A Squirrel Loose at the Big, Freaky International Hotel (Part 4: The Epic Conclusion) [Playlist Recipes #7]

This is the finale of a 4-part look at Sony’s 2019 Elvis Live 1969 boxed set, which contains all 11 concerts RCA recorded during Elvis Presley’s August 1969 engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

[Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3]

To paraphrase Elvis, there ain’t no end to this post, baby! I have committed not to push this review to five parts, however, as to move on to other topics next week.

That said, I still want to delve into some song and show specifics for the 1969 engagement, so today’s post is going to run long, amounting to a double ride. No extra charge. To help with this portion of the discussion, my analytical side provided the following infochart.

Elvis Presley Summer 1969 Setlists Infochart | Click image for larger version | Compiled by Tygrrius

Though not part of the 11-CD Elvis Live 1969 boxed set, which focuses on RCA’s multitrack recordings, I included the informal soundboard recording from the early days of the engagement for reference as well. To date, its only official CD release as a more-or-less “full” show remains FTD’s The Return To Vegas. It would have made a great bonus disc on the Elvis Live 1969 set, as the overall feel of this show is slightly different than a few weeks later, and it even features an extended version of “Mystery Train” and a couple of alternate arrangements. Perhaps it was a cost-saving measure.

Anyway, focusing on the 11 shows that RCA recorded, Elvis performed 13 of the songs every single night – most of which formed the beginning and end of the shows. Of these, the strongest are “Suspicious Minds,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “Runaway,” “In The Ghetto,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “All Shook Up.” With the studio version released as a single during this engagement and destined to become Elvis’ last number one hit, “Suspicious Minds” is particularly stunning. The 1969 live version stands as an incredible example of how Elvis reinvented his sound for these shows.

Most disappointing among the core songs are “Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel” and “Baby, What You Want Me To Do.” “Jailhouse Rock” pales in comparison to the 1957 studio master as well as the 1968 live master. Both it and “Baby, What You Want Me To Do” notably lack the raw power and punch of the ELVIS television special performances from the previous summer. Understandably, there is a difference between performing 4 shows in 2 nights for a television special versus 57 shows in 29 nights for this Vegas engagement. Elvis no doubt needed to save his voice, but these performances in particular come up short.

Though many others are nearly as good, the one song Elvis improves in 1969 over his 1968 rendition is the “Tiger Man” portion of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” fueled by James Burton on lead guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums. Like “Suspicious Minds,” the powerhouse “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is a true highlight of this engagement. Unfortunately, Elvis drops it in favor of “Johnny B. Goode” for a couple of the shows. Now, one of those “Johnny B. Goode” performances was quite incredible and made it onto Elvis In Person, but I wish Elvis had dropped something else on those two occasions to make room for it, such as “Runaway.” That is no slam on “Runaway,” which I absolutely love and is among the highlights of the engagement for me.

A better substitution that Elvis provides on four nights is replacing the weak “Memories” with “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” I enjoy the studio versions of “Memories,” as recorded for the 1968 ELVIS special, but it just never worked live.

Additional highlights of the overall 11-concert span include three performances of “My Babe” and several of “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

Of the one-off songs, the only one that really stands out from a performance perspective is “Reconsider Baby,” the blues song that Elvis returned to time and again over the years. “Rubberneckin’,” “Inherit The Wind,” and the abysmal “This Is The Story” are notable solely because these are the only live versions available. “Rubberneckin'” would have worked better with an arrangement closer to the funky studio master.

Though released as a limited edition 2-record set earlier in 2019, the August 23 Dinner Show makes its CD debut here. Not a single performance had previously been released on CD from this show – the only such concert on the set. The show is also unusual in that the Imperials backing group is not present, leaving full duties to the Sweet Inspirations – my preference, anyway. The show features exceptional versions of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “I Got A Woman,” and “What’d I Say” – the last of which benefits from a shorter rendition than the other shows.


“I had sideburns. Long hair. Fourteen years ago, it was weird. You think it’s weird now? Fourteen years ago, I couldn’t walk around the street: ‘Get him! Get him! […] He’s a squirrel.’ So I was […] shaking. In fact, that’s how I got in this business was shaking. It may be how I get out of it, too.”
–Elvis Presley, 1969

Four weeks ago now, I decided to write a post where I would share what I consider the best version of every song that RCA recorded during the Summer 1969 engagement. “I will kick it off by mentioning the Elvis Live 1969 boxed set from last year,” I thought – not intending to write a review. It would be a couple paragraphs and then the song list. Done. An easy post to warm up the engine of The Mystery Train Blog again.

