Viva Las Vegas!

Elvis Elvis
Viva Las Vegas!

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

“Viva Las Vegas” gyrates into stores just in time to celebrate the death of rock’s first true superstar. They didn’t call him The King (or “The Kang” as he pronounced it) just because he liked hamburgers. This guy sold more records than McDonald’s has served Big Macs. “Viva Las Vegas” celebrates The Kang’s uncanny ability to entertain high rollers as well as blue-haired nickel slot grandmas, and it’s produced so succinctly you’ll feel as if you’re close enough to catch one of Elvis’ sweaty towels.

Classic Elvis (four humma hummas)

A number of excellent songs on “Viva Las Vegas” could be inducted into Elvis’ packed canon of classic performances…

There’s no better place to start than with the theme setting studio recording of “Viva Las Vegas.” With its bossa nova beat, it’s an accelerated tour around the crap tables and bright lights, a snapshot of the adult playground populated by show girls and sleep-deprived gamblers. “How I wish that there were more than twenty-four hours in the day. Even if there was forty more I wouldn’t sleep a minute away.” The guitar is as hot as a pair of lucky sevens, the bongos bounce like loaded dice and Elvis sounds like he’s breaking the bank and on the verge of busting a corpuscle, but The Kang’s hectic performance hits the jackpot. “Viva Las Vegas” was lampooned by ZZ Top in 1992, and the Smith Brothers look alikes weaved in an Elvis imitator to give their version some amusing clout. See, The Kang is still everywhere, uh-huh.

“The Wonder of You” is the CD’s highlight, a towering vocal work out that shows Elvis was a true singer, despite the despite the gaudy skin tight sequined outfits and his wholly inadequate diet of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Elvis is operatic, hitting a high note at the conclusion that sounds like Pavarotti on steroids. I defy any singer to hold a note for as long. During ace session guitarist James Burton’s guitar break, The Kang leads the chorus of singers rising to meet every note…”Play it, James.” The soap opera strings add to The King’s dramatic delivery, and he pounces on every word: “I guess I’ll never know, the reason why, I love you as I do. That’s the wonder…The wonder of you.” It’ll leave you wondering how such a superb singer could wind up a caricature of himself, dead on a toilet.

Other choice performances feed on The Kang’s ability to absorb current hits into his stage act, infusing them with his laconic grace. Elvis ties into Tony Joe White’s signature tune, “Polk Salad Annie,” with the same hip swinging wise-ass snarl as White. White, nicknamed “The Swamp Fox,” is best known for his bayou influenced tunes and his knack writing hits for other artists. Crooner Brook Benton was rescued from obscurity, scoring a #4 hit with White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Dusty Springfield recorded “Willie Mae and Laura Jones,” and Christine McVie turned “I Want You” into a sultry blues stunner on her first solo album. Tina Turner was among White’s biggest benefactors, procuring four of White’s songs for her 1989 “Foreign Affair album, including “Undercover Agent For The Blues” and “Steamy Windows,” as well as signing White on to play, guitar, harmonica and appear in the song’s promotional videos. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Elvis called White up before the crack of dawn and convinced him to come to Las Vegas while he recorded his studio version of “Polk Salad Annie.” The Kang was so taken with The Swamp Fox he would go on to record White’s “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby” and “For Ol’ Times Sake” placing both in the top five on the country charts. On his own, White scored a top ten hit with his own whomper-stomper version of “Polk Salad Annie,” and had modest success with “The Lady In My Life, “and “We Belong Together,” among others. White gained his biggest fame in France, where his 80s comeback albums were released on the Remark label. White is a superb, soulful, swampy talent, with a baritone as thick as warm molasses. You’d be doing yourself a favor if you pick up his CDs “Homemade Ice Cream,” “One Hot July,” “Tony Joe White,” “Closer To The Truth,” and “The Path Of A Decent Groove.”

In light of his fans exuberance, Elvis can’t keep a straight face during “Polk Salad Annie”’s spoken intro. Burton approximates White’s bayou blues fire, dealing out cheese grating licks. I’ve seen Elvis do this live, and this was one where he gyrated his hips suggestively like a cement mixer grinding up Jimmy Hoffa. Try to ignore the back up singer’s embarrassing “chicka-bum-chicka-bum-bum-bum,” (to which Elvis replies “ching-chang-a-ching-chang”) which makes Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60s hep cat scat rants sound like pure genius. The foray into Esperanto is a bit excessive on disc, but the attraction of Elvis’ version of “Polk Salad Annie” is that it was meant to be seen as well as heard. Give The Kang his due for picking a great tune and letting his own steamy southern roots sock a little polk salad to the audience.

