The Return Of The Prodigy
- In-depth review by Piers Beagley -
On July 31st 1969 Elvis returned to live concert performances for the first time in 8 years.
RCA recorded a series of multi-track concerts, the first of these however was already Elvis’ forty-first performance of the familiar ’69 concert set-list.
On Opening Night itself we know that Elvis was excessively nervous and not relaxed enough with his audience to indulge in any on-stage banter.
While a soundboard of this opening concert would be an astounding discovery - the reality of hearing Elvis perform at his SIXTH ever Hilton concert is only one-step away and demonstrates just how astounding Elvis was within the first few days of this all-important season.
EIN's Piers Beagley investigates..
‘The Return Of A Prodigy’ - by Gravel Road Music.
On July 31st 1969 Elvis returned to live concert performances for the first time in 8 years. For the whole sixties decade his energy and enthusiasm had been sapped by a string of low budget movies and old-fashioned management. The King of Rock’n’Roll who had previously challenged middle-America causing media outrage had been turned into Sunday-afternoon-at-the-flicks family entertainer.
While a glimmer of musical renaissance had been acknowledged by Elvis fans with the R&B 1967 singles Big Boss Man/Guitar Man/US Male nothing would take Elvis back into the Top Twenty until the December 1968 ‘Comeback Special’ and the stunning ‘If I Can Dream’ single.
By June 1969 the astounding Memphis Sessions and ‘In the Ghetto’ had Elvis back to near the top of the charts and gave the general public a chance to believe once again in our musical hero. However it seemed that Colonel Parker was deliberately trying to undermine Elvis’ bold resurgence by following the stunning ‘In The Ghetto’ single with the pallid Hollywood-soundtrack-song June release of ‘Clean Up Your Own Backyard’ instead of another Memphis recording.
So on July 31st 1969 with his last single making only # 35 in the charts (The Beatles had recently managed 5 weeks at Billboard #1 with ‘Get Back’) Elvis still had plenty to prove - but this time with a renewed energy and impetus that could push all challengers out of the way.
Elvis’ first Las Vegas Hilton performances were first acknowledged on record by the RCA November 1969 album ‘Elvis In Person’ which featured a blistering 13 tracks show-casing his incredible August concerts and his re-interpretation of classic oldies along with stunning new material. The 8 minutes live of ‘Suspicious Minds’ – by now a #1 single – was totally breathtaking.
Apart from a couple of other 1969 RCA songs officially released on compilations it wasn’t until 1993 and the bootleg Fort Baxter release ‘Opening Night 1969’ that the awesome power of Elvis in concert in 1969 would truly be rediscovered by Elvis fans. A near complete concert with Elvis on maximum power – the hallowed “Opening Night”! It was a revelation - although later we would discover it wasn’t actually Opening Night but (probably) the August 3rd Dinner Show.
Of course since those exciting times FTD and RCA/BMG have given us plenty more of Elvis’ first Hilton season including five complete performances recorded between August 21 – August 26th all great concerts that need to be heard.
The first of these however, the August 21st Midnight Show, was already Elvis’ FORTY-FIRST performance of the familiar ’69 concert set-list. By then Elvis had naturally relaxed into what was required on stage, demanded by the fans - as well as being aware that RCA were recording the concerts.
On Opening Night itself Elvis was of course excessively nervous and not relaxed enough with his audience to indulge in any on-stage banter or fun monologues. While a soundboard of this opening concert would be an astounding discovery - the reality of hearing Elvis perform at his SIXTH ever Hilton concert is only one-step away and demonstrates just how astounding Elvis was within the first few days of this all-important season.
Indeed – ‘The Return Of A Prodigy’ is exactly that. In short - with their improved audio mastering and a stunning 32-page booklet full of great pictures and fascinating information - this is a historical release that every Elvis collector must own.
Cover & Design
Released in a deluxe digipack the cover is stunning. A contract letter along with Elvis’ Sure microphone and on-stage photos set the scene. The cover even notes that all the booklet on-stage photos were selected from the same performance with Elvis wearing the black-red-white stripped scarf.