Well, here we are, 4 weeks, 4 posts, and over 4,500 words later, and I am finally coming to the original intent of that very first post (after, of course, having written a rather haphazard review after all).

Before I backed up these shows to iTunes, I separated out the majority of the talking portions as their own tracks (oh, if only Sony would do this, it would save me so much time). This allows me to create playlists more focused on the music – which improves the 1969 experience to a huge degree. To an extent, you can replicate this by pressing skip at the end of most tracks, as Sony normally places all of the talking at the end of a track (even if that talking introduces the next song, another pet peeve of mine — but that’s why I just save them the way I want them).

Here is my “August 1969 Ultimate Show” playlist recipe for this concert engagement. As we just discussed, Elvis’ setlist varied to some extent each night, so no single show actually contained all of these songs.

Disc references are to the Elvis Live 1969 set, but of course, you could use any available previous release as well. This playlist clocks in at about 71 minutes, keeping in mind my iTunes versions of the tracks have most of the talking trimmed out to separate tracks.

  1. Opening Riff/Blue Suede Shoes (8/25/1969 Dinner Show [DS]) 2:36 (Disc 8)
  2. I Got A Woman (8/23/1969 DS) 3:05 (Disc 4)
  3. All Shook Up (8/26/1969 Midnight Show [MS]) 1:32 (Disc 11)
  4. Love Me Tender (8/26/1969 MS) 2:21 (Disc 11)
  5. Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel (8/24/1969 DS) 2:12 (Disc 6)
  6. Heartbreak Hotel (8/24/1969 DS) 1:56 (Disc 6)
  7. Hound Dog (8/22/1969 DS) 1:48 (Disc 2)
  8. Memories (8/25/1969 DS) 2:50 (Disc 8)
  9. I Can’t Stop Loving You (8/25/1969 MS) 2:36 (Disc 9)
  10. My Babe (8/22/1969 MS) 2:00 (Disc 3)
  11. Mystery Train/Tiger Man (8/22/1969 MS) 3:21 (Disc 3)
  12. Johnny B. Goode (8/24/1969 MS) 2:10 (Disc 7)
  13. Baby, What You Want Me To Do (8/25/1969 MS) 1:52 (Disc 9)
  14. Funny How Time Slips Away (8/22/1969 MS) 2:21 (Disc 3)
  15. Surrender (8/21/1969 MS) 0:29 (Disc 1)
  16. Runaway (8/23/1969 MS) 2:16 (Disc 5)
  17. Loving You (8/23/1969 DS) 0:21 (Disc 4)
  18. Are You Laughing Tonight (8/26/1969 MS) 2:53 (Disc 11)
  19. Reconsider Baby (8/23/1969 MS) 3:28 (Disc 5)
  20. Words (8/24/1969 MS) 2:31 (Disc 7)
  21. Yesterday/Hey Jude (8/25/1969 DS) 4:15 (Disc 8)
  22. Inherit The Wind (8/26/1969 DS) 2:52 (Disc 10)
  23. Rubberneckin’ (8/26/1969 MS) 2:21 (Disc 11)
  24. This Is The Story (8/26/1969 MS) 2:46 (Disc 11)
  25. In The Ghetto (8/25/1969 DS) 2:47 (Disc 8)
  26. Suspicious Minds (8/25/1969 MS) 7:14 (Disc 9)
  27. What’d I Say (8/23/1969 DS) 1:57 (Disc 4)
  28. Can’t Help Falling In Love (8/26/1969 DS) 2:10 (Disc 10)

While it was not my intent, nor even a consideration in crafting this list, it turns out that all 11 shows are represented – an indication of Elvis’ strength and consistency during this Vegas engagement (though the August 21 Midnight Show barely squeaks in with a short version of “Surrender”).

For those of you who want to include them (you know who you are), you could slot in the “Monologue” career retrospective from the August 24 Dinner Show before “Baby, What You Want Me To Do” and add “Introductions By Elvis” from the August 21 Midnight Show prior to “In The Ghetto.” This adds less than nine minutes, resulting in a total length of just under 80 minutes for the August 1969 Ultimate Show. That’s right in line with the length of the August 23 Midnight Show, but with nine more songs due to less talking throughout.

