A Squirrel Loose at the Big, Freaky International Hotel (Part 1)

“Welcome to the big, freaky International Hotel, with these little, weirdo dolls on the walls and these little funky angels on the ceiling. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a funky angel, boy. I tell you for sure.”
–Elvis Presley, 1969, on the ornate design of the hotel’s concert showroom

Sony Legacy last year released Elvis Live 1969, a boxed set containing all 11 concerts RCA recorded during Elvis Presley’s August 1969 engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The concert series, which spanned 57 shows from July 31 to August 28, represented the singer’s first appearance on a public stage in nearly 9 years – though he had performed 4 shows in front of small audiences at NBC’s studio in Burbank, California, as part of taping his ELVIS television special the previous summer.

RCA cherry-picked 12 of the strongest performances from 3 of the 1969 shows to form the Elvis In Person portion of the From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis double album, released in November 1969. A year later, RCA re-released Elvis In Person as a stand-alone album with the same content.

As for the rest of the performances, they amazingly remained in the vault until after Elvis’ death. While RCA released several individual songs over the years, including a compilation disc on 1991’s Collectors Gold boxed set, a complete 1969 show did not officially surface until 2001’s Live In Las Vegas boxed set.

By the time of Elvis Live 1969 last year, however, 7 of the 11 shows had already been released in their entireties on CD, with a good portion of songs from 3 of the 4 remaining shows having been released as well – many of them on Sony’s Follow That Dream (FTD) collectors label for Elvis fans.

Elvis Live 1969 stands out among the previous releases because it gathers all of the recordings in one place for the first time, with homogeneous sound quality. The recordings capture the August 21-26 portion of the engagement.

Sony Legacy’s ELVIS LIVE 1969 boxed set (2019, from Tygrrius’ collection)

Mixed by Matt Ross-Spang in what was apparently a marathon session, Elvis Live 1969 features a “slapback” echo effect mimicking the sound of Elvis’ first recordings in 1954 & 1955 at Sun Studio in Memphis. Ross-Spang had applied the same effect to alternate takes on 2016’s Way Down in the Jungle Room, an overview of Elvis’ last formal recordings in 1976 at Graceland.

As it was not representative of the original intent in 1976 or 1969, some fans have been quite critical of Ross-Spang’s slapback effect. As for me, I don’t mind it at all. It breathed some life into the 1976 studio recordings and brought Elvis’ music full-circle, in a sense, with an homage to the Sun sound. Though less effective on the 1969 live recordings, it’s not too distracting. On a few songs, such as “Mystery Train,” which of course originated in the Sun era anyway, the effect can actually be phenomenal.

Where I differ from Ross-Spang on Elvis Live 1969 is on some of his mixing choices, especially as far as which instruments are prominent. For instance, horns overwhelm a portion of James Burton’s lead guitar solo in the middle of the “Blue Suede Shoes” opener on all 11 shows. The horns weren’t even audible at all during Burton’s solo on the original Elvis In Person album and most of the subsequent revisits of this material.

The horns distracting from the lead guitar vaguely reminds me of Elvis’ February 11, 1956, appearance on Stage Show (CBS), the Jackie Gleason-produced television series hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In his third of six appearances on the program, Elvis debuts “Heartbreak Hotel” for the national TV audience. At the point where Scotty Moore would normally rip into his now classic electric guitar solo, a trumpeter improvises a jazz-inspired solo instead. While I enjoy jazz, it did not work in the context of this rock ‘n’ roll song. Fortunately, Moore is able to let loose in performances of “Heartbreak Hotel” on two subsequent shows. The 1969 “Blue Suede Shoes” is thankfully not affected to nearly this extent, though, for Burton is at least playing his solo!

Another example is that Larry Muhoberac’s piano is mixed far too loudly on certain shows, especially the August 26 Midnight Show, the last 1969 concert captured. Was Ross-Spang running out of time or is this truly how he felt the show should sound? “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” which should be a showcase for the guitar and drums, suffers greatly from the distracting and overbearing piano in this particular show.

The August 25 Dinner Show and August 26 Dinner Show versions of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” are similarly impacted by too much piano in the mix. Five of the remaining shows that include this medley fortunately keep the piano at low or moderate volumes, while the August 25 Midnight Show version, which was the performance used as the master on Elvis In Person, actually strikes a great balance – having the piano quite present but at an appropriate level.

