Gotta Find My Baby!

May 06, 2022

THE ONLY ATOMIC POWERED SINGER: 1956 - ELVIS' FIRST TIME IN LAS VEGAS

Elvis in front of his cardboard picture frame at the entrance
of the New Frontier Hotel; Las Vegas, April 1956



In 1829, Rafael Rivera, a young European, discovered a beautiful North American valley where brilliant grass grew wild. He named the valley “Las Vegas” – in Spanish, “the prairies”.

It was later discovered that this part of the desert had natural water sources, which attracted the pioneers. Later, the Mormons would build a fort in the area so that followers of the religion would have a place to spend the night on their groceries trip between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Nevada would become the thirty-sixth state in the United States in 1844. In the late 1800s, gold and iron discovered in the region would attract a crowd.

But Las Vegas, officially founded in 1905, was famous not for that, but for the city's liberal laws. There you could get a divorce in a matter of days. In 1911, a divorce could be out in a matter of hours if you had lived in the city for more than six weeks. The city grew more and more with the arrival of these types and became a place with streets full of hotels and shops.

In 1931, the construction of the Hoover Dam promoted a population boom. In the same year gambling was legalized and soon Al Capone became a constant figure on those streets. In the year 1935, while Elvis was born on the other side of the country, the city was filled with small casinos frequented by poor people and compulsive gamblers who were soon removed with the arrival of Lucky Luciano and his mafia friends, who saw there a great potential for earnings and money laundering.

Little Las Vegas in 1905


Through his partner Bugsy Siegel, Luciano opened the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946. Bugsy was then killed, alleging theft of profits, by another partner of Luciano, Meyer Lansky, who appropriated the fame for having "brought life" to Las Vegas.

The city soon became a “fantasy island” for adults, bringing people from all over who wanted the freedom to play games and hire some girl from the so-called “escort services”. Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra - The Rat Pack -, all big figures, entertained the crowds, but Las Vegas didn't have a king — not until 1969.


The Rat Pack performing in Las Vegas in 1965. Left to right:
Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson.


Before that, still in 1956, the young singer Elvis Presley arrived in Sin City with great enthusiasm. Colonel Parker had secured a contract to perform at the New Frontier Hotel between April 23 and May 6 of that year for the astronomical sum (at the time) of $17,000.

Elvis had already had several sales and critical successes, and it seemed logical.Herbreak Hotel” topped the charts and had sold over a million copies, while his first RCA LP, “Elvis Presley,” was doing well with 360,000 copies sold. His contract with Paramount for “Love Me Tender” was already public knowledge as well.

The factors contributed to the Vegas experience being a success. But was Sin City ready for Elvis?


New Frontier Hotel lobby poster announcing Elvis - 1956


On April 23, 1956, as atomic bombs were being tested in the nearby desert, Freddy Martin and his orchestra were the main attraction, but the Colonel did not let the attention be diverted from his gold mine. Flyers for the attraction handed out on the street read: "Freddy Martin and His Orchestra with Shecky Greene and ELVIS PRESLEY Extra Attraction - 'The Atomic Powered Singer'".

In terms of publicity, the Colonel was a genius. He personally asked RCA to help spread the words “America's Only Atomic Powered Singer” and began to insert it on all posters and pamphlets. The classic image of Elvis on his first RCA album, taken during a concert in Tampa, Florida, was used and enlarged to create a 20-foot-tall model that wowed the audience passing by or entering the venue.

But the Las Vegas audience was an entirely different challenge. It was made up of high society people, fops, and adults in general. It wasn't Presley's territory—in fact, you barely saw a teenager there. Milton Berle had worked on Elvis a few weeks earlier, bringing him to his show twice in a row. On April 3, Elvis made his wildest TV appearance, being watched by 40 million people who loved it or hated it, but sure as hell never forgot. His performance was criticized for its "lewd behavior".

Twenty days later, the curtains opened at the New Frontier Hotel to show a nervous Elvis with Bill Black on bass, Scotty Moore on guitar and D.J. Fontana on drums. The audience greeted them with a silent look of surprise. To them, those four boys looked like rednecks or an alien life form.

