Inside the Las Vegas Show That Turned Elvis' Career Around (2024)

By the end of the 1960s, Elvis Presley’s career was in disrepair — treading water in a sea of bad movies, records that no longer made the charts and a decade of increasing irrelevance in the fast-changing world of rock’ n’ roll. He had made a splashy comeback in a widely acclaimed NBC special in December 1968. But he hadn’t performed live onstage in more than eight years. So when he opened in Las Vegas on July 31, 1969 — the start of a four-week engagement at the brand new International Hotel — it was a make-or-break career gamble. Richard Zoglin’s book Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, out July 23, offers a counter-narrative to the conventional wisdom that his time in Vegas contributed to the star’s decline. Instead, Zoglin argues, this time saw him not only remake himself, but the entire template for Las Vegas entertainment. The following excerpt goes inside that opening night, revealing both the anxiety leading up to it and the resulting triumph.

Listen to the audiobook version of this excerpt here:

Elvis was as ready as he could ever be: well rehearsed, backed by first-rate musicians, and heralded by the biggest publicity campaign in Vegas history. Yet his show still had something of a homemade, seat of-the-pants quality. Elvis hadn’t been on a concert stage in years and knew little about modern sound systems and other technical matters. The showroom was daunting: twice as large as any other venue in Las Vegas, with room for 2,000 people. The opening-night audience was filled with Hollywood stars, Vegas entertainers and assorted high rollers, along with rock critics and entertainment reporters from around the country. Even in a town used to star-studded opening nights, the array of celebrities—Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., Ann-Margret, Paul Anka, Dionne Warwick—was impressive.

Backstage before the show, Elvis was a nervous wreck. “I can remember Elvis sitting on a couch,” bassist Jerry Scheff recalled, “his knee going up and down like a piston, his hands dancing like butterflies.” “You could see the sweat just pouring out of him before he went onstage,” said his friend and road manager Joe Esposito. “He was always nervous before a show, but he was never nervous like that again.” Everybody tried to keep him calm. “If you get lost, just turn around and we’ll start playing louder,” guitarist John Wilkinson reassured him. “Don’t worry about it, your friends are here.”

The Showroom Internationale was filling up, anticipation building. The expansive stage was sixty feet wide, with a ten-thousand-pound, Austrianmade gold-lamé curtain. The ornate decor featured crystal chandeliers and figurines of angels hanging from the ceiling and a hodgepodge of ancient Greek, Roman, and Louis XIV-era paintings and statuary. A setting fit for a returning king.

Inside the Las Vegas Show That Turned Elvis' Career Around (1)

Simon and Schuster

Usually in Vegas the headliner would be announced by a disembodied voice—“Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the bar—Dean Martin!” But as the curtain rose, Elvis simply walked out, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, grabbed the microphone in his right hand—which was visibly trembling—paused for a moment, then launched into the familiar lyrics: “Well, it’s one for the money, / Two for the show, / Three to get ready / Now go, cat, go . . .”

As he sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” the crowd erupted. It was the old Elvis, rocking as hard as ever on a classic hit they hadn’t heard him sing in over a decade. He was wearing one of costume designer Bill Belew’s two-piece karate outfits, dark blue, with flared pants and a sashlike belt that whipped around as he moved. His high-collared shirt was unbuttoned nearly to his navel, with a scarf loosely knotted around his neck. (His friend and hairstylist Larry Geller claimed that Elvis wore high collars to imitate the spiritual masters in David Anrias’s book Through the Eyes of the Masters. Priscilla said it was because Elvis thought his neck was too long.)

The frenzied reaction from the crowd startled the performers. “They wouldn’t shut up,” Wilkinson recalled; “all through the first song they kept shouting and cheering, they couldn’t get enough of him.” As he finished his opening number, Elvis let the cheers wash over him, then turned around to face the musicians behind him and sort of shrugged his shoulders—as if to say, “Maybe this isn’t going to be so bad.”

Then he roared on, doing a hard-driving version of Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman,” followed by a string of his biggest fifties hits, from “All Shook Up,” to “Heartbreak Hotel.” During “Love Me Tender,” Elvis planted kisses on as many female fans in the front row as he could reach. He did the up-tempo songs faster than in the old days, as if he were trying to get through them as quickly as possible. “I think he did them because people expected those songs,” said drummer Ronnie Tutt. “You could tell he just wanted to rush through them. He wasn’t necessarily thrilled with who he was in the fifties. Because he had become a different man.” When he got to “Hound Dog” (a song he didn’t like anymore), he prefaced it with a long, tongue-in-cheek buildup, telling the audience he wanted to do a “special song” just right for a “tender, touching moment”—before the sudden explosion: “YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ . . .” He raced through that one so fast it was almost disrespectful.

