March 15, 2018

The Magnitude of Stardom

Opening night, July 31, 1969, at the Las Vegas International Hotel was one night I will never forget. We had been in rehearsals for weeks before, beginning in Los Angeles at a Universal Studios rehearsal room with the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations. Elvis would show up mid-morning after we had been there getting ready for him. There were food and beverages to wake us up and when he showed up, we began intense rehearsals. We might go over a song five or six times and tweak the arrangement each time. Anywhere in a song, he might say, “hey guys, would you sing something here, or girls, I would like you to do this or that”.  After a few passes on the song, we would move on to the next one. Many songs were rehearsed and many didn’t make the cut. I would estimate we rehearsed 40 or 50 songs, but the final version that made it to the stage opening night was maybe 15-20 songs. To say we were ready would be an understatement. We would sing them so much I would go to bed with a song in my head that wouldn’t leave!

So, on opening night we’re in the dressing rooms getting ready. Elvis is pacing back and forth like a caged animal looking for an escape. He’s nervous, anxious, and unsure of himself. That insecurity was just part of who he was. He had come to Las Vegas a few years before and his show wasn’t received well. He had gone downtown where the older casinos were and it just wasn’t a good fit for him. Now, several years later he’s back and taking a big gamble that this outcome will be different. He’s in the biggest showroom on the strip and he doesn’t know what the reception will be. What if they gave him the same reception they did downtown? What if they didn’t like him? He also worried about the choice of songs and if he could remember all the words. He even wrote out lyrics for a song or two on tiny pieces of paper he carried on stage. For such a huge star, he was very fragile and insecure at this moment in time.

It doesn’t really matter how big a star you are; we all struggle with the same insecurities related to our perceived feelings of people’s expectations of us. The biggest name ever in rock and roll music and he still had a hard time understanding the magnitude of his stardom. Isn’t that amazing?

 

March 9, 2018

We Got a Call From Elvis

After a year with Jimmy Dean, we got a call from Elvis. He had decided to return to live performances as he was not enjoying the movies as much as he did when he started. When he decided to put together his group, he called James Burton, the greatest guitarist available at the time. He asked James to put together a band for him. James hired Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar and Larry Muhoberac on piano. I’m told he originally wanted the Blossoms as his black female backup group but they turned him down. The Sweet Inspirations were available and the group that opened with Elvis consisted of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston. Elvis had called Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires for his male quartet. At that time, the Jordanaires were very busy in the studio recording backup for almost every country artist in the country music world. They feared that if they accepted his invitation and went to Las Vegas, these artists would find other backup singers and never call them again. They weren’t sure Elvis had a long-term plan for concerts and so they turned him down. The next call he made was to the Imperials. Joe Moscheo was the manager at that time and with very little persuasion, the Imperials said yes.

On July 31, 1969, Elvis came back to live performances to rave reviews at the Hilton International Hotel, the largest showroom by far in Las Vegas. The band named themselves the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, Millie Kirkham on the soprano parts, and a huge 40 piece orchestra behind him. The original conductor of that orchestra was Bobby Morris.

The order of the show brought the Sweet Inspirations out for three songs.  Elvis had a comedian that came on next named Sammy Shore. I will never understand how he got there, but I think the Hilton had him under contract so they had to use him. There was a short intermission and then the one everyone was waiting to see walked onstage to the 2001 Theme song. It was electric every night, but especially opening night.