Flashback

Freemont St. in 1952

Long before he’d finally conquer the Sin City, Elvis made his first trip to Las Vegas in late April 1956 – Colonel Parker booked the boys (Elvis, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana) for the fairly recently renewed and modernized New Frontier Hotel where they’d perform for two weeks straight, starting from April 23rd. Compared to their regular tour-life, the visit itself was a long one – it was standard practice in Vegas to perform there for more than just a few shows at a time, but not so much for Elvis and his group

According to the flyer, Elvis was an “extra added attraction” alongside Freddy Martin and his Orchestra and comedian Shecky Greene. Colonel Parker coined a phrase for the posters and adverts that Elvis was “The Atomic Powered Singer” – with Nevada being a well known atomic bomb test-range, this was quite clever and apt description itself. Elvis was indeed basically like an atomic bomb on stage but not necessarily in the way Vegas would imagine.

Las Vegas Sun wrote (on April 21), “…the young vocalist (Elvis) will be featured in one of the most lavish productions ever presented in the Venus Room. Freddy Martin and his band, comic Shecky Greene, the Venus Starlets and a cast of more than 60 performers will make up the entertainment package.” So Elvis certainly wasn’t about to step into the city of glitter all by himself – in fact, the Freddy Martin Orchestra were even backing Elvis and the boys during the shows, one of the few times Elvis had an actual orchestra behind him on the road during the 50’s.

               
The New Frontier hotel from the outside, the Venus Room ca. mid-1950’s and Elvis posing outside the hotel in April 1956
 

By this point Elvis and the boys were already starting to hit the stardom, starting to see the signs of  ‘Elvismania’ and made teenage audiences go crazy all over the country – but Vegas was not like your average performance venue, especially for someone like Elvis, and they were met with a very different kind of reception when the shows started. With the exception of one show where ‘all-ages’ were let in, there were no wild fans in the audience screaming at the top of their lungs, no one trying to rush to the stage – instead, each performance was met with polite applause and that was basically it.

    
 

Although he had already had his share of tough audiences in the past, the general reception to his performing was always quite different so this must’ve been somewhat unusual occurence for Elvis. Perhaps it was the age-gap (no teenagers were allowed to regular Vegas shows) but the surfacing recordings from this engagement, while they show an engaged Elvis, they also show a frustrated one. He even addresses the audience in a sarcastic manner when they respond in a fairly tame way to a wild performance.

Overall, career-wise, the visit must have not been what Elvis was expecting. The Vegas audience was practically the opposite of his regular concert audience and it was probably the longest two-weeks he experienced during his otherwise extremely busy year.

  
 

Bill Willard, a reviewer for the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, wrote “For the teenagers, the long, tall Memphis lad is a whiz; for the average Vegas spender or showgoer, a bore. His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.”

No one can say Elvis didn’t try – the time simply wasn’t right yet. The town wasn’t ready for Elvis and Elvis wasn’t ready for the town – the engagement, in general, could’ve been called a ‘flop’. However, Parker did arrange a show for the teenagers on Saturday and according to Elvis’ drummer DJ Fontana, the show was much more like what was seen on the road – “jam-packed with everyone screaming and hollering.”

Although the general Vegas crowd must’ve been somewhat confused by Elvis, not everyone thought the same – Las Vegas resident Ed Jameson went against Willard’s review and wrote; “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.”

  
 

Even Liberace himself, with his brother George attended one of the shows and met Elvis backstage – they seemed to enjoy the company of the new, rising star. Later in the same year (November) Elvis would return the favor and visit Liberace at the Riviera Hotel when he was performing, and once again they’d put on a little show for the reporters backstage. Footage from both occasions below;

 

This first Las Vegas visit was far from Elvis’ crowning moment and although he would visit the city many times over the years, it would take over a decade until he’d take the stage in there again. Ironically enough, by then he would be searching for a place to return to live performing altogether and the place they’d pick would indeed be in Vegas – and by then a lot had happened. Not only would we see a very different Elvis but also a very different reception for his shows…

 


–> All on-stage photos are from the actual Vegas shows in April/May 1956.
–> For even more detailed information regarding Elvis’ first Las Vegas gig, visit Scotty Moore‘s site.