Almost no city celebrates an entertainer the way Las Vegas celebrates Elvis Presley, and his 1964 MGM musical Viva Las Vegas helped define the city’s mid-century image. During his jumpsuit days, the King had several weeks-long residencies at Vegas venues, generating millions of dollars in ticket sales. According to the Las Vegas Sun, when Elvis was in town, one out of two city visitors caught his act. A statue of him now stands in the Hilton, and Vegas has a hearty population of Elvis impersonators—many of whom perform marriages.
However, Elvis’s first Vegas residency was a disaster, one of the first failures in a career that was otherwise taking off.
In 1956, after the 21-year-old’s “Heartbreak Hotel” rose to number one and hundreds of young fans screamed for him at packed shows across the U.S., Elvis got a two-week stint at a Las Vegas nightspot. It was booked by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, an old-school music promoter who saw the city as an important stepping stone. The New Frontier Hotel would pay Elvis $7500 a week to play two shows a night.
On April 23, he took the stage for the first night with his usual three-man backing band and a set list of rhythm and blues numbers. The reviews were not kind. In a piece headlined “Hillbilly on a Pedestal,” a writer for Newsweek compared the Southern-born singer to “a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party” and observed that the audience “sat through Presley as if he were a clinical experiment.” Bill Willard of the Las Vegas Sun wrote, “For the teen-agers, the long, tall Memphis lad is a whiz. For the average Vegas spender or show-goer, a bore. His musical sound with a combo of three is uncouth, matching to a great extent the lyric content of his nonsensical songs.” According to Willard, the audience delivered only polite applause.
Back then, a Las Vegas audience was mostly middle-aged, and it’s easy to see why Elvis didn’t fit in. Also appearing at the New Frontier that night were bandleader Freddy Martin and his orchestra performing songs from the musical Oklahoma!, and Borscht Belt comedian Shecky Greene.
After just one week of the scheduled two-week stint, the New Frontier asked Elvis to leave the building.
The canceled 1956 visit wasn’t a total loss: During their off-hours, Elvis and his band visited the Sahara Lounge to see Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. Elvis was impressed by their performance of a song called “Hound Dog,” and asked permission to record it in their style, which they granted.