“If no one knew it then, they do now: those August shows at the International, recorded on tape and film, would have a special place in the history of a performer who embodied the tensions and the triumphs of American life.” — Warren Zanes
The recent release of the “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (Deluxe Edition)” box set, packaging together Presley’s music and Las Vegas stage performances in August 1970, has led to a reassessment of that distinctive summer in the singer’s career. It has long been trendy to compartmentalize Elvis’s career into three spheres: the rockin’ ’50s, the movie years of the ’60s, and the Vegas years in the ’70s. Some music historians tend to characterize the latter phase as one that began in an illusory blaze of glory and then quickly faded into inevitable decline.
Now, though, rock historian Warren Zanes has put a spotlight on Presley’s brilliant work in Las Vegas 44 summers ago. “When a star gets to a certain point, and they become that interplanetary level of star like Elvis did, the tendency is to really simplify their history, to where all the shading goes out,” Zanes contends. “When people think of Elvis, they think of the Sun era as the fantastic period, and they think of the great moments at RCA. But when the shading goes out, things like the Vegas period get pushed to the other side as a point of contrast. That, then, becomes a territory where the archival spirit can bring the shading back into the picture.”
The 47-year Zanes began his career in rock music playing guitar at age 17 for the garage band the Del Fuegos in the ’80s. After leaving the band in 1989, he returned to school, in time becoming a professor and author. He served on staff at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as vice president for education and public programs until 2007. The following year he became executive director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which brings rock ’n’ roll education to American schools.
Zanes’s essay, “Good Morning, Hollywood Camera!” is the centerpiece of the book that accompanies the Sony Music/Warner Brothers box set that combines Elvis’s August 1970 musical and visual work in Las Vegas. Zanes also commented on the same topic in a Bob Mehr article, published by the Memphis Commercial Appeal during Elvis Week last month.
When Elvis took the stage at the International Hotel that summer, he was riding the crest of a career revival that began two years earlier with his NBC-TV special. That event focused on the music of Presley’s past, showing that, at the age of 33, he could still rock and roll. “The Vegas shows of August 1970 are something else,” Zanes argues. “This was America’s most beloved singer showing us not what he had once been but what he could still become. This was Elvis in the present tense, looking toward the future … in these shows we get our clearest sense for just who Elvis thought Elvis Presley was. And could be. And should be.”
During the rehearsals leading up to the August shows, it was obvious that Elvis was in complete control of the creative process. Song selection was critical. Incredibly, a decision was made to learn 45-50 songs for the upcoming engagement, even though any one show would include less than half that many. Elvis knew the audience expected to hear some of his old rock ’n’ roll numbers, so a sampling of them were on the list, including “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Also worked up were live versions of some studio tracks on his latest album, like “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights,” “The Next Step Is Love,” and “Stranger in the Crowd.” To these Elvis didn’t appear completely committed to performing on stage. They were there probably to appease one of Colonel Parker’s basic sales strategies left over from the movie years—“The soundtrack sells tickets to the movie, and the movie sells copies of the soundtrack.”
But the songs most important to Elvis, those that would best define who he was, and wanted to be, as a performer, were titles written and performed by others. “By that time, and even more so in the years to follow, popular music would be thick with songs that looked out into the world, addressing issues relating to war, poverty, race, gender,” Zanes noted. “But there was never a trace of Elvis as activist. The truth was, those songs appealed to Elvis not so much for the message as for the emotion.
“The way songs like ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ used that intimacy of the ballad to present a bigger picture than conventional romantic themes allowed, this worked even more perfectly for Elvis. They were the kind of songs that pulled away from the individual’s desire and longing and, really, took in the world. ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’… like the others, that too became a song that took in the whole of a human experience, not just the high of falling in love. And the sweeping choruses? That was the part of the package that Elvis loved the most. They carried him away.”
The film Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, then displays the great range and energy that Presley radiated during that summer of performances at the International. To show he could still do it, he delivered the old rockers, usually lacking full enthusiasm, although, when he was stirred by emotions of the past, he still knocked out numbers like “One Night” and “I Got a Woman.” Then there were the numbers that allowed his lithe, 35-year-old frame to move vigorously with the rhythm—“Patch It Up,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Suspicious Minds.”
At the core of those shows, though, were the songs that touched Elvis emotionally, those that allowed him to expose the passion he had for music. When he sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” there was no excessive body movement, just Elvis swaying slightly, eyes slowly opening and closing, as if he were all alone, singing for the love of the music, not for thousands of paying customers. The same can be said for other performances like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” and “Just Pretend.”
Watching Elvis: That’s the Way It Is recently left me with two conflicting reactions of amazement. First, at the perfection of Elvis Presley’s appearance and the purity of his performance, and the second that this astonishing entertainer would die just seven years later. Zanes acknowledges that just one year later “the star wouldn’t be delivering on that same level.” While lamenting Presley’s demons in the final paragraph of his essay, Zanes consoles Elvis’s fans with the memory of their idol’s brilliant performances in that month of August in 1970:
“Though this was a remarkable moment, with Elvis at his most mature and comfortable, showing us how he saw himself, playing for us the material that he self-selected to best fit his abilities and his leanings as a singer, he was still the man of insecurity and self-doubt. His emancipation from all of that would never be complete. If he struggled to define just who he was from beneath the heavy pile of Elvis Presley images that circulated the world, he never had the self-possession and sly detachment of a Bob Dylan as he dealt with that singular predicament of identity. But what is ultimately significant, for any fan of Presley, is that these shows, that August in Las Vegas, give us a view of a creative being who is as far from those troublesome inner voices as he would ever get. They are not absent, but their presence is at a minimum, making maximum room for music. They come out in some of those digressions, like little rips in the otherwise perfect fabric of these shows. It is the humanity of that man in particular, emerging for a moment before he returns, very powerfully, to the world of song that he created in order to tell us more about just who he was at his best.” | Alan Hanson
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