Elvis: Vegas '69:
Good, Bad But Beautiful

With Elvis: Vegas '69 (Encino: Jet Fighter, 2009), author Ken Sharp has put together a panoramic snapshot of an amazing time in the career of Elvis Presley; his return to, and conquering of, the Las Vegas concert stage in the summer of 1969.  It's a classy, hard cover book with a glossy-style presentation, inside and out, and comes loaded with a vast number of striking color photos.

Sharp presents this period of Elvis career as an oral history, with sporadic, mostly chronological commentary from management, musicians, fans, peers and journalists.  It gives the story an "in the moment feel," so appropriate for capturing the sheer excitement that must have been evident throughout Presley's month-long engagement at the International Hotel.  He also carefully chooses a typeset and overall design that evokes the late '60s - early '70s period, another nice touch.  If you know little about this era, be prepared to learn and enjoy what all the fuss was about.

If one knows a lot about this subject, the book is still worthwhile for the presentation, although the project's drawbacks will be glaringly apparent.   First and foremost, Sharp's work creating two Elvis books (his first was Writing For The King, fascinating interviews with Elvis songwriters, published by Follow That Dream about 4 years ago) exposes an Achilles heel.  Despite the enormous number of quotations, there is almost no attribution.  In Elvis: Vegas '69 an experienced fan absorbs familiar commentary taken from other sources, and unfamiliar testimony of uncertain origin.  For example, Jerry Schilling's memory on page 181 is apparently lifted right out of Me and A Guy Named Elvis, his 2007 Elvis biography!  A serious and responsible writer, and no doubt this is Sharp's ambition, takes the time to provide their sources.  Endnotes, in particular, would have been a core addition to Elvis: Vegas '69, elevating it from the scores of Presley books published since 1977.

Elvis went into RCA Hollywood in the middle of July 1969 with pieces of a new band, hired the rest, and rehearsed like a prizefighter preparing for the championship.  But, in Elvis: Vegas '69, we see no photos and read almost nothing about this essential work, despite a reasonable amount of known candid photographs and published rehearsal lists.  This should have been a big part of the preamble to opening night, Thursday evening, July 31, 1969.   And, for a book that tries to capture the era, there is not a mention of the most amazing event of the decade just eleven days earlier, July 20, the day NASA landed a man on the moon.

In recalling how new band members were chosen, there's a slight to Scotty and D.J. on page 36, when Sharp writes that "Elvis reached out to longtime band mates, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, who turned down the offer."  Actually, the men's offers were intentionally lowballed by Presley management, which they politely declined.  In fact, on the very same page, the author quotes Scotty as saying "We were called by Tom Diskin … we were offered 5 weeks in Las Vegas, that included rehearsal and shows, at $500 per man a week … economically, we simply could not afford to go … in addition to that, we know the offer was low because management wanted new personnel."  This is but one example where a strong editorial hand would have served the project well.

Speaking of editorial duties, there is a "Concert Index" included in Elvis: Vegas '69 that runs to six pages, and desperately needs a serious rewrite.  The presentation of the information is oddly scolding and redundant.  At one point fans are informed five times that "August 3, 1969" is available as a "complete show."  Elsewhere, a reader is told seven times the "Aug 18 1969" date is "incomplete" and "NOTE: this recording contains an incomplete show."  Oh, really?   Even in a final tally of "unknown shows" the list cites two performances (8/1 DS and 8/28 CS) that are discussed in detail elsewhere in the book.  Again, such sloppiness should have been addressed by the author or another editor before publication.

Still, what's left to enjoy is a great deal of testimony remembering Elvis Presley at his mature peak.  Besides the usual notices of great singing and sold out crowds, it's the girls who nail some of the essentials.  "He was extremely handsome, so as soon as he walked on the stage you were blown away by this beautiful man.  They have an expression in French.  Elvis was a 'bête de la scène,'" recalls singer Petula Clark.  And early flame June Juanico was able to see an early show and chat with him after.  "Elvis … asked me about every friend, every house he stayed in, every hangout, every building, every lounge, from when we spent time together back in the '50s.  He remembered everything," June wistfully remembers.

Love never really fades away.  At the end of the day, Elvis: Vegas '69 is a true labor of love, and any fan who adores Elvis Presley's fabulous, energy-filled stage return in 1969 should get a copy while they can.   As they say, good times never seemed so good.

Johnny Savage
March 2010