After careful analysis, my favorite show of the 1969 engagement is the August 25 Midnight Show, disc 9 of Elvis Live 1969 and previously released on FTD’s excellent Hot August Night. It features top-notch versions of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Runaway,” “My Babe,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “All Shook Up,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” among others. In fact, 7 of the 12 masters that RCA chose for Elvis In Person came from this show. That is probably the only reason it is not better represented in my August 1969 Ultimate Show playlist above, as I was tending to avoid master versions in the event of a tie with another version. Elvis may have put a little extra into this particular show due to the celebrities in attendance, including Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Hackett, and Shelley Fabares.


ELVIS LIVE 1969 (Sony, 2019) | Click image for larger, full-color version | Original image credit: Sony

“If I take time out to drink water, just look at me and say, ‘Is that him? I thought he was bigger than that. Squirrelly-looking guy.'”
–Elvis Presley, 1969

If you’re not in for the whole Elvis Live 1969 boxed set, 2010’s On Stage: Legacy Edition (Sony) is probably sufficient for casual or budget-minded fans, as it neatly highlights Elvis’ Summer 1969 and Winter 1970 Vegas engagements on 2 CDs and can still be found for about $12 US. CD 2 features Elvis In Person as well as additional songs recorded live in 1969. Keep in mind that both “Runaway” and “Yesterday” on the On Stage album, featured on CD 1, are from August 1969 as well.

If you are more on the obsessive side like me, but don’t already have most of these shows, I can definitely recommend Elvis Live 1969. Just be sure to shop around, as Elvis Live 1969 can often be found quite reasonably priced – considering the number of included shows. For example, Graceland is charging full list price as of this writing, but you can find it elsewhere for less than 60% of that price.

Among Elvis’ Las Vegas engagements at the International/Hilton Hotel, Summer 1969 ranks second only to Summer 1970 for me. I place Winter 1970 third. While the number of available shows in official releases is significantly less and disallows detailed comparisons, subsequent Vegas seasons in 1971-1976 are nowhere close to the 3 of 1969 & 1970.

To see one of these 1969 shows must have been something really special.

Blessings,
TY


“You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail.”
Proverb 19:21

A Squirrel Loose at the Big, Freaky International Hotel (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a look at Sony’s Elvis Live 1969 boxed set (2019), which contains all 11 concerts RCA recorded in Elvis Presley’s August 1969 engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

[Read Part 1.]

“It’s getting loose at the International, boy!”
–Elvis Presley, 1969

The 11-disc Elvis Live 1969 is unfortunately housed in an 8-inch format box, such as used for 2012’s 3-disc Prince From Another Planet, rather than the 12-inch style, such as used for 2014’s 10-disc That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition or 2018’s 6-disc ELVIS: ’68 Comeback Special – 50th Anniversary Edition. The 12-inch style harkens back to the days of LP record albums, while the 8-inch style is out of place on both CD and record shelves. Use of the 8-inch box was evidently a cost-saving move, but the set would have benefited so much from the larger format. Even at 8-inches, the set at a glance appears beautiful, but looks can be deceiving.

Elvis Live 1969 includes a 50-page booklet documenting the 1969 Vegas engagement. The opening Foreword, as with some of the marketing material associated with this set, quotes Elvis from his 1972 press conference for his Madison Square Garden appearances three years later about why he returned to performing live. As he tells the same story no less than 11 times on this very set, I would have preferred the use of 1969 quotes.

Reading like one of the over-the-top press releases that Sony lately uses to promote Elvis CDs, the unsigned Foreword also notes:

“After Elvis’ disastrous two-week 1956 Vegas engagement at the New Frontier Hotel, thirteen years later, his victorious live return in the same city made the meteoric success of his sold-out run (July 31-August 28, 1969/29 shows in total) that much sweeter.”

I call this out not to sicken you with the syrupy language, but to highlight an error. Elvis performed 57 shows during the date ranges of this engagement, not 29. The singer performed two shows a night throughout the month-long engagement (July 31 consisted only of the Opening Show). Even the very boxed set that the Foreword introduces features 11 shows recorded in the course of 6 days (beginning with the August 21 Midnight Show and concluding with the August 26 Midnight Show).

A bigger guffaw occurs in the tracklisting at the end of the booklet. Both CD 5 and CD 9 are listed as the “August 25, 1969, Midnight Show.” CD 5 actually contains the August 23 Midnight Show. Thankfully, the disc contents and label are correct.

