Last Friday night, August 26, was Elvis Presley Night at U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox hosted the Seattle Mariners. While watching the game, I was struck by how many people in the stands came in full Elvis regalia: white jumpsuit costumes, sideburns, the whole package. Just over 39 years after his death, Elvis is still a presence. The broadcast took me back to the one and only time that I saw him in concert — at The International Hotel in Las Vegas August 11, 1970.
Las Vegas was a much different place in those days. Considerably reduced were the size and glitz factors; the town did not have nearly the number of full time residents with all the amenities that entails.
My best friend (now brother-in-law) and I were two college students on vacation there in August ‘70. Las Vegas was absolutely seized up in an Elvis frenzy. His face was ubiquitous: billboards, posters in shop windows, newspaper stories, television features, Elvis fever everywhere.
Through a set of lucky circumstances, we were able to score tickets for the midnight show on the 11th.
The International Hotel, where Elvis was playing, opened the year before: it was the largest hotel on the planet, featuring a 2,000 seat showroom, one of the most capacious venues in town.
The only appropriate word to describe Elvis’s performance is stellar. He was in clarion voice, the band was tight, and the backup singers (The Sweet Inspirations) helped redefine him in a 1970’s uptown trendy fashion.
Setting the tone for the evening was Elvis’s charismatic entrance: he took the stage to Richard Strauss’ blaring theme, Thus Spake Zarathustra. The audience exploded. Highlighting his lean shape was the later maligned white costume which somehow fit him and the occasion perfectly. Remember, bohemian dress defined the world then.
This was a no greatest hits, jukebox concert: surprisingly, the number of covers of current material was notable. And, he gave fresh, not rehashed, readings of his old hits.
Adding to the excitement was the presence of numerous cameramen. This was one of six performances being taped for the feature film “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is,” set for release the following November. Also, the concert was being taped for an album of the same title.
Spontaneous throughout, Elvis appeared not to have a set playlist. There was an abundance of funny free flowing interaction with the audience. For example, he scratched his head, looked at his fingers, and said “beetles everywhere.”
Highlight selections for me included I Just Can’t Help Believing, Proud Mary, and his always effective closing number, I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.
That nights I Just Can’t Help Believing eventually was included in a version of the film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, and was on the album of the same name. The reason I know this is, he blew a lyric on the song and laughed about it (I actually mentioned this to my friend when it happened). It is disconcerting to hear applause on an album when know you were a part of it. Like a time capsule.
Elvis seemed to kiss every lady in the audience during the show. As an instrumental version of Don’t be Cruel played, he invited all of the females down to line up for a kiss. Everyone seemed to comply, some got not only a kiss, but also an autograph. Something that probably would not happen at a concert today.
One last note: The audience was filled with celebrities, including Dionne Warwick and Sid Caesar. Since the latter was one of my mother’s favorites, I asked him for his autograph to give to her. Unfortunately, he personalized it to me. Both sides of the postcard are shown above.
Sad to think that only seven summers later, almost to the day, Elvis passed away. RIP.
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