Many couldn't understand Elvis' accent or the phrases he dropped randomly – let alone his music. A large group of people walked out after a man stood up and shouted “what the fuck” was “that screaming and noise”. And this reaction would continue for the next 14 days. To make matters worse, Elvis gave two 12-minute performances a day – double the pain.

Elvis and Scotty Moore during a performance in Vegas - 1956


In order to make things better, New Frontier management put on an extra show on April 28 for Elvis' teenage fans, who couldn't get into the other shows because of the sale of alcoholic beverages. The youths paid just one dollar for admission, which entitles them to a soda, and the amount raised was donated to the Las Vegas Youth Baseball Federation. That night Elvis was once again the center of attention and the target of screams – but hysteria. The audience, made up mostly of women, left the show completely exhausted. Elvis, too.

A journalist for The Memphis Press Scimitar, a local Memphis newspaper, described the occasion:

“Teenagers who couldn't see the regular show were asking to be heard, so the management put together a special show.
The carnage was terrible. They pushed and shoved their way into the thousand-seat hall and hundreds of ecstatic youths buzzed like angry bees outside.
After the show, riot! A shouting and laughing mob surrounded him; he fled to the unsafe sanctuary of his suite. The door didn't stop them. They grabbed his shirt and tore it apart. A triumphant girl clung to a button like it was a diamond.
A police squad had to be called to clear the place.
An older woman, who had been taken aback by the giant youth wave, was discussing the event in confusion and disbelief at the bar, where she was drinking a medicinal cocktail to calm herself.
My God, what those girls did in the bathroom! Lipstick all over the wall… litter bins thrown and paper scattered… looked like the end of a demolition.
Elvis laughed at everything; “Gee,” he said, “it wasn't as bad as other times. Like when they threw rocks at the windows of the bus to try to grab me and get autographs.

Elvis and Judy Spreckles backstage at
The Milton Berle Show - June 5,1956
Offstage, Elvis spent most of his time with the attractive Judy Spreckles, who had divorced sugar baron Adolph Spreckles. They had forged a strong friendship that would last over the years until Elvis' death and, as far as we know, was well liked by the singer's parents.

In 1974, when the King liked to polemicize in his shows, he presented it to the audience – with the right to spotlights – composed, in addition to the fans, by Priscilla.

During their 1956 romance, Spreckles presented Elvis with a star-shaped black sapphire ring - which he later gave to Priscilla.

Back on stage at The New Frontier in 1956, moods were not the best. The audience always received Elvis and his band with disdain. Unfortunately, there aren't many audios available from those performances to really draw any conclusions, nor photos in quantity to be able to attest what clothes were used. Of the available audios, only the second show on May 6, the last night of his concerts, is found in full form, giving a small look to the content and atmosphere of Elvis' first season in Vegas.

Reviews, generally negative, were always the most read and expected parts of newspapers. Below we highlight parts of criticism made during Elvis' two weeks in Vegas in the year 1956.

 Elvis Presley, who arrived here with a wave of publicity and failed to reach the promised mark on this island in the middle of the desert. The loud, deafening sound of his rhythm and blues, which propelled him to stardom elsewhere, is unbearable. His sound is just as bad as the lyrics and his nonsense songs. – Bill Willard review - Las Vegas Sun, April 28, 1956.

After finally meeting Elvis Presley, I don't know if I'll ever be happy again. Elvis Presley is an intense young singer who probably hasn't even shaved his first beard, drank his first beer or had his first kiss. And he stays there, mistreating his guitar; he rocks as if he has an itchy underwear or burning shoes. – Unknown journalist review – Las Vegas Sun, May 1, 1956.


On the part of the press, few had the courage to speak in favor of Elvis like journalist Ed Jameson.

I did not come to bury Caesar; I came to grace him. It is a weakness of the mind to judge something before anything else. Despite the negative reviews and the fuss made by the media, I think Mr. Presley will survive and sing even more. It won't take long for him to be known across the country. He has a deep voice; he's classy, calm, cool and full of news. His music is surreal and unique, full of mystery – he really makes girls cry. So calm down, daddy. Get the blood out of your eyes. The boy goes far. Good luck, boy. – Ed Jameson review – Las Vegas Sun, May 12, 1956.


Below you can hear Elvis' last performance in Vegas in 1956.

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