On the 50th anniversary of his Sin City comeback, a new book explores Elvis’ Vegas reign

Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegas
Photo: Howard Schatz / Courtesy

On July 31, 1969, Elvis made his Las Vegas comeback. Fifty years later, you can read about the phenomenon in Richard Zoglin’s new book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show. We spoke with the author and Time magazine contributor about the musical icon.

You’ve written books about entertainer Bob Hope and stand-up comedy in the 1970s. Why did you want to write Elvis in Vegas? I actually wanted to write a book about Las Vegas’ golden age of entertainment. But I got into it and realized what a long connection Elvis had with Vegas—I didn’t even realize he played Vegas in 1956. [It] was his favorite getaway; he really had a strong connection to the place. So I decided to use Elvis as the framework for the book and tell two stories: the story of Vegas in its golden age and the story of Elvis and his career and how Vegas rejuvenated his career and took him in a new direction and also to Vegas in a new direction.

What explains the enduring appeal of Elvis in Vegas? He came along at a time when the classic Vegas stars were getting older—Sinatra and the Rat Pack. The culture was changing, and Vegas didn’t really know what to do with rock ’n’ roll. Here was the original rock ’n’ roller coming back to Las Vegas and really giving it a shot in the arm at a time it really needed it, kind of bridging the generational gap. Elvis could appeal to everybody.

I don’t know why he became the iconic figure. Partly, he was such a larger-than-life personality. He was so flamboyant [with] over-the-top costumes. He was easy to imitate. Everybody could put on a white suit and a wig and look like Elvis. Maybe that’s why he’s still such a fixture in the city.

Did you discover any fun surprises about Elvis? I loved finding out about the relationship between Elvis and Liberace. When Elvis was struggling in that 1956 show … Liberace came over, saw Elvis’ show, took some publicity photos with him and gave him one piece of advice: “Your show needs more glitz.” I love that. Elvis really was influenced by Liberace. He responded to Liberace’s showmanship, his uniqueness as a performer. The two stayed friendly throughout their lives.

How did you research the topic? I made a lot of trips to Las Vegas. I tracked down as many people as I could find who were either part of Elvis’ show, part of Elvis’ circle or part of the Vegas scene in the ’60s: Shecky Greene, Rich Little, I talked to Vic Damone before he died—various producers, choreographers and whoever else remembered those days and could tell me stories.

If you could go back in time, what show would you see? I’d like to see Elvis’ original ’69 show. That was the centerpiece of my book. Boy, you read all the first person accounts, and people I talked to who saw it, and everybody was just bowled over. I never, unfortunately, got to see Elvis anywhere, live. … I’m old enough to have gone to Vegas in the ’60s when I was a kid. I got to see Johnny Carson in one of his first gigs at the Sahara hotel. To a teenage kid, that was pretty dazzling.

What’s your favorite Elvis song? Of the classic Elvis songs, “Don’t Be Cruel” is a great, great song. It’s the foundation song for all of rock ’n’ roll. Of the Vegas years, I just love his performance of “The Wonder of You.” He gives so much emotion, it’s kind of schmaltzy, but I love listening to it over and over again.

How would you say Vegas today is still impacted by Elvis? Elvis’ show was different for Vegas. It was not an intimate Rat Pack-style nightclub show. It was a big rock concert-like spectacle in a showroom, twice as big as any other in Vegas at the time—a 2000 seat showroom. I think that was the beginning of what you see today—the residencies from Celine Dion to Lady Gaga. Elvis was the first of those kind of shows. Elvis’ show brought in a different kind of audience. They were Elvis fans. They weren’t necessarily Vegas fans, but they came and they packed the shows. Elvis pointed the way for Vegas to reinvent itself, which it did. It took a couple of decades, but Vegas transitioned into the city we know today, and I think Elvis had a lot of influence on it.

Richard Zoglin book talk & signing August 2, 7 p.m., free. Clark County Library, 702-507-3459.

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