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Elvis in 1969

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1969.)

Elvis in 1969

An 11-disc look at the King’s last great year

You’ve realized for some time now that most exorbitantly priced 50th-anniversary box sets embody more of a good thing than anyone but a zealot needs—and that few artists’ catalogs have been exploited to this end more than Elvis Presley’s. 

So, as much as you love “the King,” you’re passing on FTD/Legacy’s new five-disc American Sound 1969. You’re passing not because hearing Presley and the Memphis Boys take multiple runs at the likes of “Kentucky Rain,” “You’ll Think of Me,” and “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” is tedious (it isn’t), but because you’ve already spent a small fortune on the albums on which all but five of those 90 multiple runs first appeared.  

You couldn’t legitimately claim to love the King if you hadn’t.

Sony/Legacy’s new Live 1969, however, the 11 discs of which document a solid week of Presley taking care of business at Kirk Kerkorian’s International Hotel in Las Vegas, is a different story. ’Sixty-nine, after all, was Presley’s last great year, a peak from which he’d spend the next eight years falling—slowly at first, meteorically toward the end. 

The very thought of an 11-disc Live 1977 box in 2027 gives you the shudders.

But the reputation of these two-a-night ’69 shows, some of which you’ve heard as parts of slenderer packages over the years, has retained its glow, and now you can bask in it for 12 hours straight if you’re so inclined. 

Disc 1, the “midnight show” of Aug. 21, has you thinking you might be. The TCB band, the Bobby Morris orchestra, and the Sweet Inspirations (not so much the undermiked Imperials) sizzle, all but forcing Presley to deliver even when it seems as if he’d rather not. The singing on his surest crowd-pleasers (and those of the Beatles, Ray Charles, Del Shannon, and the Bee Gees) isn’t exactly slipshod, but he does give the impression of wanting to get through them as fast as possible. Only the recently chart-topping “In the Ghetto” and the soon-to-be-chart-topping “Suspicious Minds” consistently engage his full attention. 

On the other hand, you can’t help noticing his complete investment in the faux-yokel, double-entendre-studded stand-up routines that comprise his extensive ’tween-song patter. He repeats them nearly verbatim during every show, enabling you by Disc 4 (earlier if you’re a quick study) to joke along in tandem and causing you to wonder whether Presley might’ve been incubating dreams of a comedy career. You particularly treasure the rare improvisations (the two shows, for example, in which Presley likens the parched sensation that singers experience in Sin City to feeling “like Bob Dylan [had] slept in your mouth”).  

One thing’s for sure: By Discs 6 and 7, the scriptedness of practically every second of each show has you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and questioning the wisdom of your vow to see the project through to the end.  

But stick with it you do. And midway through the final disc you’re glad that you have, for it’s there that you encounter the famous “laughing version” of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” wherein Presley sings “Do you look at your bald head and wish you had hair?” then hilariously loses his composure for the rest of the number. Never again would he seem so in the moment or so human. 

And although you may never plow through all 11 discs again, you know that you’ll cue up that Disc 11 cut whenever you need cheering up—and that it will always do the trick. 

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  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Cavanaugh
    Posted: Thu, 10/03/2019 10:15 am

    I realize that the writer could not be expected to listen to the complete material.  I was surprised to hear a set of commentary [that's the best word I can come up with] that was made up of giggling descriptions of his sexual exploits - some rather explicit.   

    Yes, I’ve heard worse in an occasional R rated movie.   But the giggling and largely silent audience that, while probably fairly well-toned with alcohol, must have been almost as uncomfortable/disgusted as I.

    Deciding to not spend hours stumbling on more such trash [and trying to edit it out], I destroyed my copy.