The 32-page booklet features over 55 photos and various memorabilia plus a fascinating essay by super-fan Rocky Barra from the ‘Strictly Elvis’ fan magazine.
In it Rocky captures the excitement of having travelled there to witness Elvis‘ amazing performance and the experience itself including….
... It seemed like years waiting for Elvis to come on stage... When Sammy Shore finishes, the gold curtain comes down again and the orchestra starts playing a fanfare.
The air is filled with super-charged electricity; everyone knows it is time for Elvis. The orchestra continues to play while Elvis' band sets up behind the curtain.
They consist of James Burton - lead guitar, John Wilkerson - rhythm guitar, Ronnie Tutt - drums, Jerry Scheff - bass, Larry Muhoberac - piano, organ and electric piano, and Charlie Hodge - guitar and harmonies.
All of a sudden, Elvis' combo takes over. It is the heaviest-sounding music you have ever heard.
It is impossible to sit still. You look for Elvis, but don't see him. Then, he suddenly, casually walks out from the right side of the stage. You can't believe it. There he is, not more than a few feet in front of you. The crowd is applauding and screaming, and a few are on top of their chairs. Elvis seems to understand. He walks across the stage and nods in appreciation. All the time the band keeps driving beat, heavier and heavier.
Elvis clowns around, picking up his guitar, throwing it around him and letting it fall to the floor. His timing is perfect. He steps up to the mike and motions for the band to stop. Then "Well it's a one ah for the money ...two ah for the show." Screams are heard the second he opens his mouth, and you realize that he still has the power. It's "Blue Suede Shoes," just as he used to in the 1950s. His voice sounds exactly like it did in 1956, and nothing like it did on the "G I Blues" LP. He is moving around so much, it makes he look like he was sleeping on his TV special. He's all over the stage. He didn't move this much in 1956....
The booklet also features some excerpts from Elvis’ monologue as well as some very interesting Production Notes. The covers of the original Ampex tape boxes are shown along with the suggestion that RCA’s Joan Deary was working on the “Opening Night” project back in 1979 for an official RCA release – but that it was dropped due to the lesser sound-quality.
The CD should also come from your dealer with a “complimentary” gift-set of two double-sided cards nicely replicating the RCA promotional material of the time. A nice little bonus.
It’s hard to believe that 40 years later RCA/FTD have still not released this historic concert – and if they did they would be hard-pressed to beat Gravel Road’s stylish design.
The original Fort Baxter Opening Night was one of the first Elvis bootlegs to open my ears to what sensational unreleased Elvis material lay in the vaults. To hear a complete 1969 concert with Elvis running at full-power was a revelation.
So hearing it again after all these years – and having been spoilt with all the official BMG/FTD multi-track releases – the shock is that it STILL sounds so fresh and exciting.
There is a real sense of tension and nervousness in Elvis’ performance that just isn’t apparent in the later shows that we know. Here he is singing ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘In The Ghetto’ (basically every song!) live in-concert for only the sixth time. Even “the oldies” have a genuine edge and interest to them that would wear off all too soon. ‘All Shook Up’ for instance is a sensational version, possibly the best live version ever.
Even though the set-list is very familiar the performance is an essential part of the Elvis legacy. If Joan Deary was working on this for an official release all those years ago, I wonder why FTD haven’t yet put out this concert? It would have been the perfect combination to release with the Ken Sharp ‘ELVIS: Vegas 69’ book.
The audio here is a good soundboard mix with a prominent Elvis vocal and the orchestra surprisingly clear. The backing-vocal of The Sweet Inspirations and The Imperials are also well-placed in the mix. If there is any disappointment it is that the band sometimes fades as Elvis’ vocal & the orchestra overpowers the mix.
