Forty-five years ago tonight, only eleven days after astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous “one small step” on the moon, Elvis Presley took his own giant leap.
On that July 31st night in 1969, the singer stepped onto the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas and firmly reestablished himself as one of the world’s most dynamic performers.
His comeback after years of making movies had already revved into high gear back in December, with NBC’s broadcast of the highly-rated and critically-acclaimed ELVIS TV special.
He rode the tide of that success into his first Memphis recording sessions in nearly 15 years, resulting in smash hits “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto,” and “Don’t Cry, Daddy.”
Elvis was on fire again, and his Vegas engagement was another crown jewel in his comeback. With two shows a night, seven days a week, for four weeks, the concerts represented his first live appearances in nearly nine years – outside of four studio audience shows for his TV special.
RCA started recording the Vegas shows on August 21, capturing eleven complete concerts in all that summer. At that time, some of the best tracks were selected for an album, From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis (Elvis In Person). More recently, several of the shows have been released in full:
- August 21 Midnight Show (MS) on Elvis: Viva Las Vegas (2007 Limited Edition)
- August 22 Dinner Show (DS) on Elvis In Person (2008 FTD Edition)
- August 23 MS on Elvis At The International
- August 24 DS on Live In Las Vegas
- August 25 MS on Hot August Night
- August 26 DS on Live In Vegas
- August 26 MS on All Shook Up
To commemorate the forty-fifth anniversary of this engagement, Sony’s collectors label for Elvis fans recently released on CD The Return To Vegas, the earliest known recording from this concert series.
The shows listed above are all multitrack recordings, meaning they were professionally captured for potential commercial release and can be properly mixed after the fact for optimum sound quality.
By contrast, Follow That Dream’s The Return To Vegas is a soundboard recording – an informal reference tape made in-line from the showroom’s soundboard console – never intended for release.
While the sound quality can be improved in certain ways, soundboard mixes are pretty much stuck as to how they were originally recorded. Some bootlegs are copies of copies, though, so sometimes there can be improved sound quality versus previous releases if an earlier generation source is used.
The Return To Vegas is actually one of the better-sounding soundboard CDs I have purchased.
I must admit, however, that I am surprised. I was expecting to be blown away by The Return To Vegas. After all, this recording from an unconfirmed date in August is probably the closest we will ever come to hearing the legendary July 31 show that opened the engagement.
To be clear, like all 1969 Elvis shows released thus far, The Return To Vegas represents one of his best concerts. Yet, I found it slightly disappointing.
With that being said, The Return To Vegas does have many strong points. “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is inspired, for instance, with the guitar portion of the lead-off song sounding closer to the 1955 SUN version than it ever would again on later recordings. I wish James Burton had kept playing it this way. An overbearing train whistle effect ruins some of that for me, though, and the performances on Hot August Night and Live In Vegas will remain my go-to versions.
The versions of “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” are strong enough to contend for best of the season, at least out of what has been released thus far. “Don’t Be Cruel” is also strong.
During this engagement, Elvis took several minutes out of each show to talk about his career. This is, by far, my favorite of these “monologues.” It is actually the only previously released track on this CD, though, having been released in an edited form way back in 1974 for the infamous Having Fun With Elvis On Stage “talking” album. While the concept behind that particular album may have been poor, this monologue was actually pretty funny and gave some credibility to the Having Fun title.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” features a slightly different arrangement than later versions, with strings instead of Sweet Inspiration Cissy Houston’s soaring vocals. It makes for a nice alternative, but I much prefer the versions with Houston. In addition, Elvis sounds uncomfortable during the spoken portions.
On “Blue Suedes Shoes,” Elvis also seems unsure of himself, plodding through it with slow and deliberate vocals. “All Shook Up” starts in fine form but degrades near the end due to Elvis going into a, dare I say, imitator-style quality on his vocals.
While I normally enjoy the bluesy arrangement of “Heartbreak Hotel” that made its debut at this engagement, the version here is lacking. It sounds off from the start and never really gains momentum. He sounds nearly manic on “Hound Dog,” and this version becomes tiresome on repeat listens. “Suspicious Minds” is decent, but not particularly memorable.
All-in-all, The Return To Vegas is a mixed bag. Audio quality aside, it certainly cannot compete as the strongest overall 1969 show released thus far.
So, when exactly did the show (or shows) presented on this CD take place? The accompanying booklet is sparse on information, focusing instead on photos of Elvis from the time.
Though FTD’s press release indicated this was originally prepared for release as a double album by RCA in the late 1970s before being cancelled, no associated paperwork is included in the booklet.
A brief essay by Ken Sharp (author of Elvis: Vegas ’69) fails to even mention this particular performance, speaking only in generalities about the overall engagement.
We do know that it is not the July 31 Opening Show as previously thought both by RCA and a subsequent bootlegger. They apparently keyed in on the line, “This is my first live appearance in nine years,” which Elvis actually stated at every full show thus far released at this engagement, while skipping his “It’s hard to get going on these dinner shows” comment that makes it clear some fatigue is already setting in for Elvis in Vegas.
Certainly he would not have said this at his first-ever Dinner Show on August 1, nor was he likely even to say it at the August 2 Dinner Show. Assuming this is not a splice of two shows, the August 3 Dinner Show seems to be the prevailing hypothesis among many fans. That still seems too early to me.
Since I refrain from bootlegs, I am no expert on the unofficial recordings available from this era. Certainly the arrangement of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is a clue here, since it differs from the later versions. That may indicate an upper end to the range of possible dates, but I do not know exactly when that arrangement changed.
There is another clue. When introducing “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis states that it “should be out in a week or 10 days or so.” RCA released “Suspicious Minds” on August 26. Though Elvis was probably not speaking literally, a week to 10 days before the release would put us in the range of August 16 to 19. If it turned out that this concert took place closer to those dates and farther from August 3, it would not surprise me at all.
No matter the date, this is an enjoyable release, and it is definitely of historic value to Elvis fans. If you already have the multitrack shows, then you should purchase this CD. If not, I recommend you buy the professional multitrack shows from this engagement first. Each of these concerts has provided me hours of enjoyment, and I have no doubt that The Return To Vegas will ultimately do the same.
While the 1969 concerts are incredible, my favorite Vegas engagement took place a year later. With a more varied set list, Elvis seemed more relaxed in August 1970. For me, the shows captured for That’s The Way It Is are somehow even better than 1969. The Dinner Show presented on The Return To Vegas is actually but an appetizer for what is to come next week. I am ready for the main course!
01. Blue Suede Shoes
02. I Got A Woman
03. All Shook Up
04. Love Me Tender
05. Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel
06. Heartbreak Hotel
07. Hound Dog
09. Mystery Train/Tiger Man
10. Monologue *
11. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight
13. Yesterday/Hey Jude
15. In The Ghetto
16. Suspicious Minds
17. What’d I Say
18. Can’t Help Falling In Love
* Previously released