Regarding such mistakes, you might ask, “Who cares?” Apparently not those responsible for Elvis releases. Allowing myself to veer off track just for a moment, Sony’s Follow That Dream (FTD) collectors label for Elvis fans routinely releases such errors. Two of the most embarrassing examples when it comes to text are misspelling “Presley” on the spine of 2008’s Wild In The Country and misspelling “Burning Love” on the back cover of this year’s St. Louis/Spokane. On the same St. Louis/Spokane release, the back cover numbers tracks 15-20 as: 15, 16, 16, 16, 21, 20. Though collectors pay premium prices for these releases compared to mainstream CDs, FTD is a small, boutique label with minimal resources and a limited target market. Sure, most 5-year-olds could have caught the counting errors, but let’s not talk about that.

Getting back to Elvis Live 1969, I note the two sloppy examples in the booklet (and there are others, but that is not the focus of this review) as unfortunate indicators that the carelessness condoned at the small FTD label has bled over into a full-fledged release like this one on the main Sony Legacy label.

Sony Legacy’s ELVIS LIVE 1969 boxed set – booklet in foreground of CD holders (2019, from Tygrrius’ collection)

The rest of the booklet consists primarily of excerpts from Ken Sharp‘s excellent Elvis: Vegas ’69 book from 2009. Those who were there, including Elvis himself, tell the story of the concert engagement through first-hand accounts. If you are a fan of the era, as I am, the full book is definitely worth seeking. However, the booklet as presented in Elvis Live 1969 provides a nice, abridged version to go with the CDs.

The 11 CDs are packaged in two cardboard holders. “Packaged” is a polite term. They are mercilessly wedged into two cardboard holders. Use caution extracting a CD to prevent damaging the disc, the holder, or both. Why Sony continues to use ridiculous forms of packaging, which so often fail to serve the singular purpose of protecting the discs, is beyond me. While I backed mine up to iTunes, if you plan routinely to play the original discs I would suggest you place them in more accessible cases as to avoid almost certain damage over time.

Use of imagery from vintage International Hotel menus and advertising in the holder for CDs 1-5 is fun, and I wish that concept had been extended to both holders. Some of the interior Elvis photo choices for the holders are baffling, including two, count them, two photos of Elvis apparently raising his armpit to the audience in the holder for CDs 6-11. These are, of course, shots capturing a split moment in time while Elvis is in motion, but why spotlight such awkward photos when better ones are available elsewhere in this very same set?

I must remind you that I did not set out to write a review when I began this post a week ago. I, therefore, have gone about this in a different manner than if I planned it out in a logical fashion. So, I have covered thus far mixing and packaging, but what I have mostly left out to this point is the star of the show, Elvis Presley.

When it comes to the Elvis aspects of Elvis Live 1969, I must admit to a small degree of disappointment. I have enthusiastically reviewed a number of previous releases of individual concerts from this engagement in the past, so I was surprised at this reaction.

Compared to That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition, which similarly compiles 6 of his shows from his 3rd engagement at the same Vegas hotel the following summer, Elvis Live 1969 feels like a slight let-down.

While Summer 1969 wins out in head-to-head comparisons of the same songs in just about every case (“Words” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” being the only two exceptions that come immediately to mind), the overall Summer 1970 shows are superior, if that makes any sense, at least during the filming of That’s The Way It Is, with better/more varied setlists and a more polished performer. In both seasons, Elvis is at the very top of his game, to be clear, but Summer 1970 is more entertaining than Summer 1969. How blessed we are, as fans, to have his two best concert series so well documented.

Next week, we’ll dive into more of the Elvis details as we continue and possibly conclude our look at Elvis Live 1969.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 3]


“He holds in his hands the depths of the earth and the mightiest mountains. The sea belongs to him, for he made it. His hands formed the dry land, too.”
Psalm 95:4-5

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

Elvis embarks on THE RETURN TO VEGAS

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.

THE RETURN TO VEGAS booklet cover

THE RETURN TO VEGAS booklet cover

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!

Tracks

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
08. Memories
09. Mystery Train/Tiger Man
10. Monologue *
11. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight
13. Yesterday/Hey Jude
14. Introductions
15. In The Ghetto
16. Suspicious Minds
17. What’d I Say
18. Can’t Help Falling In Love

* Previously released

Elvis conquers Vegas in 1969 with FTD

Cover concept art for THE RETURN TO VEGAS CD

Cover concept art for THE RETURN TO VEGAS CD. One hopes this amateurish effort will be replaced by time of release.