After the trip down memory lane, Elvis changed the pace with several numbers that showcased his more emotional, ballad-driven style, like Mac Davis’ “Memories,” the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and the angsty “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Elvis’s feverish, seven-minute performance of the yet-unreleased single “Suspicious Minds” nearly brought the house down. In the last part of the show, Elvis circled back to the 1950s with an energetic cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Then he revved up the jets for the old Ray Charles rouser “What’d I Say,” before closing the show (as he would nearly every live show for the rest of his career) with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” his ballad from the 1961 film Blue Hawaii.

“I never saw anything like it in my life,” said Mac Davis, who was in the audience, flattered when Elvis gave him a shout-out—“Hiya, Mac”—before singing “In the Ghetto,” the hit that Davis had written for him. “He was physically beautiful at that age, just a specimen. You couldn’t take your eyes off the guy. Women rushing the stage, people clamoring over each other. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face the entire time.” Ann Moses, editor of the teen magazine Tiger Beat, said, “I saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Rolling Stones at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. But there was something about that night that was so special. Everyone was dumbstruck and didn’t want the night to end. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.”

The performance lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, with Elvis pacing the stage like a panther, crouching, lunging, leaping, doing karate kicks and punches. He gulped water and Gatorade and mopped his sweat with handkerchiefs tossed onstage by women in the audience. “He was like a wild man,” recalled Felton Jarvis, his RCA record producer. “I mean, he almost hurt himself—he was doing flips and cartwheels and all kinds of stuff.” The cartwheels may have been an exaggeration, but no one could doubt that Elvis was giving it everything he had. In one show later in the run, he split his pants and had to retreat offstage, where his entourage formed a protective ring around him while he changed quickly into a new pair. (This prompted Belew to switch to one-piece jumpsuits—more forgiving in the crotch.)

He talked to the audience in between numbers—nervously, self-consciously, with a few awkward jokes. He noted that this was “my first live appearance in nine years. Appeared dead a few times. . . .” He joked about the garish showroom—“Welcome to the big, freaky International Hotel, with those weirdo dolls on the walls and those funky angels on the ceiling.” He repeated the same lines almost every night, but the evening had a loose, spontaneous quality too.

The awkwardness and spontaneity were refreshing. This was no slick Vegas headliner, with polished stage patter and fake effusions of love for the audience. Elvis was still the overgrown kid from Memphis, as anxious about talking (as opposed to singing) to an audience as the audience was eager to make him feel welcome. But musically, he was a revelation. When the show was over, Elvis got a standing ovation—“one of the rare occasions,” Myram Borders reported in the Nevada State Journal, “when a Las Vegas standing salute was sincere rather than rigged with a few cronies of an entertainer planted down front to stamp and scream approval.” Over the next seven years, he would perform more than 600 shows in Las Vegas—and sell out every one. The show was a clear triumph.

Copyright © 2019 by Richard Zoglin. From the forthcoming book ELVIS IN VEGAS: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show by Richard Zoglin to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

More Must-Reads From TIME

  • Supreme Court Rules Against Race-Based Affirmative Action
  • How the Affirmative Action Decision Affects the AAPI Community
  • Now’s The Time to Bring Up Menopause At Work
  • The Case Against Engagement Rings
  • The Climate Rifts Biden and Modi Couldn't Heal
  • The Long, Complicated, and Very Pink History of Barbiecore
  • How Andrew Huberman Got America to Care About Science
  • Podcast: Elliott Page Steps Into His Truth
  • Tackling Climate Change Can Save Hospitals Money

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Inside the Las Vegas Show That Turned Elvis' Career Around (2024)


How many Las Vegas shows did Elvis do? ›

From 1969 to 1977, Elvis performed 636 shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in month-long periods of two shows per night.

What happened to the hotel Elvis performed in Vegas? ›

It was his residency venue for the next seven years, culminating with his final show at the resort in December 1976. Elvis performed 636 sold-out performances at the International Hotel, which became the Hilton before becoming Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in 2014.

What Las Vegas Casino did Elvis perform in? ›

Elvis Presley's Las Vegas debut was at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in April 1956. His debut was “Colonel” Tom Parker's attempt to give Presley national credibility.

Did Elvis start the Las Vegas Residencies? ›

In April 1956, Presley began a two-week concert residency at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino, following the release of his self-titled debut album. His shows were poorly-received by the conservative, middle-aged hotel guests—"like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party," wrote a critic for Newsweek.