Of course, it is all a matter of taste. For an Elvis live show, I want the lead guitar (Burton), Elvis guitar (when applicable), drums (Ronnie Tutt), and bass (Jerry Scheff) prominent in the mix among the instruments, generally in that order of priority, but certainly varying to some extent per song.

The rock ‘n’ roll numbers, at least, should heavily feature guitar, drums, and bass. That is the core of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis style. The piano, other guitars, and orchestra should be present as needed, but not so much as to overwhelm that core. The piano is far less annoying on a slow song like “Love Me Tender,” for instance, where it better suits being prominent in the mix.

To be clear, the mixing on the majority of these shows is great. For example, “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is mixed to perfection on the August 22 Midnight Show and is of course buoyed by a committed and powerful vocal performance by Elvis, as with many of the songs in this boxed set. This version of “Mystery Train” I can’t help but crank up every single time it comes on, much as I do with the 1955 Sun studio master.

Ross-Spang also tends to favor the Sweet Inspirations over the Imperials, as far as the background vocalists – an approach I heartily support. Millie Kirkham notwithstanding, Elvis sounds better with female voices behind him instead of males, and I love the Gospel-infused quality of the Sweet Inspirations. I should note that I intend no disrespect to any of the musicians and singers involved, all of whom are very talented. I am just talking about how I best feel the music when it comes to Elvis.

Before I get too far off track here, I think that covers it for the technical aspects of the set. I actually wasn’t even intending for this to become a review per se, but I just go where the writing leads me.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at Elvis Live 1969 and, possibly, get to the actual reason I started this post.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 2]


“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”
Proverb 31:8-9

Back on the Track: The Mystery Train Runs Again

Elvis Presley plays electric guitar for fans during taping of 1968’s ELVIS special (NBC)

Greetings Elvis fans & other travelers,

Welcome to The Mystery Train Blog. Please find your seats quickly and secure all loose articles.

When I parked The Mystery Train Blog six years ago and walked away, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return. While I remained a fan of Elvis Presley, I was burned out on writing about him. Other things affected me as well.

Since then, just about every facet of my life has changed. Most notably I accepted Jesus Christ, and life began again for me. In many ways, I became a new creation. I had heard such stories, but never really believed them.

One of the few constants through the ongoing changes has been Elvis headlining the soundtrack of my life. I have discovered a lot of new (to me) music to love by other artists, but Elvis remains in that grand mix, continuing to lead the pack with his incredible gift.

After much prayer, I was recently led to write more and fire up The Mystery Train Blog again. The primary focus will be on Elvis as an entertainer, meaning his music (including television appearances) and his movies. I will offer my thoughts and opinions on related topics, old and new, often with a personal perspective. It will be interesting to see how my new outlook on life affects my views. As before, I’ll definitely be looking for you to chime in as well. While there’ll be an occasional bonus post, my goal is to maintain a weekly cadence this time around.

I have been an Elvis fan for as long as I can remember. I am a second generation fan, and Elvis passed away before I could experience him live in concert. His death when I was 2-years-old is actually one of my earliest memories.

I can find something to enjoy in most aspects of his career, though my favorite span is 1966-1970 if pinned down. There is no doubt that his influential peak was 1954-1958, and those years represent some of his finest work as well. I play almost all of it, though, and I love much of it. There is a stretch from 1964 to 1965 that I find tough to slog through. I also tend to avoid his 1976 concerts. Though I will call things as I see them, I generally prefer to bring a positive approach, as there is certainly enough negativity already in this world.

Speaking of the world, it has almost completely changed as well since The Mystery Train Blog last came ’round the bend. The most stunning of those changes have occurred this year, with the COVID-19 crisis that continues to disrupt everything and everyone. When will we return to normal, and what will “normal” look like once we get there?

Dramatic social movements are also underway here in the United States. Will the current generation finally be the ones to solve the systemic problems that have plagued this nation since its very inception?

Friends, I pray for your health and well-being during this time and going forward. May we all be the change that is needed.

All aboard! This train is leaving the railway station once more. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. Hold on tight, and enjoy your ride.

Your conductor,
TY


“Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
from 2 Corinthians 5:17

“He always spoke the truth”

On August 28, 1963, civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and delivers his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In Elvis Day By Day, Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen note, “Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech is one of Elvis’ favorite rhetorical pieces, something he recites often over the years” (p. 239).

At the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, King is silenced by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39.

