The Myth of Fat Elvis

History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.

The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.

By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.

And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.

Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.

He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).

In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.

Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegaswrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”

You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.

Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International HotelOn Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.

Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.

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