Were Elvis Vegas shows sold out? ›

all were sold out and many were 2 shows a day!

What was the biggest show Elvis played? ›

Elvis Presley Live

December 31,1975 Elvis makes his biggest concert ever, earning a gross $800.000. With a crowd of over 60000!! Elvis performes at the "Pontiac Silverdome" in Pontiac, Michigan 8:30 p.m. Elvis wore the Rainfall suit with original belt.

Where did Elvis sleep in Vegas? ›

Two months a year, Elvis would do 30 days straight of two shows a night. This hotel was his Las Vegas home. On the 30th floor, his penthouse was simply room "3000." Today, it's called the Tuscany Sky Villa.

Can you stay in Elvis room in Vegas? ›


Viva Las Vegas, baby! Live large like The King in our fully remodeled retro themedElvis Suite. Be transported to the swingin' 60s with throwback teal and orange motifs, vintage Elvis Presley movie posters, and the iconic vinyl record headboard crowning the king-size bed.

How much did Lisa Marie Presley inherit? ›

In 1983, during her 25th birthday, Lisa Marie finally inherited her father's entire estate, which had grown to about $100 million.

How much did Elvis make in Vegas? ›

$125,000. The amount of money Elvis earned per week to perform in Las Vegas.

What hotel did Elvis play in Las Vegas first? ›

In 1969 Elvis performed his first show at the Las Vegas Hilton International to a sold-out crowd.

How much money did Elvis make? ›

Presley – the world's most successful solo artist – had a “mere” net worth of around US$5 million (US$20 million in today's money) at the time of his death, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

Who has the highest paid residency in Las Vegas? ›

In this were a ranking of the all-time total generated from Vegas residencies, Celine Dion would lead the pack. She earned $385.1M for “A New Day,” which ran at Caesars Palace from 2003 to 2007, and another $296.2M for “Celine,” which ran there from 2011 to 2019, for a total gross of $681.3M.

What was Elvis worth when he died? ›

At the time of Elvis' death in 1977, his estate was worth about $5 million (roughly $25.4 million in today's dollars). Lisa Marie Presley inherited her father's estate when she turned 25 years old in 1993.

Who owns Graceland now? ›

Lisa Marie Presley retains 100% sole personal ownership of Graceland Mansion itself and its over 13-acre original grounds and her father's personal effects - meaning costumes, wardrobe, awards, furniture, cars, etc.. She has made the mansion property and her father's personal effects permanently available for tours of ...

How much were Elvis tickets in 1970? ›

To insure sellouts and make Presley accessible to the masses, ticket price were kept relatively low at $10, $7.50, and $5. The show content followed the pattern of the fifties shows—over an hour of inconsequential opening acts, an intermission, and 50 minutes of Elvis.

How much were Elvis tickets in 1977? ›

The arena received more than 3,000 calls the day the concert was announced. There would be 6,532 tickets available; 800 of them for $12.50 and the rest for $15.

How long did Elvis Vegas show last? ›

Elvis held his Las Vegas residency for seven years, culminating with his final show at the resort on December 12, 1976. However The King's final ever performance before his death, was the following year.

What was Elvis Presley's best performance ever? ›

Today marks the day Elvis famously performed "Hound Dog" on "The Milton Berle Show" and stirred up quite a frenzy. On June 5, 1956, Elvis set his guitar to the side and performed what came to be known as one of the most controversial performances in television history.

What was Elvis Presley's biggest hit song? ›

1. Hound Dog (1956) Controversial in its day, “Hound Dog” is now considered one of the biggest influences on the rock 'n' roll genre, and was Presley's biggest selling single, spending a recording-setting 11 weeks at number one in 1956 – a record which stood for 36 years.

Who portrayed Elvis the best? ›

11 Actors Who Have Played Elvis Presley, Ranked
  1. 1 Austin Butler — Elvis (2022)
  2. 2 Michael Shannon — Elvis & Nixon (2016) ...
  3. 3 Peter Dobson — Protecting The King (2007) ...
  4. 4 Tyler Hilton — Walk The Line (2006) ...
  5. 5 Rick Peters — Elvis Meets Nixon (1997) ...
  6. 6 Rob Youngblood — Elvis and The Colonel: The Untold Story (1993) ...
Jan 6, 2023

Was Elvis happy in Las Vegas? ›

Las Vegas was good for Elvis—at first. For two years he seemed happy to be back in direct contact with his fans, and the Hilton gave him a home base when he wasn't touring. The hotel's 30th floor Imperial Suite was intended as a retreat for all its headliners, but eventually it became known as “The Elvis Suite.”

