Elvis Goes to Vegas

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Today’s date is a reminder that we do not necessarily follow the crowd and that history occasionally rewards those who do their own thinking. The example I have in mind this morning came in 1956 when Elvis Presley played his first engagement in Las Vegas.

Things didn’t go as planned: Young Mr. Presley’s act left an audience of squares nonplused and was duly panned by the press. It turns out there was a lesson in that reaction.

Elvis Presley was already a big deal in this country by April 1956, so when the New Frontier Hotel booked his band (Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black) for a two-week gig it was something of a coup. “The handsome 21-year-old rock ‘n’ roller’s appearance,” gushed the Las Vegas Sun, “is considered to be the Las Vegas entertainment scoop of the year.”

The Sun’s enthusiasm soured, though, when audiences didn’t respond in kind. Elvis and his band mates were booked into the New Frontier’s dinner theater, which may have been a mistake.

In that venue, over their watered-down cocktails and lukewarm chicken cordon bleu, the middle-aged, married couples from Middle America sat mostly mute during Elvis’ act, looking perplexed by such numbers as “Blue Suede Shoes” and applauding politely at the end, more out of mercy than anything else, along with gratitude that the din had ended. Noting that the audience “sat through Presley as if he were a clinical experiment,” Newsweek compared the disconnect between the performer and the New Frontier clientele to “a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party.”

Taking his cue from the Vegas tourists instead of the young people snapping up Presley’s records all over the country, Bill Willard of the Las Vegas Sun was underwhelmed. “Elvis Presley, arriving here on the wave of tremendous publicity, fails to hit the promised mark,” Willard wrote. “The brash, loud braying of his rhythm and blues catalog (and mind you, they are big hits everywhere, it seems) which albeit rocketed him to the big time, is overbearing to a captive audience.”

“For the teen-agers, the long, tall Memphis lad is a whiz,” Willard added. “For the average Vegas spender or show-goer, a bore. His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.”

Among The Sun’s readers, however, was an astute letter writer who felt compelled to respond. He was a Vegas resident named Ed Jameson, and he read the paper closely enough to know that Bill Willard usually covered the police beat. His prescient response was published a few days later.

“I will try to bravely carry on after reading the report of the SUN’s police reporter concerning Mr. Elvis Presley now holding forth at the Venus Room of the Hotel New Frontier,” Jameson wrote. “I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. Despite the acid hemlock broth stirred by the Sun’s copy boy, methinks Mr. Presley will survive and live to sing some more. Not that for many moons to come his name will be well known about the countryside.”

As I’ve written previously, Ed Jameson went on in this vein for a while, in prose that captured his own enthusiasm, along with the lingo of the times — and the spirit of the times that were just around the corner:

“Perhaps this cat should have studied grand opera, the fiddle or just be satisfied herding a truck. I don’t join that school of thought,” Jameson added. “He’s happy and he’s making lots of other people happy doing just what he is doing naturally. You see, he’s a natural. Any dope knows what a natural is.

“This cat Presley is neat, well gassed and has the heart.

“Presley has a depth of tone that can sink deeper than a well. He can wilt into a whisper faster than a gossipmonger can throw down a free drink. He is classier than a new sock. … He really makes them cry. He’s a smooth cat, cool and crazy with new stuff. His sound is dreamy and unique, loaded with mystery.

“So settle down, dad. …Youth is an exuberant stage of life with the top down.

“Presley’s voice is that of American youth looking at the moon and wondering how long it will take to get there. He is not a Rock ‘n’ Roller nor is he a cowboy singer. He is something new coming over the horizon all by himself and he deserves his ever-growing audience. Nobody should miss him. Parents would do well to take their children to hear him. It would be a good way to get to know and understand your own kids.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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