Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show
(Simon & Schuster, $28)
In the summer of 1969, a concert unfolded that was so unprecedented, it “permanently altered the landscape of popular music,” said James Gaddy in Bloomberg.com. OK, maybe you can think of others, but Time critic Richard Zoglin is here to convince us that Elvis Presley’s comeback performance in Las Vegas was a great pop-culture moment—one that transformed the city and should have cemented Presley’s reputation as a showman. Of course, the initial 50-show run transformed the Elvis of more distant memories into “the sequin-jumpsuited hunka hunka burning love we know today.” But in those early Vegas shows, Presley was also energetic, full-voiced, thin, and in complete command of a bombastic band of 60 musicians. Almost single-handedly, he transformed Sin City into America’s capital of family-friendly spectacle.
Zoglin’s book isn’t all Elvis, said Michael Lindgren in Newsday. “At least half of it is taken up by a breezy history of Vegas in its Rat Pack glory years,” the era that was in twilight when Elvis arrived. But here too Zoglin urges a rethink of Vegas, arguing that the city nurtured innovative dance choreography and that Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene were once comedy revolutionaries. “This is outstanding pop-culture history,” and it only gets better when Zoglin makes his case for circa-1969 Elvis, a 34-year-old seeking to build on the momentum of a standout 1968 TV performance. Not that Zoglin claims Elvis’ Vegas show was high art. He calls it “schmaltz raised to the sublime.”
The good vibes didn’t last, of course, said Eddie Dean in The Wall Street Journal. Though Elvis headlined more than 600 sold-out Vegas shows, his growing dependence on drugs precipitated a decline that culminated in his fatal heart attack in 1977, when he was just 42. Vegas clearly got more from the alliance: Elvis impersonators still crowd the city’s streets today; more importantly, big-name performers still follow his lead with their own late-career Vegas shows. But maybe Zoglin oversells that legacy. “Making the Strip safe for aging, Botoxed rock geezers may be one of Presley’s more dubious achievements.” ■