Did Elvis shoot a gun in a hotel room? ›

"There's zero evidence that he shot the TV in the room." That would've been really dangerous for other residents, obviously. But it would've made for a great memorial site. "If he'd shot the TV in the room, there would be a bullet hole there that would be memorialized and everything," Rogers said.

Did Elvis wear makeup? ›

And a little-known secret? The king was in fact a fan of makeup — more specifically, eye makeup — and loved making his vibrant blue eyes pop on stage while performing. True king behavior.

Who is allowed in Elvis bedroom? ›

The Upstairs Remains Off Limits

Presley's primary suite on the second floor of Graceland was his most private refuge, where only his closest confidants were allowed.

How much does it cost to stay at the Elvis Suite? ›

The suite also has a private entrance and parking. The cost of the Elvis Presley Suite varies depending on the time of year, but it typically starts at $500 per night. The suite can be booked online or by calling the hotel.

Can Elvis still marry me in Vegas? ›

The licensing company that controls the name and image of Elvis Presley has ordered Las Vegas chapel owners and operators to cease using the star's likeness in themed ceremonies, the Las Vegas Review-Journal originally reported.

Will Priscilla be buried next to Elvis? ›

The documents outline how the estate will be split between Lisa Marie's family members and specify that Priscilla will be buried at Graceland as near as possible to Elvis, her ex-husband.

Will Priscilla inherit Graceland? ›

The only daughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie was the sole inheritor of her father's famed mansion.

Who lives at Graceland now? ›

Elvis Presley's famous Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, is staying in the family following the death of his daughter. Lisa Marie Presley inherited the 13.8-acre, 23-room estate from her rock'n'roll legend father after he died in 1977, when she was nine.

Was Elvis underpaid in Vegas? ›

4 —Elvis' contract with the International paid $100,000 a week for a four-week engagement, according to Zoglin. That matched what Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were making, putting all three at the top of Las Vegas' entertainer pay scale.

Who gets the profits from Elvis? ›

When Lisa Marie Presley finally got access to her inheritance in 1993, she founded a trust in her father's name to manage his estate. But in 2004, she agreed to sell off 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises' assets, including Elvis' likeness rights, for around $100 million to music entrepreneur Robert F.X.

How big was Elvis in Las Vegas? ›

The showroom was daunting: twice as large as any other venue in Las Vegas, with room for 2,000 people. The opening-night audience was filled with Hollywood stars, Vegas entertainers and assorted high rollers, along with rock critics and entertainment reporters from around the country.

Where is Elvis buried? ›

Image of Where is Elvis buried?
Graceland is a mansion on a 13.8-acre estate in Memphis, Tennessee, United States, once owned by American singer Elvis Presley. Presley is buried there, as are his parents, paternal grandmother, grandson, and daughter.

What hotel did Elvis own? ›

Westgate Las Vegas
Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino
The property as seen in 2018
LocationWinchester, Nevada, U.S.
Address3000 Paradise Road
Opening dateJuly 2, 1969 (as The International)
12 more rows

Was Lisa Marie at Elvis funeral? ›

How much did Elvis pay for his plane? ›

According to People magazine, the battered jet, which had been parked at the Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico, sold at auction on Jan 8 — which would have been Presley's 88th birthday. Presley bought the jet, which seats up to nine, on Dec. 22, 1976, for $840,000.

How many planes did Elvis own? ›

While two of the five aircraft Presley reportedly owned, a Convair 880 and a 1960 Lockheed JetStar, have been restored and are on display at his Graceland mansion and museum in Memphis, Tennesee, a second JetStar of 1962 vintage that the “King of Rock and Roll” purchased in 1976, just a year before his death, is once ...

Who owns most expensive house in Vegas? ›

In June, billionaire Anthony Hsieh, founder of mortgage firm LoanDepot, bought a newly built mansion in the Henderson foothills for $25 million, the most expensive home purchase ever recorded in Southern Nevada.

Who owns the most property on the Las Vegas Strip? ›

Casino landlord's revenue jumps more than $1B after big Las Vegas buyouts. Vici Properties, the biggest property owner on the Strip, generated $2.6 billion of revenue last year, up 72 percent from 2021. Don't miss the big stories.

