Exactly 40 years ago Elvis returned to the concert stage after a long absence during which he solidified his reputation as a darling of the American masses by making horrible movies that everyone who did not live on a coast watched. Let the anniversary celebrations begin. You may as well pop a few Buds over this, middle America; the Woodstock anniversary is coming in a month, and the scent of smoldering weed will waft from senior citizen colonies everywhere.
Elvis anniversary commemorations doubtless will happen all over the planet, and will be but one of a hunka hunka of official and unofficial events planet-wide. The official events will revolve around Graceland, Elvis's Memphis estate-turned-theme park, and around Vegas, where the magic moment occurred amid a hot July. First, a confession about Elvis and me.
"Hound Dog" was the first rock and roll record I bought. It was a 45, which for those too young to recall was kind of a flat black donut with grooves on it.
I bought all the funky little rockers that Elvis made for Memphis's legendary Sun Records, and then tuned out when he switched to RCA and began mass-producing hits. Then he was drafted, his situation satirized in the Broadway show and movie "Bye Bye Birdie."
When your career becomes a joke for Dick Van Dyke, it's over.
Appropriately, when Elvis got out of the Army he retired from mass-producing hits and went into mass-producing generally awful Hollywood movies.
Fast forward ten or so years. It's 1969. Elvis is still churning out Hollywood stinkers, and he still gets hits. However, this music is slick pop crooning far removed from the glory days of Memphis Elvis. For those caught up in the golden age of rock, Elvis's best moments were a faint memory and his late-60s career an embarrassment. The King is a has-been. Rock has passed him by, and he knows it.
What to do? He decides to return to his roots, to performing live, something he had done only once since 1957 (a 1961 benefit for the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Hawaii). His comeback will take place in Las Vegas.
Generally speaking, comeback concerts staged in Vegas mean but one thing - you're no longer simply an embarrassment; you're a lounge act. You're dolled up and singing finger-snapping standards - "Mack the Knife," "One for My Baby," a couple of show tunes, "Moon River" and maybe a medley of your old rockers sweetened up with lush orchestrations.
That's what I expected when I got to Vegas to cover the comeback. Eight or nine months before, I had broken the story of his comeback and now I would get to watch him join the ranks of those who are old and in the way - the King of Rock and Roll singing "My Yiddishe Mama," "Volare," and taking requests.
I was so sure that a debacle loomed that I didn't bother to shake his hand when offered the opportunity. At a pre-concert party, a flunkie asked, "would you like to meet Elvis?"
Though he was standing close enough to smack with a peanut butter and banana sandwich, I said, "No, that's okay."
Who wanted to meet a has-been? I once tried to hold a conversation with Frankie Valli and that was enough, thank you. I wanted to remember Elvis as I imagined him when I bought that copy of "Hound Dog."
So when it came time for the concert I trudged to a VIP table smack up against the stage, sat down across from Henry Mancini, and waited for the has-been singer to flatter the composer with a rendition of "Moon River."
I guess I was wrong, right? After spending an hour watching Elvis rock out just above my head - and ducking flying panties tossed by fans (if memory serves, a bright pink one touched down on Mancini's chrome dome) - I admitted that I was wrong about the King. Here is some of what I went back to the hotel room and wrote 40 years ago:
" ... with the opening song on his first night, it was clear that Elvis Presley still knows how to sing rock 'n' roll. He seems, in fact, to have lost nothing in the past decade ... Elvis Presley came to this place and provided an unbelievable exercise in pure, exciting rock 'n' roll. Despite the flashiness, despite the fact that most of the male customers had awful James Bond fixations and most all the women seemed to dress out of the Fredericks of Hollywood catalogue ... Elvis Presley made Las Vegas an incredible experience."
The experience was incredible enough for me to also participate in conceiving a son there. At least I got THAT right.
For your own Elvis anniversary celebration, here's the recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches: Smear peanut butter on one slice of bread. Spread mashed bananas on another. Merge and fry (both sides, now) in bacon fat. Eat.
Sing "All Shook Up," which goes, "my hands are shaking and my knees are weak."
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