, Charlie Hodge, for glass after glass of water, he lets out his pipes for some familiar belting. The current aim of much of his vocalizing is for hotdogging effects, using repeated gimmickery such as J.D. Summner’s basso glisses into pulsating distortion and rattling of the sound system’s woofers, a visceral wallop and nothing else. There is indulgence in a maudlin spoken treatment of a schmaltzy piece called ‘Softly” …  Another new entry is his latest single, ‘Hurt,” which he yells with little or no subtlety. Otherwise, when not goofing off, making inane remarks and cruising along the apron for his imperial obeisances, Presley lends quite a lot of his time onstage shouting his w.k. pop incantations.” (Variety: December 15, 1976)

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In their reviews of Elvis’s Las Vegas stage engagements, Variety’s writers capsulized Presley’s career in the 1970s. The decade began with Elvis in great physical and vocal condition. Armed with a string of new hit songs, he infused his stage work with intense energy, focus, spirit, and personal fulfillment. He was the “King” again, and his fans came in masses to witness his resurrection. But slowly, insidiously, Elvis began to deteriorate, both physically and professionally. Seeing him twice a year in Vegas, Variety’s reviewers couldn’t help but notice the downward slide and were bound to report it. One thing that never changed, however, was the devotion of Elvis’s fans. All of his final Vegas shows in 1976 were sell outs, just like his initial shows were in 1969. Even when his performances lacked the old vigor, just seeing Elvis was enough for most of his fans. — Alan Hanson | © September 2015

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"He infused his stage work with intense energy, focus, spirit, and personal fulfillment. He was the 'King' again, and his fans came in masses to celebrate his resurrection.  But slowly, insidiously, Elvis began to deteriorate."