Who owns the most real estate on the Las Vegas Strip? ›

Meet the True Las Vegas Strip Leader

Vici recently completed the $17.2 billion acquisition of MGM Growth Properties making it by far the largest landlord on the Strip. The deal, which followed Vici's recent acquisition of the Venetian, makes the company the owner of the majority of the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

What is Graceland worth today? ›

The mansion and property were acquired by Elvis Presley for $100,000 in 1957. The estate was estimated to be worth between $400 to $500 million in 2020 according to Rolling Stone.

How much did the colonel steal from Elvis? ›

But in 1973, the Colonel committed the ultimate betrayal, selling Presley's entire back catalog to RCA for $5.4 million, a gross undervaluation for one of the most substantial catalogs in music history.

How much is Elvis estate worth today? ›

Elvis Presley's net worth was estimated at $5 million at his death but has since grown to over $500 million. His legacy continues, and his estate earns significant income from his music and image rights.

Did Ginger Alden attend Elvis funeral? ›

Did Ginger Alden Attend Elvis' Funeral? Yes. As his fiancée at the time, it is believed that Ginger Alden was present for Elvis' funeral. Following the funeral, however, she was reportedly banned from Graceland by Presley's family and had to receive permission to visit his grave.

Who will inherit Elvis estate? ›

Elvis Presley's iconic Graceland mansion will stay in the family after the death of his only child, Lisa Marie Presley. The 54-year-old singer died last week after suffering a cardiac arrest. Presley's three daughters, Riley, Harper and Finley, will inherit the Tennessee estate, according to a representative.

Who inherits Lisa Marie Presley money? ›

After Lisa Marie's death in 2023, Graceland and her trust were inherited by her daughters, Keough and Harper and Finley Lockwood, a representative for Graceland confirmed to People. Lisa Marie shared Riley with her ex-husband, Danny Keough, whom she divorced in 1994.

How many years did Elvis have a show in Vegas? ›

Elvis held his Las Vegas residency for seven years, culminating with his final show at the resort on December 12, 1976. However The King's final ever performance before his death, was the following year.

How much did Elvis get paid for Vegas shows? ›

$125,000. The amount of money Elvis earned per week to perform in Las Vegas.

How many concerts did Elvis perform at? ›

Elvis began performing before live audiences in 1955 and shot to fame the following year. It's estimated that Presley performed in more than 1600 concerts in his lifetime, a small number of them in Missouri.

When was Elvis last performance in Las Vegas? ›

Elvis's final show in Vegas took place on December 12, 1976, capping off an 11-day, 15-show run. Eight months later, Elvis was dead from heart failure.

Did Colonel Parker attend Elvis funeral? ›

Yes, Colonel Tom Parker did go to Elvis' funeral.

How much money did Colonel Tom Parker take from Elvis? ›

No matter where it came from, be it from touring, record sales, his time at Sun Records, or merchandise, Colonel Parker took up to 50 percent of Elvis' earnings throughout his career.

What was Elvis's most famous concert? ›

Aloha From Hawaii — January 14, 1973.

What was Elvis most viewed concert? ›

Elvis' 1973 Aloha from Hawaii show had more viewership than the 1969 moon landing! Learn more about the historic concert that was out of this world.

Why did Elvis stay in Vegas? ›

Las Vegas was good for Elvis—at first. For two years he seemed happy to be back in direct contact with his fans, and the Hilton gave him a home base when he wasn't touring. The hotel's 30th floor Imperial Suite was intended as a retreat for all its headliners, but eventually it became known as “The Elvis Suite.”

What hotel did Elvis live in in Vegas? ›

On July 31, 1969, Elvis kicked off a seven-year residency at the International Hotel, which in 1971 became the Las Vegas Hilton and is now the Westgate.

What hotel was Elvis last performance? ›

Elvis stayed at the then Stouffer Indianapolis Inn before his concert on 26/6/77 at Market Square Arena. The Indianapolis show was Elvis's last concert performance. Thiên Anh Trannguyen and 7 others like this. Elvis Presley performed his final live concert here on June 26, 1977, seven weeks before his death.

What was the last song Elvis sang at the concert? ›

The touching performance of Elvis Presley singing Unchained Melody is part of the concert he held in Rapid City, South Dakota, on June 21, 1977, about two months before his death.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Edwin Metz

Last Updated:

Views: 6312

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (78 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Edwin Metz

Birthday: 1997-04-16

Address: 51593 Leanne Light, Kuphalmouth, DE 50012-5183

Phone: +639107620957

Job: Corporate Banking Technician

Hobby: Reading, scrapbook, role-playing games, Fishing, Fishing, Scuba diving, Beekeeping

Introduction: My name is Edwin Metz, I am a fair, energetic, helpful, brave, outstanding, nice, helpful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.