Longtime Elvis friend Jerry Schilling describes the singer’s reaction to King’s death when they see the news:

“I’d heard him recite [King’s] beautiful, hopeful words many times. I looked over at Elvis now and saw that he was staring hard at the TV. There were tears in his eyes. ‘He always spoke the truth,’ he said quietly” (Me And A Guy Named Elvis, p. 187).

Elvis is in Hollywood finishing up his 28th movie, Live A Little, Love A Little, and is devastated that the murder took place in his hometown. He also believes it will confirm “everyone’s worst feelings about the South” (Careless Love, Guralnick, p. 297).

Actress Celeste Yarnall, who had a small role in Live A Little, Love A Little, states that she watched King’s funeral on TV with Elvis and held him in her arms as he cried (The Elvis Encyclopedia, Victor, p. 289).

Only nine weeks later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while running for President. This time, Elvis is in nearby Burbank – less than ten miles away. Rehearsals have begun for his ELVIS television special.

A few days later, W. Earl Brown writes “If I Can Dream” for Elvis to close the show. The song can be interpreted as a tribute to both fallen leaders, particularly King. “If I can dream of a better land, where all my brothers walk hand-in-hand, tell me why can’t my dream come true?” pleads Elvis in the song, echoing King’s 1963 speech.

It is a huge departure for Elvis, who has thus far avoided public commentary on social issues. His manager even tries to nix the song, but in a rare moment of defiance, Elvis insists on recording it.

NBC airs the ELVIS special on December 3, 1968, and it becomes the highest-rated program of the week and one of the most-watched specials of the year. “If I Can Dream” turns out not only to be the perfect song to close the special, but also an appropriate way to reflect on a tragic chapter in American history.


Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 84 on January 15. Today, the United States observes this hero’s birthday with a national holiday. His words, his ideas, his dreams live on.

New winner takes the victory seat for Elvis Trivialities #13

Congratulations to George Millar, who sat his way to victory in Elvis Trivialities #13.

A first-time winner, he receives a freshly baked slice of bragging rights and a chair in The Mystery Train’s Hobo Jungle.

And the answer is…

“NBC” is printed on the backrest of the chair Elvis used during the “sit-down” shows portion of the ELVIS (’68 comeback) television special.

Now, folks, don’t feel bad if you didn’t get this one. For one thing, Elvis is sitting on his chair for most of this segment, so the “NBC” is covered.

I’ve been watching the Comeback Special for over 25 years, but never noticed the chair had anything written on it until my last viewing.

The “NBC” is most noticeable just before Elvis takes his seat in “Black Leather Sit-down Show #1” on DVD 1 of the excellent ELVIS: ’68 Comeback Special – Deluxe Edition.

Elvis and his NBC chair, 1968

Elvis and his NBC chair, 1968

Presumably, all of the chairs on stage carry the NBC designation, but the Elvis one is most visible because the other guys generally remain seated.

* * *

George can now brag to his friends and family that he can conquer obscure Elvis trivia questions like the above against the most knowledgable of fans. If you would like the same opportunity, subscribe to The Mystery Train Blog using the feature in the menu bar to the right. That way, you’ll be notified whenever there is a new post – because you never know when the next trivia challenge will come along.


The Hobo Jungle

  • January 11, 2013: George Millar (4:19)
  • December 23, 2012: Thomas (0:36)
  • October 9, 2012: David (14:38) | Honorable Mention: John (22:06)
  • February 4, 2012: Thomas (13:52)
  • February 3, 2012: Thomas (2:18)
  • December 21, 2011: Wellsy (2:37)
  • October 31, 2011: Thomas (17:32)
  • October 1, 2011: Jimmy Cool (1:01)
  • September 9, 2011: Steve Brogdon (0:17) <— Record time
  • August 6, 2011: Thomas (2:26)
  • July 9, 2011: Thomas (5:26)
  • June 23, 2011: Fred Wolfe (0:18)
  • June 22, 2011: Ty stumps the train (no winner)

Empty And Bare: Elvis Trivialities #13

Welcome to the first Elvis Trivialities of 2013. On June 27, 1968, Elvis Presley performed two shows in the round at NBC Studios in Burbank, California, for his ELVIS television special. Known today as the “sit-down” shows, they featured Elvis on electric guitar jamming with friends and bandmates.

Your question is…

What was printed on the backrest of the chair Elvis used during this portion of the ’68 Comeback Special?

If you’re lookin’ for trivia, you came to the right place! The first person to answer this question correctly in the comments below gets a huge slice of freshly baked bragging rights.

Good luck!

Elvis Trivialities On TheMysteryTrainBlog.com