Compared to the original Fort Baxter release a lot of work has been done to improve the audio and to remove those old gaps between tracks. The previous releases had fake reverb added along with fake stereo ambience which gave the show a “bathroom echo” kind of sound. On this Gravel Road CD the show (now mono) sounds far more dynamic, having a real audio-punch to it and that edgy distortion that you could hear at times on the old version has been removed. You certainly won’t be playing your old Fort Baxter version after hearing this one.
Throughout the show Elvis is very focussed on his performance and there is very little messing around with the audience or the lyrics. You can feel just how hard he is trying to put on a great show and taking it very seriously. By the later RCA multi-track recordings Elvis was relaxed enough to hang loose and kiss the girls, but here he keeps the messing around to a minimum.
To be honest, while Elvis’ genuine Opening Night July 31st show would be a revelation to hear, the poor guy was obviously so nervous that this show is likely to be the better performance to actually own.
As always a rocking ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ sets the scene, the sound really is very clear (you can understand why Joan Deary considered it for release).
Elvis goes straight into ‘I Got A Woman’. Larry Muhoberac’s piano is high in the mix while The Sweet Inspiration lay on some great “call & response” work. This version has a real gospel/church feel that later versions didn’t. At the end Elvis teases the adoring crowd joking, “Nonsense, complete nonsense!”
Elvis plays with his guitar noting that it’s hard to get going for a dinner show and then jokes, “That’s Polk Salad!”.
Tony Joe White’s original version had just started charting in the US but how amazing that Elvis mentions the song so long before he recorded it.
With a couple of strums from his guitar, maybe the band thought Elvis was going to try ‘Polk Salad’! However Elvis keeps going leading into a stunningly cool ‘All Shook Up’ throwing in some of his fifties mannerisms while still performing a serious version of the song. No throwing away the oldies tonight! A real highlight.
At this point Elvis welcomes the crowd to “The big freaky International Hotel. There’s freaky dolls, little funky angels..” He sounds so young and nervous compared to the ultra-cool Elvis of later concerts.
He also makes his regular 1969 statement that, “This is my first live appearance in 9 years” – which might have led Joan Deary to believe that it was Opening Night.
‘Love Me Tender’ is beautifully performed – the simpler orchestral arrangement works well in the mix here – and while Elvis does a little “fan-kissing” the song is still done seriously.
‘Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel’ follow, again with Elvis giving them the respect they deserve.
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is another stunner with an amazing powerful vocal from Elvis and some lovely tickling piano from Larry Muhoberac. It’s a great sparse arrangement where James Burton cuts in nicely (very Scotty Moore) and the soulful Sweets creating a stand-out version.
Elvis is marvellously self-depreciating as he explains about drinking water and the dry air.
“A lot of singers have problems with the Vegas Throat. Of course I was never a singer so I don’t have that problem!”
There’s a lovely touch as someone claps as if in agreement and Elvis laughs, “Someone applauded in the back!”
A rocking ‘Hound Dog’ follow with Elvis spitting out the lyrics while the beautiful ‘Memories’ is performed without Elvis’ usual mention of it being from the 68 Special. Again Elvis performs ‘Memories’ with a real strong vocal and stays away from the fan-kissing that often spoilt later versions of this song.
A fabulous raw ‘Mystery Train/Tiger Man’ is performed sounding very like the SUN version with just the simpler sound of guitar, bass and drums. Elvis explains, “I did about 5 records before I made ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and those particular songs”. He must have been enjoying the song that night as he keeps ‘Tiger Man’ going for a while longer than usual.
Unlike on later shows Elvis keeps his Life Story fairly short, keeping the monologue to under 5 minutes. However he still mentions some salient points including…
.. “They threw me off the Grand Ole Opry. I went to the Grand Ole Opry, man, they gave me six dollars and said: "Look, go home, man"
I went to the Arthur Godfrey Show, auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey Show. He said, "Nah, nah, he's bad, vulgar, bad." So (laughs) I didn’t get on there either.