Follow That Dream will soon release the earliest known recording from the 1969 Las Vegas engagement that helped reignite Elvis Presley’s career. Add this news to Sony’s 10-disc That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition set (track listing for that coming in my next post) and Warner Home Video’s That’s The Way It Is: Special Edition Blu-ray set coming in August, and 2014 is truly the return of the “Elvis Summer Festival.”

The Return To Vegas features an undated soundboard recording from early August 1969. RCA’s formal recordings of the concert series did not begin until later that month. FTD, Sony’s collectors label for Elvis fans, plans to release the show in late June – meaning it probably will not reach most consumers until sometime in July.

Though it has made the rounds on bootleg, this marks the first official release of the show – other than an entertaining monologue track previously included on the notorious 1974 album Having Fun With Elvis On Stage.

This early August soundboard recording is probably the closest we will ever come to hearing the legendary July 31, 1969, show that opened the engagement, so this has been one of my most anticipated concert releases. What a summer this will be.

Below is the press release from FTD, as well as the track listing.

[The Return To Vegas] is the official release of the soundboard recording that Joan Deary planned as a double album release back in the late seventies. It’s the earliest known professional recording from Elvis’ 1969 engagement in Las Vegas. The original tape box has “opening night” written on the back, but that’s not the real date. Some experts believe it’s from August 3, but we have no information whatsoever to suggest a certain date.

However, the arrangements seem to suggest that this show is definitely several days earlier than the shows RCA recorded from August 20 and onwards. Why Joan Deary edited and mastered this for release is another mystery, since she of course had all the shows RCA recorded on 8-track tape with audio in substantially better quality. This release comes in a 7″ digi-pack with a 12-page booklet, featuring great photos from the collections of Steve Barile & Jim Patino, and a foreword by Ken Sharp.

Tracks

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
08. Memories
09. Mystery Train/Tiger Man
10. Monologue *
11. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight
13. Yesterday/Hey Jude
14. Introductions
15. In The Ghetto
16. Suspicious Minds
17. What’d I Say
18. Can’t Help Falling In Love

* Previously released

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS Legacy Edition out today, with bonus Richmond concert

Before we begin, a reminder that there are less than 13 hours left to lock in your predictions bracket for Elvis Mania 2014. The person with the highest score will receive a Sony Legacy Edition CD of an Elvis title, courtesy of The Mystery Train Blog. See yesterday’s post for more details. [Update: Predictions are now locked.]

* * *

Forty years ago today, on March 18, 1974, Elvis Presley rocked the Richmond Coliseum in Virginia. A live recording of the concert features on the second CD of a new Legacy Edition of Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis, in stores today from Sony.

The first CD features a complete version of the March 20 Memphis concert at the Mid-South Coliseum that RCA first released in an edited form in 1974. Elvis earned his third and final Grammy Award for his performance of “How Great Thou Art” in Memphis on that original 1974 album.

The Follow That Dream collectors label for Elvis fans restored the missing tracks from the Memphis concert and removed unnecessary audience overdubs in a 2004 Classic Albums CD release of the title, including a new mix. The same label also issued the expanded show in vinyl format as a 2-record set last year. This new 2014 Legacy Edition features yet another new mix of the Memphis concert.

The Richmond concert made its debut in 2011’s Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis on the FTD label. This new release features the same mix of the Richmond show as on the 2011 collectors CD.

The Elvis Presley Show crisscrossed back and forth from Virginia to Tennessee on that leg of his tour. Tickets for a March 12 appearance at the Richmond Coliseum sold out so quickly that Elvis’s management re-routed the tour to accommodate a second show there on March 18. Elvis performed four shows in Memphis on March 16 and 17, hit Richmond, Virginia, again on March 18, and then returned to Tennessee for concerts in Murfreesboro and Memphis on March 19 and 20, respectively.

RCA professionally recorded the March 20 Memphis concert for the album project. It is a 16-track recording (audio elements recorded on separate channels) that can be tweaked for optimum sound quality. The Memphis show is presented in stereo.

Though the background story remains mysterious, the March 18 Richmond concert was supposedly captured as a 16-track recording, too. If so, it remains missing from the Sony vaults – lost, stolen, or erased.

The Richmond concert audio source on both the 2011 and 2014 releases is a tape copy of a mono mix-down of the 16-track recording, with artificial reverb applied. In other words, no further changes can be made to the Richmond mix or reverb since the 16-track original is unavailable.

