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February 2018

aka Black Way Down Suit

The King of Showmanship

By | Elvis Presley's enduring influence on music and culture | No Comments

Elvis Presley’s career high was the start of his Las Vegas era. This is the premise of Mike Connolly’s BBC Four television documentary Elvis: The Rebirth of the King, aired in December 2017. Well, whether it is or isn’t will be as perennially debated amongst the aficionados as which is the greatest Star Wars film or best Beatles album. The first of Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas shows was in 1969. He would go on to make over 600 appearances until 1976.

Las Vegas 1969.


Together with his unfettered choreography and the unmistakeable register and cadence of his voice, Elvis Presley is in total control of his audience and orchestra. His physique is lean and supple. It is a command performance of showmanship. He has found a new style of delivery and discovered the potency of performance. He has become a showman. And wow, does he do it well. He was the first rock star to turn his music into a theatrical performance. Yet these full-blown bombastic shows would be nothing without their core of Elvis Presley’s supreme instinctive talent.

Las Vegas 1969.


In Las Vegas Elvis Presley first wore those striking stage outfits that are often unfairly derided with a snigger. Presley was in his element in those first Nevada years, he was dazzling and resurgent, but fame and its trappings began to take their toll. The lissom reinvented superstar of the late sixties and early seventies grew bulkier from addictions and these outfits were let out accordingly as the decade moved on. Perhaps the outfits are remembered because they are synonymous with his visible decline.

Nail Swirl outfit. Las Vegas 1970.


In the 2018 New Years Honours list Barry Gibb received a knighthood. This was an opportunity for the television to run Bee Gees footage of the three brothers performing their rhythm and blues imbued disco in seventies shimmering satin shirts, and clips of John Travolta burning up the dance-floor in that bright white Saturday Night Fever suit.

Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb. The Bee Gees.


John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever 1978.


London’s Southbank Centre is currently exhibiting ABBA: Super Troupers, until April 2018. It is an enduring reminder that ABBA’s outfits of silken one-pieces with frills and tassels, and snug white suits with aeroplane collars are as integral to their identity as their songbook, harmonies and choreography on stage.

ABBA. Dancing Queens.


And then there is David Bowie in his many guises and Marc Bolan with T-Rex, with their 1970s glam-rock and beautiful gender ambivalence.

David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust tour 1972.


Marc Bolan and T-Rex 1973.


Neither ABBA, Marc nor David are derided for their outfits yet with their flamboyance and theatricals they are doing the same as Elvis Presley. They are showmen and show-women. They are putting on a performance. But here’s the thing. Presley did it first. And perhaps that’s it. Elvis Presley was the first to take a first-class catalogue of music and super-charge it with showmanship. Following in the wake of his be-tasselled, be-jewelled, embroidered jumpsuits it wasn’t untoward.

They all share one thing. Breathtaking talent. And that’s why the outfits work. Rather than disguising mediocre ability, their outfits enhance the music, and vocals, and performance. They can wear whatever they want.

Thank you for the music, every one of you, and for putting on a show. But mostly thank you, Elvis Presley, for being at the start of it.

Black Cisco Kid. Las Vegas 1971.