One of pop’s more stunning ballads, “Let It Be Me” is tailor made for Elvis’ most sensual crooning. Elvis is particularly strong on the choruses, surrounded by a mountain of strings, Grand Ole Opry piano, over-the-top operatic pros, Statler Brother bass back ups and cascading horns, while Burton continues to deliver feather-like, classy solos on guitar.. The arrangement sounds a bit like “The Wonder of You,” and why not? It was excellent the first time, so why not recycle it?

Bill Medley’s bedroom baritone was the perfect heartbreaking element for the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Medley was born to sing it and so was Elvis. The Kang’s swaggering vocal mixes Tony Joe White swampy R & B style with Medley’s romantic Romeo rumble. Elvis also handles Bobby Hatfield’s impossibly high parts equally well, and vamps on the “Don’t!..Don’t!..Don’t! Let it slip away!” segment.
The song is done at a slow, sultry pace that suits Elvis’ deep timbre. The horn section blares with foggy menace and the back up singers exuberance fortifies Elvis’ performance. A perfect example of how Elvis could make a standard his own.

The horn section in “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” passes through the speakers like an 18-wheeler on a slick road, buttressing the delicate strings. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, spared no expense in hiring the back up orchestra, which accurately recreates the slick adult contemporary sound of B.J. Thomas’ original while adding The Kang’s stylish grandeur. After a quick chuckle with the audience, an understated Elvis gets a little help on the verses, (“Sang the song, baby”). This is another primo performance that’ll leave you believin’ in the power of The Kang. Thank yew vurry much.

Near Classic Elvis (three humma hummas)

Half a dozen performances on “Viva Las Vegas” are a bad note or an inadvertent chuckle away from being great performances. Elvis always liked to have fun onstage and his snickers, cartwheels (don’t forget he knew karate) and his off the cuff commentary sometimes seemed beneath The Kang. The most notable example is a notorious live performance of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” that was bootlegged even while The Kang was still squeezing into his rhinestone pants suits. Elvis brought himself to the point of hysteria when he changed the line “Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?” to “Do you gaze at your mirror and wish you had hair?” There’s nothing as zany on “Viva Las Vegas,” but some songs are addled by cockeyed arrangements or regrettable flubs. In other words, “Viva Las Vegas” is genuinely live.

Like his swamp-influenced counterpart Tony Joe White, singer/songwriter Joe South was a prolific composer. For a brief period, roughly 1968 to 1971, Georgia native South had a stranglehold on both AM and FM radio. He wrote “Hush,” Deep Purple’s biggest hit, the Grammy-award winning “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” taken to #1 by country songbird Lynn Anderson, “Yo Yo” covered by the Osmond Brothers, and “Birds of A Feather,” which charted for Paul Revere and the Raiders. South also wrote an entire album of material for popster Billy Joe Royal, churning out his biggest hit, “Down in the Boondocks,” as well as “I Knew You When.” Like White, South was an accomplished guitarist, serving as a session man for Bob Dylan‘s bland “Blonde on Blonde,” and providing the electric guitar for Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence.” South’s soulful guitar intro is also the first instrument you hear on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Unlike Tony Joe White, South achieved his biggest success in the U.S. and charted several socially relevant songs under his own name, including the “The Games People Play” (which was awarded two Grammy’s in 1968 for Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song),”Children,” “Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home,” and “Walk A Mile in My Shoes.” The pressures of performing and his brother’s suicide drove South out of music in the mid-70s. But thanks to artists like Anderson, Bryan Ferry and Elvis, South continued to get a regular royalty check, and after a 30-year hiatus he’s recording new material.

Elvis’ cover of South’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” loses some of its social consciousness thanks to the glossy Vegas treatment. The glockenspiel and bouncy horns make Elvis sound as if he’s leading the Macy’s parade. South’s original version beats the soles of this version of “Shoes,” but it’s cool that Elvis was hip enough to recognize its existence in the first place.