While Elvis’s sound engineers often made informal reference tapes of his shows from the soundboard mixing console, the Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis liner notes in 2011 only speculated about why RCA apparently recorded the Richmond concert in multitrack. The 2014 Legacy Edition refers to the Richmond show as a “test run concert” for the subsequent Memphis recording.

Five selections from an August 16, 1974, rehearsal at RCA Hollywood for an upcoming Las Vegas engagement round out the second CD of the release. Captured on a personal cassette recorder, the rehearsals are in comparatively poor sound quality. The five tracks were among twenty from the rehearsal included as part of the 2009 FTD release From Sunset To Las Vegas.

In addition to participating retail stores, the 2014 Legacy Edition of Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis is also available from Amazon and other online outlets.

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS (2014 Legacy Edition)

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS (2014 Legacy Edition)

Tracks

Disc One

Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis, March 20, 1974
01. Also Sprach Zarathustra/
02. See See Rider
03. I Got A Woman/Amen
04. Love Me
05. Tryin’ To Get To You
06. All Shook Up
07. Steamroller Blues
08. Teddy Bear/Don’t Be Cruel
09. Love Me Tender
10. Long Tall Sally/Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On/Your Mama Don’t Dance/Flip, Flop & Fly/Jailhouse Rock/Hound Dog
11. Fever
12. Polk Salad Annie
13. Why Me Lord
14. How Great Thou Art
15. Suspicious Minds
16. Introductions By Elvis
17. Blueberry Hill/I Can’t Stop Loving You
18. Help Me
19. An American Trilogy
20. Let Me Be There
21. My Baby Left Me
22. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
23. Funny How Time Slips Away
24. Can’t Help Falling In Love/
25. Closing Vamp

Disc Two

Recorded Live At The Coliseum, Richmond, March 18, 1974
01. Also Sprach Zarathustra/
02. See See Rider
03. I Got A Woman/Amen [edited with Memphis, March 20, 1974]
04. Love Me
05. Tryin’ To Get To You
06. All Shook Up
07. Steamroller Blues
08. Teddy Bear/Don’t Be Cruel
09. Love Me Tender
10. Long Tall Sally/Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On/Your Mama Don’t Dance/Flip, Flop & Fly/Jailhouse Rock/Hound Dog
11. Fever
12. Polk Salad Annie
13. Why Me Lord
14. Suspicious Minds
15. Introductions By Elvis
16. I Can’t Stop Loving You
17. Help Me
18. An American Trilogy
19. Let Me Be There
20. Funny How Time Slips Away
21. Can’t Help Falling In Love/
22. Closing Vamp

The August 1974 RCA Rehearsals
23. Down In The Alley
24. Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues
25. Softly, As I Leave You
26. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
27. The Twelfth Of Never

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS Legacy Edition to include Richmond, Virginia concert (Conductor’s Reflections #15)

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS (2014 Legacy Edition)

ELVIS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS (2014 Legacy Edition)

One of my favorite CD releases on the Follow That Dream collectors label for Elvis Presley fans is 2011’s Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis, which captures a March 18, 1974, concert that Elvis performed at the Richmond Coliseum in Virginia.

The confusing album title reflects that Elvis closed out his tour two days after the Richmond concert with a show in Memphis at the Mid-South Coliseum, portions of which became the 1974 album Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. Elvis earned his third and final Grammy Award for his stellar performance of “How Great Thou Art” in Memphis on the original 1974 album.

The link between the two shows continues, for Sony announced last week that it will reissue the Richmond concert on the second disc of a Legacy Edition of Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. While the FTD collectors label has very limited distribution, this new 2-CD release on the main Sony label hits mainstream retail stores on March 18, the 40th anniversary of the Richmond concert. Amazon and other outlets are accepting pre-orders now.

The Elvis Presley Show crisscrossed back and forth from Virginia to Tennessee on that leg of his tour. Tickets for his March 12 appearance at the Richmond Coliseum sold out so quickly that the tour was re-routed to accommodate a second show there on March 18. Elvis performed four shows in Memphis on March 16 and 17, hit Richmond, Virginia, again on March 18, and then returned to Tennessee for concerts in Murfreesboro and Memphis on March 19 and 20, respectively.

