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.


[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

Sweet Inspirations documentary now available on DVD

This Time-A Music Documentary was released May 31 on DVD. Along with other performers, the independent film includes a look at the Sweet Inspirations – the vocal group that backed Elvis on stage from 1969 through his death in 1977.

This looks like a potential must-have for fellow fans of the Sweet Inspirations.

Visit the official site: This Time – A Music Documentary.

Watch the trailer:

See “Documentary on DVD review: ‘This Time’ A Musical Documentary” — Examiner.com for a review.

In 2010, the world lost two members of the Sweet Inspirations, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith.

I originally found this item courtesy of elvis4life’s post on the For Elvis CD Collectors forum.

Sweet Inspiration Myrna Smith, 1941-2010

The Sweet Inspirations (1967)

The Sweet Inspirations (1967)

There is more sad news this month. Myrna Smith, a member of the Sweet Inspirations vocal group, has passed away. She was 69.

The Sweet Inspirations backed Elvis on stage from his return to live performances in 1969 through his death in 1977, performing with him in over a thousand concerts. Before becoming an integral part of Elvis’ live show, the Sweets were already a Grammy-winning gospel group that had backed Aretha Franklin, among others. Outside of their time with Elvis, their best known hit as a group was “Sweet Inspiration,” which was released as a single in 1968.

Myrna appears with Elvis in the documentary movies That’s The Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972). She also appears with him in the television specials Aloha From Hawaii (1973) and Elvis In Concert (1977). “They help me get a feeling and get to my soul,” Elvis said of the group in 1969.

She can be heard on the following Elvis albums released during his lifetime:

  • From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis (Elvis In Person At The International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada) [1969]
  • On Stage-February 1970 [1970]
  • That’s The Way It Is
  • Worldwide Gold Award Hits, Volume 2 [1971]
  • Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden [1972] (includes Elvis introducing Myrna)
  • Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite [1973]
  • Elvis (Fool)
  • Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis [1974]
  • Pure Gold [1975]
  • Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 2 [1976]
  • From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
  • Welcome To My World [1977]
  • Moody Blue

She also can be heard on countless other Elvis albums released since his death.

She loved Elvis “like a brother”

In a 2005 interview available on Elvis Australia, Myrna shared a special memory of Elvis:

This is when we first met him, y’know. [Elvis] had us up at the penthouse, and he was playing 45s. We were having a little party, a little get-together – drinks at the bar and stuff. [He] came up to me and said, ‘Do you wanna dance?’ It was a slow record. So I said, ‘O.K.’

“And I don’t think that Elvis had ever danced with a black woman before, because he started dancing with me, [and] I felt like just grabbing him and holding him, ’cause his whole body was trembling.

“And, but he was, y’know, he was shy anyway. But all these girls, y’know, that he’d been around, and he’s this macho lover, whatever, and he was [really] just a little boy […] that’s what he was, y’know.

“I looked upon him, a part of my family, like. [W]hen he died and I was screaming, my mother said, ‘He’s not in the family. [Why] are you cry[ing], [why] are you breaking up?’

“Because I love him, he’s like a brother.”

Myrna dated Jerry Schilling, one of Elvis’ best friends, for a number of years. After Elvis’ death, the two married. Schilling went on to manage the Beach Boys, and Myrna co-wrote many of the songs on Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s 1981 self-titled solo album. Her marriage with Schilling ended in 1985 after five years, but the two remained friends.

In recent years, the Sweet Inspirations have continued to record albums and have performed in the Elvis Presley In Concert touring show.

Myrna, thank you for sharing your incredible voice with all of us. You will be missed, but always remembered.

My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends during this time.

* * *

Sylvia Shemwell, another member of the Sweet Inspirations, passed away earlier this year.

* * *

Additional Research Sources

  • The Elvis Encyclopedia by Adam Victor, Overlook Duckworth, New York, 2008.
  • Elvis Presley: A Life In Music – The Complete Recording Sessions by Ernst Jorgensen, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998.
  • Me And A Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship With Elvis Presley by Jerry Schilling with Chuck Crisafulli, Gotham Books, New York, 2006.
  • ELVIS: His Life From A To Z by Fred Worth and Steve Tamerius, Wings Books, New York, 1992.

