The King Is Gone but He's Not Forgotten
The dust jacket gives equal weight and height to the two big words in the title: Elvis in Vegas (Simon & Schuster). A jacket designer running with the symmetry of five letters and a V in both, to be sure. But it’s also a signal that Richard Zoglin’s new book is as much about one as the other.
Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Liberace, and less-obvious Vegas legends — from Johnny Carson to Vic Damone — all pull focus from rock’s first superstar in the veteran Timewriter’s new book. Subtitled How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, its release was timed to the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s summer-of-1969 comeback at the International Hotel.
Elvis fanatics may be bummed that the King is only tangentially involved in four of the seven chapters. But, then again, even they may be ready to admit by now that so much has been written about Elvis — heck, this isn’t even the first book titled Elvis in Vegas— that there’s really nothing new to say. There are only other angles from which to view the story, and this one sees Elvis against the larger background of the city’s entertainment history.
Gone with the old Vegas are most of the main characters, leaving much of Zoglin’s work to be that of aggregator. But just as he draws from every significant book about either Las Vegas or Presley (such as Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography), he also tracked down nearly every peripheral witness who is still around — even “Lemon Tree” crooner Trini Lopez, if that tells you something. Along with obvious go-tos such as Shecky Greene and Paul Anka, Zoglin reached out to often-unsung local keepers of the city’s history, including former lieutenant governor Lorraine Hunt-Bono, comedian Pete Barbutti, and past musicians’ union president Frank Leone.
(Full disclosure: Zoglin talked to me at the project’s outset, and my 2001 book Cult Vegas — The Weirdest! The Wildest! The Swingin’est Town on Earth!Is indexed four times and referenced 13 times in the notes.)
In his acknowledgements, Zoglin says he originally wanted to write a book about Las Vegas in the 1960s, before his publisher steered him to Elvis as a framing device. That explains why whole chapters are devoted to the city’s history (“How Vegas Happened”), the Rat Pack (“The Cool Guys”), and the rough patch that came when Howard Hughes began to steer the Strip toward the modern era (“Changes”).
That’s all useful, because there really hasn’t been just one book to offer such concise (249 text pages) yet thorough one-stop shopping when it comes to Las Vegas history filtered through its entertainment. Oddly, though, the book doesn’t shift from overview to any real narrative drive until it gets to the most-plowed ground: the “Comeback” chapter detailing the buildup and triumph of Presley’s ’69 debut at the International.
Zoglin avoids trying to psychoanalyze Elvis, and the star's decline is handled briskly and with regret. The lack of tabloid snark is no surprise from an author whose fondness for vintage show business produced a Bob Hope biography and a book about comedy’s seismic shift in the 1970s ( Comedy at the Edge). He’s no romantic when it comes to Sinatra’s behavior, but is rarely judgmental about anything showroom audiences saw performed onstage. There are a few zingers: Tom Jones’ live-album version of “Danny Boy” is “so bombastic it could frighten small children.” But more of it is slow-burn matter-of-fact: “Middle American audiences didn’t want to be provoked or lectured to or unsettled in any way. They wanted warm, comfortable, reassuring entertainment; they wanted to feel the love. They wanted Wayne Newton.”
Elvis also gave them that big slice of apple pie with vanilla ice cream. But Zoglin reminds us that, for a few years at least, Las Vegas and Elvis were good for each other. As he helped expand the casinos’ appeal to Midwesterners, the Vegas sound that also gave him one more jolt of musical relevance. The lush orchestrations and sultry horns of the Hilton shows muscled hits such as “Burning Love” and “Steamroller Blues” onto the singles charts, silencing those who had dismissed him as a ’50s nostalgia act.
Those immersed in the casino industry will yawn at Zoglin’s big takeaway: that Elvis changed the entertainment model from a loss-leader lure for high-rollers to the volume business of Lady Gaga-style concert residencies. Long-timers and insiders will find it more valuable that a book published in 2019 name-drops Jack Carter, the Checkmates, or Buddy Greco when modern Las Vegas otherwise feels no need to remember.