Elvis Presley's March 1974 tour schedule (partial)

Elvis Presley’s March 1974 tour schedule (partial)

For space considerations on the original LP, RCA edited several songs out of the March 20 Memphis concert for the 1-record release in July 1974. The album also featured overdubbed audience reactions that detracted from the sound quality. FTD restored the missing tracks and removed the unnecessary overdubs in a 2004 Classic Albums CD release of the concert, including a new mix. The same label also issued the expanded show in vinyl format as a 2-record set last year.

It turned out that RCA chose well in 1974 which performances to use on the original record, though. The performance quality of many of the excised songs was underwhelming, with the exception of a fine rendition of “Steamroller Blues,” first released on Platinum: A Life In Music over two decades later. The energetic Memphis version was superior to his live recording of the song in Hawaii that served as a single in 1973.

This new Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis Legacy Edition will also include the previously omitted songs, but whether a new or an existing mix will be featured is unclear.

In fact, Sony’s press release for this album is riddled with errors, an issue far too common these days in the marketing of Elvis music releases, so it is difficult to trust any of its statements. For that reason, I am not even including Sony’s alleged track listing at this point. Suffice it for now to say that Disc 1 will contain the Memphis show, while Disc 2 will contain the Richmond show and some low-fidelity bonus tracks recorded on a personal cassette player of Elvis rehearsing a few months later for yet another Las Vegas stint.

RCA professionally recorded the March 20 Memphis concert for the album project. It is a 16-track recording (audio elements recorded on separate channels) that can be tweaked for optimum sound quality. Though I enjoyed the 2004 FTD mix over the original 1974 version, another new mix could be revealing. The Memphis show is presented in stereo.

Though the background story remains mysterious, the March 18 Richmond concert was supposedly captured as a 16-track recording, too. If so, it remains missing from the Sony vaults – lost, stolen, or erased.

The Richmond concert audio source on both the 2011 and 2014 releases is a tape copy of a mono mix-down of the 16-track recording, with artificial reverb applied. In other words, no further changes can be made to the Richmond mix or reverb since the 16-track original is unavailable. The Richmond concert is not likely to sound very different from Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis on this reissue, if at all.

While Elvis’s sound engineers often made informal reference tapes of his shows from the soundboard mixing console, the Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis liner notes in 2011 only speculated about why RCA apparently recorded the Richmond concert in multitrack.

However, the 2014 Sony press release refers to the Richmond show as a “test run concert” for the subsequent Memphis recording. Some have theorized that the test copy is in mono due to Elvis’s preference for that format over stereo, though his previous live albums had been stereo releases. Perhaps the accompanying Legacy Edition booklet will reveal new information.

Elvis at the Richmond Coliseum, March 18, 1974 (FTD)

Elvis at the Richmond Coliseum, March 18, 1974 (FTD)

In the years leading up to 1974, many of Elvis’s concerts were superior to this particular show in Richmond. However, as with the Memphis show, the fun concert features Elvis in a fantastic mood interacting with fans. Music highlights in Richmond include “Steamroller Blues,” “Polk Salad Annie,” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Over the course of 21 years, Elvis performed 15 concerts in Richmond. The 14th of these shows was captured on Forty-Eight Hours To Memphis and, from what I have read, this was Elvis’s last great concert in Richmond. He performed in Richmond one final time in 1976, but, by that point, his rising prescription drug addiction and abuse had diminished the power of his shows. Therefore, I consider the March 18, 1974, appearance to be Elvis’s true “last hurrah” in Richmond.

Legacy Questions

I am looking forward to the reissues of both the Richmond and Memphis concerts. Despite my personal enthusiasm as an Elvis fan, I find myself wondering whether these two concerts are appropriate choices for mainstream release in 2014.

I fear that the repetitive nature of these shows compared to other recent Sony releases will use up some of the goodwill shown by music critics in reviews of Elvis At Stax, Prince From Another Planet, and certain other titles released in the last few years.

Will mainstream critics and listeners understand Elvis’s sense of humor? For instance, will some misinterpret his joke in Richmond about it being a pleasure to be back in Hampton Roads as an out-of-it singer not knowing which town he was playing?

By following up 2012’s As Recorded At Madison Square Garden reissue with 2013’s Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite reissue and now 2014’s Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis reissue, is Sony simply committing the same release blunders in the 2010s that RCA made in the 1970s? Has locking into an “anniversary” theme for release choices doomed them to repeat history’s mistakes going forward?

Keep in mind that the 40th anniversary of Having Fun With Elvis On Stage is later this year as well.