“C.C. Rider” boogies like a freshly tuned Harley rumbling down Route 66. Assayed best by steel-lunged R & B shouter Mitch Ryder, The Kang’s version features some of the most frenzied, atrocious background singing you’ll ever hear, At first grimace, Elvis sounds as if he’s got the cheerleading squad from Mulkeytown, Illinois backing him up (or the tone deaf strutters from any small town with a limited gene pool you can name). Burton gets to rev up a high octane solo against the smoking horns. Elvis rides in the pocket, then pulls back the accelerator, allowing the audience (and himself, remember those tight white jump suits?) to take a breath before one last rump shakin’ charge across the finish line. If not for the Edith Bunker background chorus this would be one for the repeat button.

When Elvis was uninvolved in a song, it showed. “Release Me,” a hit for walking pompadoured square Englebert Humperdink, is such a song. The Kang has to amp himself up, mocking his own loquacious style, regulating his voice to keep himself interested. When the back up singers join in, harnessing the song’s Gay 90s arrangement, Elvis releases his ample vocal power, turning schlock into sock.

“Patch It Up” has more energy than most of the other songs on the CD, but this repetitive cross between “Burning Love” and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” has too many holes, despite Elvis’ good natured give and take with the band. “We got to patch it up baby, with a whole lotta love” gets repeated until you’re ready get a trough of quick dry cement, seal the King up in his dressing room and get his background singers some Ritalin.

“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” is another one of those made for the Elvis treatment ballads. Elvis is a little late in the arrangement at times and his voice quivers as he tries to catch up to the unnecessarily rapid arrangement. The Kang sounds as gassed as an Edsel and under rehearsed. A much better version of this song was culled from another one of Elvis’ appearances in Sin City and charted at #11

Elvis’ buttery voice nearly matches Cory Wells’ sly delivery in Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain.” He takes the first verse off (must have been vacationing in Barcelona), before cranking it up and sounding more involved during the choruses. The drummer matches Three Dog drummer Floyd Sneed’s muscular percussion, and it finishes up as a take that would make any dog wag his tail

Fat Elvis (Thank yew vurry much and goodnight)

There’s a quartet of astonishingly bad choices undoubtedly done to cater to the geriatric sect. If Elvis had to do it all over again and he wasn’t high on fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, he might not have recorded every piece of dreck Colonel Parker could license or steal, and these four disasters would be at the head of the pack.

If you laid all of the albums containing versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” end to end, you’d be able to cross from Brooklyn to The Bronx (trust me that’s a long way). If you took a count of how many good versions of the song there are, well there’d be just one. No one, and I mean no one, can outdo Art Garfunkle’s heartfelt vocal, and that’s essentially the problem with Elvis’ attempt. Elvis undoubtedly did this song because it was a popular song at the time, and he was trying to entertain the dinner crowd. But The Kang tries to act rather than sing and flounders. Remember what I said about Elvis occasionally sounding disinterested? He gets to the bridge, but sings as if he’s forgotten why he wants to cross it.

“You Gave Me A Mountain” is an avalanche of bad taste, a souped up country ballad about the narrator losing his family. I’m all for songs country designed to be uplifting and inspiring, but why in heck aren’t any of them any good?

Another hard to fathom offender is “The Impossible Dream,” an impossibly bad song no matter who ruins it, and proof that Elvis’ quality control team was asleep on top of the edit button. It was over boiled and overblown nightmares like this that cost Elvis some serious credibility with the under thirty crowd. He must have been mesmerized by Vegas’ twinkling lights, a Chuck Cheese Deluxe, or his desire to be as cool as Dean Martin. Impossible to get through, it’s a blight on The Kang’s sizable resume.

The most heinous song on the CD is “An American Trilogy.” It’s the kind of material you’d find at the bottom of your shoe after walking through a field of loose-bowled Guernsey’s. It begins with “Dixie Land” then slides into a jingoistic version of “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” The bluster is taken down a notch during the flute solo for the reprise of “Dixie Land,” but the entire orchestra gets to march on to the truth with a cinematic ending that would make George Wallace sit up in his wheel chair and salute. The whole grandiose spectacle makes Elvis sound like a flag wavin’ fool.

If you can’t get enough Elvis, “Viva Las Vegas” is also available by import as a 2CD set. The expanded edition adds live versions of many of his signature songs, including, “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Love Me Tender,” “In the Get…Toe,” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (imagine the sighs for that one!).

The Kang may have gone to his porcelain throne, but this tidy set buoys Elvis’ reputation as an entertainer, and the man with the syrupy smooth lungs that could perform something for everyone. Although he was only a few years away from rigor mortis, this is hardly a stiff performance. Viva! Let’s all bow to The Kang. Uh-huh.



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