“This was the deprived musician, who had not been able to control his music, either in the recording studio or the movies,” said his longtime friend Jerry Schilling. “And now he was going to satisfy all his musical desires on that stage.”
Elvis handpicked a new backup band (headed by the guitar great James Burton), added two backup singing groups (a male gospel quartet, the Imperials, and a female soul group, the Sweet Inspirations, whose lead singer at the time was Cissy Houston), and filled out the sound with a 40-plus-piece orchestra.
The International’s 2,000-seat showroom was twice as large as any other in Vegas, and the sold-out venue was packed on opening night with celebrities and Vegas VIPs, along with dozens of rock journalists and critics, many flown in from New York on the hotel titan Kirk Kerkorian’s private jet. Behind the scenes, Elvis was so nervous he almost had to be pushed out onstage. “I saw in his face the look of terror,” said the comedian Sammy Shore, his opening act. But when Elvis walked out, to a throbbing rhythm intro, grabbed the microphone with a trembling hand, and launched into “Blue Suede Shoes,” the audience went wild.
It was the old Elvis, rocking as hard as ever, on a song he hadn’t done in a decade. He followed with more vintage hits — “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog”. He did them faster than in the old days, almost as if he wanted to get through them as quickly as possible, to get to the more mature and varied material he was starting to record. He sang “In the Ghetto,” the social-protest song that had been released in the spring and became a hit. He did covers of songs identified with other artists — Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
The high point of the show was a galvanic, seven-minute version of a song almost no one in the crowd had heard before: “Suspicious Minds,” which would be released during his Vegas run and give him his first No. 1 hit in seven years.