On July 31, 1969, Elvis Presley played the first headliner show at the Las Vegas International (soon to be the Hilton). He played to an invited VIP audience.
At the time, Las Vegas existed outside the counterculture erupting around the rest of the country. George Carlin could still get fired for swearing here, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had not yet been written.
The rock generation might not have been going to Elvis’ movies, but he still had its ear as he arrived in Vegas, triumphant off of his still-revered ’68 Comeback Special. Two months before opening in Vegas, he released what might have been his best studio album, From Elvis in Memphis. Sure, 10 years of bad movies were behind him, but Presley was still a major music player re-entering the game, and Las Vegas was to be the staging ground for the ultimate comeback by the then-best-selling solo artist of all time.
Putting Presley onstage in Vegas with a band of gospel musicians might not have appeased his early rock following—or endeared him to the counterculture—but it found him revitalized and making his best music since his Sun Studio days.
Vegas was not meant to be the grave it became for Presley, but rather the launch of a new model, in which a hot artist could forsake touring and let audiences come to him. Old-school entertainers, like Frank Sinatra, had been doing Vegas for years, but their success did not rise and fall with the charts, nor did their audience expect a tour to follow each new release.
Elvis’ always-ingenious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, got his man record sums of money for Vegas, and, at first, Presley responded with some of his best music, bringing all his influences—blues, rock, gospel, country and pop—to one stage. Early live Hilton recordings remain among Presley’s most vital work, offering a sound he had a large hand in creating (compared with his produced studio work).
Entering with Elvis Presley, Vegas hit the rock world on top. Had it all stayed there, maybe artists like Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed would not have avoided the Vegas stage for decades. But Presley died a pathetic, bloated, drug-addled parody of himself in 1977, and that image became nearly synonymous with Vegas. On bootlegs, you can hear the King near the end, talking about karate and cracking bad jokes as much as singing. And his voice, when he does sing, is shocking, lacking any of the cocksure confidence and bottomless power that defined his music as late as singles like “Burning Love.”
A year before Presley died, critic Bill Burke, witnessing a Hilton show, wrote a review quoted in Peter Guralnick’s definitive Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley: “After sitting through Elvis Presley’s closing-night performance at Las Vegas Hilton, one wonders how much longer it can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly, and why the King of Rock ’n’ Roll would subject himself to possible ridicule.” Such ridicule became symptomatic, though Presley’s sold-out crowds here seemed indifferent to his dissipated talent.
Not until the Joint and House of Blues opened in the 1990s did Vegas became a regular touring stop. Even then, artists playing those hot venues could be found insisting to the press that Vegas was just another tour stop—and not the spot where bygone musicians went to die.
The century rolled over by the time Celine Dion opened her Vegas show, A New Day. That’s how long it took for a major artist to repeat the Presley model of 1969. Dion paid tribute to Elvis in her show’s music and style, and, while she lacked Presley’s artistic greatness, the ease of her success helped erode the Vegas stigma. The door once shut by Presley’s Vegas decay suddenly opened for headliners from Elton John to Prince to Santana, the current headliner at the Hard Rock.
But before all that, Las Vegas was a symbol for all that was uncool. Forty years ago this week, Elvis Presley opened a world of possibility, and then later destroyed it.