By Jon Waterhouse
Elvis’ undeniable electricity surged its way into every medium he touched. Records, films, television. But ask anyone who saw Presley onstage and nothing quite compares to the high octane vitality of an Elvis concert.
In August of 1969 after an eight-year hiatus from public performing, the king reclaimed his concert stage jungle with lion-like ferocity at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. That monumental turning point of Elvis’ career saw a resurrection of sorts with last night’s 1969 50th Anniversary Concert – Elvis Returns to Vegas, pairing historic nostalgia with in-the-moment sonic boom.
A set culled from that era sizzled liked Sin City neon. The caffeinated opening romp of “That’s All Right” triggered capacity crowd elation, rippling across all 22 songs. With Elvis’ actual Vegas video footage and vocal performance at the forefront, the band rocked in sync. Joining members of Nashville vets Sixwire were some who had shared that same Vegas spotlight with Presley: Elvis’ TCB Band – James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, and Glen Hardin – along with original members of gospel vocal group The Imperials (Terry Blackwood and Jim Murray) and singer Estelle Brown of The Sweet Inspirations.
Show producer Andy Childs crafted the performance, snatching blocks of ageless material right out of the king’s 1969 repertoire and weaving in onstage interviews with the pros who were there the first time. These behind-the-scenes story breaks provided enhancement not hindrance, injecting a level of context rarely given during a live show. Call it a docu-concert.
While each of the veteran artists received props with video intros and a chat with Childs, their respective skills quickly rose to the top, proving why they were originally handpicked by Presley. Brown’s soulful and joyful vocal exuberance; Blackwood and Murray’s flawless harmonies; those masterful Burton guitar licks; Hardin’s melodic piano runs; and the signature Tutt drum fills came rushing back, culminating in excellence. Hard hitting dynamos (“Patch It Up,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Suspicious Minds”) swirled among the emotional (“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “In the Ghetto”).
All the while Elvis was still leading that charge. His on-screen image showed Presley giving physical cues, the live band following suit. “Play it, James,” Elvis instructed over the audio just before a Burton solo.
Remarkably, the band was seemingly drawing inspiration from a 50-year-old audio and video recording, harnessing that energy and translating it themselves with their own exceptional talent. A true testament to the power and majesty of Elvis Presley.
Elvis took back the stage in 1969. And for Elvis Week 2019, the king and his court ruled again.
Revisit or discover Elvis’ return to the stage with the new “Elvis Live 1969” box set, capturing 11 consecutive shows.
A Chat with James Burton
When Elvis made his landmark return to live performing in August of 1969 at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, he wanted the best. Among those he enlisted was iconic ax man James Burton, who organized Elvis' TCB Band.
The sensational session artist, Wrecking Crew alum, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has a resume to die for, playing and recording with everyone from the Beach Boys to Johnny Cash to Joni Mitchell. Yet Elvis fans know Burton best for rocking onstage and recording with the king from 1969-1977.
On getting the job with Elvis:
“I went to work with Ricky Nelson when I was 16. (Elvis’ management) called me in 1968 to do the Comeback Special, but I was recording an album with Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Boyd producing. And the word got out that I turned Elvis down for Frank Sinatra, and that wasn’t the way it worked. I was busy in the studio recording. When you’re booked, you’re booked. And Elvis understood that. He called back in 1969, and we talked for three hours on the phone. One of his opening lines was, ‘Man, I watched you on (‘The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet’) TV show. You playing guitar and Ricky singing. I watch that every week.’ I thought, ‘Wow! The King of Rock 'n' Roll is watching me on TV!’ But it was cool, you know. When I met him in person and shook hands with him, it was like we had known each other our whole lives. We grew up on the same music.”
On the dynamic between he and Elvis:
“You had to have eye contact and watch him every minute onstage, because he could change in midstream. He loved guitar, and he liked cueing off guitar. At certain times during certain songs I would play the same thing each time, of course. Once in a while, I’d change it a little bit, and (Elvis) would look around with an expression saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s not supposed to be there.’ The next show, I’d go back and play it the way he wanted to hear it. (Laughs) ...He loved the bass strings on the guitar. Every time I’d play (a bass string lick), he’d say, ‘Yeah, baby. That’s it.’ ...Usually most every time he’d look at me, I’d know what’s coming up. ..What a voice, man. The range. I’m talking low and high. He could sing so many genres. He could take a song from another artist and make it his own. What can I say? He’s the King of Rock 'n' Roll.”
On spending time offstage with Elvis:
“He enjoyed sitting down and talking with us, the TCB Band, and (appreciated) our company. And he loved singing gospel music. Almost every night after two shows in Vegas we’d go upstairs, and he’d sing gospel until noon the next day. Of course, I’d sneak out at some point during the singing and everybody would kind of start drifting off. And we’d leave Elvis there on the piano singing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ ‘Amazing Grace’ or something. But he was such a great guy to work with. Easy and fun.”
On Elvis’ playfulness during rehearsals and in concert:
“He told me a thousand times, if this gets to be work, we’re not going to do it anymore. He said this is about fun. And when we walked on stage, it didn’t matter how long the show was, we’d just cut up with each other and have a good time. The songs were great, but it was all about enjoying ourselves and entertaining folks. Whatever Elvis did onstage was OK with them.”
On Sunday, August 18, Graceland will celebrate James Burton with a special event, James Burton: 80 Years of His LIfe and Music. The event, hosted by Andy Childs, will feature stories and songs from James' legendary career. The event is at 11:00 am Sunday at The Guest House at Graceland - get tickets now.
On August 21 - James' 80th birthday - James Burton will join legendary rocker Brian Setzer and his band, Rockabilly Riot, at the Soundstage at Graceland. Tickets for the concert and the pre-concert birthday party for James are on sale now.