Please pray for Myrna Smith

From ElvisMatters:

We’d like to ask […] all the visitors of this website to please pray for Myrna Smith. This is the latest from her friend Carole: “I just […] found out that hospice at West Hills Hospital has been brought in […]. This means that dialysis treatments have been stopped and Myrna will be slowly weaned of the feeding tube. […] It is just a matter of time, but I think it is best for Myrna. Please keep her in your prayers.”

Update on Sweet Inspiration Myrna Smith

Elvis Unlimited yesterday posted an update on Myrna Smith, who provided backing vocals for Elvis from 1969 to 1977 as a member of the Sweet Inspirations. “Myrna continues to be very weak, her health is not good, & she sleeps most of the time. She is still getting dialysis three times a week,” reports the site.

For more information, read the full update on Myrna at Elvis Unlimited.

I’ve been listening to Myrna for as long as I’ve been listening to Elvis – basically my whole life. I wish her well.

Elvis news . . . in a flash

Now that we’re starting to get back to “normal” here on The Mystery Train Elvis Blog after wall-to-wall coverage of Elvis On Tour, I thought it would be a good chance to catch up on some of the other things going on in the Elvis world.

Too much, plus tax

While I’ve got some book and Blu-ray reviews in the works, one upcoming Elvis release I’m not likely to be reviewing anytime soon is The Complete Elvis Presley Masters collection, formally announced by Sony Legacy this week and available for pre-order. This 30-CD set checks in at $749 US, plus tax and shipping.

The initial run is limited to only 1,000 units worldwide. You get 814 recordings, a new 240-page hardcover book, and a display case.

Don’t get me wrong here. This looks like a terrific set, and I’m drooling over it as we speak! $749 is simply too much for me personally, especially considering I already have all of the songs (though not always in the same sound quality as what will no doubt be included on this set).

Checking out the other Elvis blogs

Over on Elvis Today, Thomas recently reviewed the FTD edition of How Great Thou Art. He notes, “Getting a front seat in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville and being able to listen to Elvis’ new producer Felton Jarvis directing the session with his supportive comments and encouragement, offers a valuable insight into how the recordings took place and how the songs evolved.” Certainly, a must-read post and, apparently, a must-listen CD set as well.

Phil has some great coverage this week on ElvisBlog about what he calls “Two Very Rare, Weird, and Valuable Elvis Records.” Each one of those rare records will actually cost far more than the 30-CD set referenced above, by the way. One features “Doncha’ Think It’s Time” by Elvis accidentally pressed by RCA on a record labeled as “One For The Money (Part 1)” by The Whispers. How Elvis’ 1958 recording ended up on this 1976 single is anyone’s guess.

This reminded me of a similar mistake that Sony Legacy recently made – in reverse! Some editions of their 2-CD reissue of On Stage-February 1970 have an Alice In Chains album as the first CD – though it is still labeled as Elvis. Sony is offering a disc exchange, but that’s one I’d recommend keeping if you happen to have it, even if you don’t like Alice In Chains. It’s kind of a double collectible, for Alice In Chains fans may want to obtain this unique disc as well.

Continue keeping Myrna Smith in your prayers

One of the beautiful voices you’ll hear on the real version of On Stage is that of Myrna Smith. Because of Elvis, I’ve been listening to Myrna for all of my life.

I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but I want to bring it up again. If you’re going to be in Memphis during Elvis Week, be sure to attend Elvis Unlimited‘s Back In Memphis concert, which will benefit Myrna – a founding member of the Sweet Inspirations vocal group that backed Elvis in concert performances from 1969 until his death in 1977. Myrna is hospitalized with a serious illness in California and the medical bills are quickly adding up. Kudos to Elvis Unlimited for taking the initiative to bring fans together to help her.

Even if you can’t attend the show, keep Myrna in your prayers, everyone. May she recover soon.

Benefit concert for Sweet Inspiration Myrna Smith at Elvis Week

Please see the following post over at the Elvis Today blog: Benefit Concert For Myrna Smith At Elvis Week. Thanks to Thomas for letting us know about this event.