Elvis was terrified. The contracts had been signed, the audience was packed with celebrities — Cary Grant, Ann-Margret, Sammy Davis Jr. — and billionaire Kirk Kerkorian had flown in a slew of critics on his private jet.
Backstage at Kerkorian’s International Hotel in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley told guitarist James Burton, who had put together the backing band for the singer’s return to the stage, that he couldn’t perform.
“He hadn’t been onstage in nine years,” says Burton, 79. “He said, ‘James, I don’t know if I can go out there. I don’t know if I can walk out there and do this, man.’ I said, ‘Sure you can. Just walk out there and don’t even pay attention to the audience. Just sing to us, man. Make it like a jam session in the Jungle Room at Graceland.’ ”
Elvis, who was 34, would take the stage that last day of July 1969, and his 57-show run at the International would punctuate his comeback, launched after a decade of dreadful movies (“Harum Scarum,” “Kissin’ Cousins”) and his electrifying NBC special late in 1968. On Friday, Sony is releasing a stunning 11-CD set from that run, showcasing Presley at a crucial juncture, in strong voice and performing dazzling versions of early staples while introducing such latter-day hits as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.” Now, 50 years later, we spoke with three who were there — Burton, singer Darlene Love (“He’s a Rebel”) and veteran journalist Robert Christgau.
There was talk, early on, of Elvis bringing back Sun sessions guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana for the Vegas run. But Moore ran a successful studio of his own and complained that the $500-a-week offer was too low.Elvis then called Burton. The Louisiana-born Burton was a teenager when he played on Dale Hawkins’s 1957 hit “Susie Q.” He then backed Ricky Nelson.
Burton: Elvis said, “Man, I watched you on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show. I said, “You got to be kidding.” The king of rock-and-roll watching me on TV playing guitar? And you know, he laughed. He wanted to come back. He wanted to go do live shows. He got tired of doing movies for nine years and he said he wanted to get back onstage with a live band and just go for it. He missed playing live to the fans.
The band that Burton formed would include drummer Ronnie Tutt and bassist Jerry Scheff, and it became known as the TCB Band.
Burton: Well, Elvis actually came up with that — taking care of business — and that became its logo. Also, he came up with the idea of TLC — tender lovingcare — for the ladies. But for the guys, TCB, when we walk onstage, when we sing and when we play, it’s taking care of business, man, straight ahead.
One of highlights of the set would be Elvis’s performances of “Mystery Train” and “Tiger Man.”
Burton: Just the tempo was so cool and everything and that little guitar riff thing behind the song. And then the solo and everything. Very similar to the original record, but a little more energy, a little more up. And then he jumped into “Tiger Man” and that was kind of a surprise, so we went with it. And that gave me a chance to do some more chicken picking.
In 1969, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix ruled the charts. And in August, in the midst of Elvis’s Vegas run, hippies would gather on a farm in Upstate New York for Woodstock. Kerkorian wanted to make sure Elvis’s comeback was noticed and flew in a group of music critics for the show, including the late Nat Hentoff, the New Yorker’s Ellen Willis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau.
Growing up, Christgau was not an Elvis fan. But he had been impressed with Presley’s return to the top 10 in April with “In the Ghetto.”
Christgau: It was a major hit that made a pass at a show of conscience and political consciousness. We understood that Elvis Presley was a credible interpreter of the black popular music of the early ’50s. That much we knew. It was more that he’d fallen away to a greater extent. . . . “In the Ghetto” really changed the tone of who he was, and it made the notion that he was making a comeback far more acceptable within counterculture-oriented people, which was most rock critics, all rock critics.”
Singer Darlene Love had performed on Elvis’s 1968 TV special with the Blossoms. They were asked to back him in Vegas but were already booked. Still, Love made it to see the show on opening night. Presley took the stage in a black jumpsuit.
Love: He was trim, all right. He looked good. That’s why he was able to wear that body suit . . . and he was a, what do you call it, a black belt. So he actually did those kind of moves while he was onstage.
The crowd responded as soon as Elvis took the stage. The screams can be heard during the set. And for Burton, the excitement led to an unexpected challenge: The musicians couldn’t hear one another.
Burton: The audience went nuts. He walked out there, and all you could hear was screaming and hollering and clapping. We only had monitors onstage for his voice, but we couldn’t hear each other. . . . And man, it was amazing. It makes you think, how did these guys play together?
Love: Elvis was the one that started that leaning over the stage, you know, taking their handkerchiefs, and whatever else they had they gave him, and wiping his face off with them. So you probably would hear their screams louder than you would hear anybody else’s because he had the microphone in his hands. But it was like that all over the audience.
Christgau’s review, in the Village Voice, was a rave. “It was Pentecostal,” he wrote. “We were cheering before we had fully comprehended what had happened.” He was struck by Elvis’s between-song banter, which the singer filled with self-deprecating jokes and sarcasm.
Christgau: He had a distance from it. There was a pop irony. . . . I was a pop-art fan. I always liked the ironic distance, and Presley definitely had that. . . . Elvis Presley was a very intelligent person. He wasn’t well educated, but he was smart, so he knew what was going on.
Burton: He would just tell stories about things that we had never heard, which is kind of funny onstage. You had to watch him every minute because he may jump into a song or a different song. And we had him covered, man. We watched him like a hawk.
After the run, Presley began touring and would return to Las Vegas repeatedly. But that first night, Love says, the audience knew things had changed. Elvis Presley was back.
Love: A lot of times, as soon as the show is over, people start leaving, especially in Vegas. They go back out and start gambling. But everybody moved very slowly. I think they were letting it all sink in — what happened that night, what happened at that show. . . . and the whole idea that Elvis was on and he was back. . . . I don’t think there would ever be another moment like that. Everybody has their moment, and that was Elvis’s moment.”