Remembering Elvis Presley’s disastrous first Las Vegas show

Vegas and Elvis Presley go hand in hand, with the latter moments of his career defined by a staggering 636 performance run at the International. Even in the early days, the King was drawn to Vegas stages, but his first two-week run at the New Frontier Hotel was largely panned, a total dud with a docile crowd of adults who didn’t respond to his frenzied hip-thrusting.

In April 1956, he was paid $17,000 for a fortnight’s worth of shows, with him sandwiched between the Freddie Martin Orchestra and Shecky Greene. With his usual army of teenage girls nowhere to be found in the upmarket hotel, the show was a flop. The middle-aged audience barely moved as he pleadingly belted out ‘Blues Suede Shoes,’ desperate for a reaction.

Reporters at the time were quick to ruthlessly point this out, with Newsweek likening his presence on the bill to a “jug of corn liquor at a champagne party,” noting that the crowd “sat through Presley as if he were a clinical experiment,” and endured his set, unmoving. Presley’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, was just as surprised as they were, once admitting: “We didn’t even know we were failures.”

It was almost dazzling how badly he went down, given younger fans had snapped up ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ which shot to No. 1 on the charts the same year as his rocky Vegas performance. His gyrating hips and lip-curling act seemed to repel the more mature audiences, who were more taken with a docile Frank Sinatra sway than with “Elvis the Pelvis”.

Naturally, Presley was crushed by the limp reception. After one performance, he raged to the press, saying he didn’t want to do any more nightclub gigs. “An audience like this don’t show their appreciation the same way,” he sighed. “They’re eating when I come on.” To add insult to injury, after a few days of disappointing shows, Presley’s name was dropped to the third billing on the hotel marquee, where it sat underneath an orchestra leader and a comedian.

His relationship with Vegas seemed to be cyclical, and although his triumphant return was marked by a landmark residency that made him a million dollars a month, it was almost like he had become his won nostalgia act. He forced himself into the same white jumpsuits but was plagued by health issues and was badly burned out from the gruelling two-shows-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule.

A bronze statue at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort immortalised Presley’s contributions to music, film, and the city itself, and the Vegas run was a huge component of the Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis. His influence can be felt all over Vegas, from the quiffed impersonators that walk its streets to the key chains and posters sold there. Elvis and Vegas are forever entwined.

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