And then I met Colonel Sanders.......... ah, Parker. And so they arranged to put me on television....... they put me on television, and then somewhere in 1956 or something. And I did four shows on the Jackie Gleason Show.”...
Back to the show and the sensational ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’. Sounding very funky compared to later versions in the season, it is taken at a much slower tempo. There’s a real soulful, blues vibe here. Elvis throws in some great, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and is obviously loving the song. A great version.
Who would have thought that ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ would change so much in arrangement later on? This is a very impressive version since the arrangement uses a solo violin rather than the Cissy Houston soprano wail. Again one of the best versions ever. A real shame RCA don’t have this on multi-track.
‘Yesterday/Hey Jude’ is a lighter arrangement than in later concerts with Elvis cranking up ‘Hey Jude’ with a fine rocked out karate action ending.
Elvis and the band must have rehearsed the new songs a lot beforehand and ‘In The Ghetto’ is another sincere and powerful performance with the orchestra prominent in the mix.
‘Suspicious Minds’ is another stunner. Elvis only slows it down after a storming 4 1/2 minutes and takes it through to the full 71/2 minutes. The incredible thing here is to realise that Felton Jarvis wouldn’t go to the Las Vegas United Recording Studio to re-master the final fade & return ending until August 7th, four days after he would have been witnessing this very performance!
‘What I’d Say’ is another very raw version with the Sweet Inspirations and Elvis’ vocal almost drowning out the band. It’s such a final “I gotta go” song that it is shame Elvis didn’t keep using more in concert as his final playoff.
“Thanks you all very much. Especially for you I’d like to do this song..”
‘Can't Help Falling In Love’ is an absolute delight. A lovely very slow tempo version (so unlike his later performances) it is a very different arrangement and almost Elvis a-Capella with the orchestra & The Imperials. Another sensational version.
Interviews from before the Opening Night.
George Hamilton, Shirley Bassey, Henry Mancini, Alex Shoofey all talk about what it will be like to see Elvis back on stage.
Some comments are particularly interesting and of-the-time. Henry Mancini comments that, “Elvis has shown longevity. (but now) We’re going to see what he can do when he’s 30!”
Overall Verdict: This is the perfect CD to play together with Ken Sharp’s ‘ELVIS: Vegas ’69 book’. A fabulous upgrade on previous versions the audio quality packs a punch and the 32-page booklet is outstanding. Even if BMG/FTD ever get around to an official release this Gravel Road production will be very hard to beat. A concert that all Elvis fans should own. A truly top-class release.
Review by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN October 2009
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
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Note - EIN does not support bootleggers since they do deprive songwriters & musicians of their well-deserved earnings. There is however no doubt that FTD/BMG need to check on these superior upgrades for possible future collector's releases.
The following RCA recorded Elvis Las Vegas concerts from much later in the month are also available.
August 21 Midnight Show on BMG 2007’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’
August 23 Midnight Show on FTD ‘Elvis At The International’
August 24 Dinner Show on BMG ‘Live In Las Vegas’ box-set
August 26 Midnight Show on FTD ‘All Shook Up’
August 22 Dinner Show on FTD ‘Elvis In Person.’
Return Of The Prodigy
Blue Suede Shoes
I Got A Woman
All Shook Up
Love Me Tender
Jailhouse Rock / Don't Be Cruel
Mystery Train / Tiger Man
Life Story (Monologue 2
Baby What You Want Me To Do
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Yesterday / Hey Jude
In The Ghetto
Can't Help Falling In Love
Interviews - Before Opening Night (July 31, 1969
Radio Spots From 1969
Other relevant EIN articles
ELVIS: Vegas '69 - EIN book review
EIN exclusive eye-witness review of ELVIS LIVE August 22nd 1969 by Joan Gansky
'IN PERSON’ at The International Hotel' FTD CD review:
EIN interview with Ken Sharp about 'Elvis: Vegas '69'
In-depth article on 'In The Ghetto' the 40th Anniversary.
'From Elvis To Garth' Bobby Wood & The Memphis Boys 1969
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