July 31, 1969 marked a historic milestone in Elvis' career. Bolstered by the runaway success of the '68 Comeback show and energized by productive recording sessions at American Sound Studios, which would spawn such timeless hits as "Suspicious Minds", "In The Ghetto" and "Don't Cry Daddy," Elvis launched his return to live performance at Las Vegas's International Hotel in the summer of 1969.
Ian Fraser-Thomson was the only fan to witness Elvis' rehearsal, Opening Night and the Press Conference afterwards.
In this insightful interview Ian Fraser-Thomson tells his fascinating story.
(Right:Ian Fraser-Thomson and Elvis at the Press Conference)
PEP from the FECC website interviewed Elvis fan Ian Fraser-Thomson in November 2008.
Both Ian Fraser-Thomson and PEP kindly offered this fascinating interview to EIN for all fans to see.
Images below are mostly from the sensational book 'ELVIS Vegas '69' by Ken Sharp which also features a shorter interview with Ian Fraser-Thomson. Go here for more Elvis 1969 images and review of 'ELVIS Vegas '69'.
Go here to the special Elvis Week 2010 interviews about Elvis 1969 with journalists Ann Moses and Ray Connolly
PEP: Thanks for taking the time to do this e-mail interview for FECC members and really for all Elvis fans out there too.
Ian Fraser-Thomson: You're welcome.
PEP: Your Elvis story, is an amazing one. You not only experienced one of Elvis' greatest moments of his career first hand, which was seeing his Official Live Comeback to the stage on July 31st 1969 at the Las Vegas International Hotel, but you also attended Elvis' first official Press Conference, held right after the July 31st performance as well.
|Ian F-T: Yes, that's right.
PEP: You were only 18 years of age at the time, just about to enter your first year in University with a goal of becoming a Lawyer.
Ian F-T: Yes, that's right too.
PEP: So, please explain what connection did you have with Elvis to get to see his Opening Night Performance on July 31st 1969 and get to be invited to his Press Conference at such a young age?
Ian F-T: No connection really. I was fuelled by the excitement of flying to Las Vegas on July 31st to see Elvis in person starting "opening night August 1, 1969" just as a fan. I remember I had the audacity to tell my mama who had loaned me the airfare money that I was going to meet Elvis. With the money I had saved I had enough for 3 days in Vegas and I reserved 4 shows (August 1-2 D/S & M/S's).
I arrived in Vegas on the morning of July 31st and checked into the Riviera Apartments, a $6.00 a night dive across the street from the old Landmark, and rushed over to the International Hotel.
I eventually went to check out the swimming pool that was billed as ‘the second largest body of water next to Lake Mead’ and ultimately went into the men’s room where I was pleased to hear that Elvis' music was being piped in...but wait, this was a version of ‘Love Me Tender’ that I had never heard before. "Oh my God!" I realised that the song was coming live and that Elvis must be rehearsing!
I immediately went downstairs and looked for the showroom and sure enough there was a security guard standing at the front door. Someone went up to and distracted the security guard and now I had my chance.
I slipped up the stairs to the balcony and crept forward and peeked over the railing for my first glimpse of Elvis in the flesh "rehearsing his show" with full orchestra. I got there as Mystery Train was concluding.
(Right:Elvis on stage - there are no genuine 1969 rehearsal photos as far as we know)
PEP: So far, so good! That was an amazing stroke of luck on your part as far as we know you are the only fan to witness the rehearsal. Do you recall what Elvis was wearing during this rehearsal or what other songs he was rehearsing?
Ian F-T: I recall Elvis was wearing black pants and a puffed sleeve green shirt and was sitting on a bar-stool directing the crew of musicians and calling out songs... "Memories", "Yesterday"
Just as I was really getting into this, watching and intently listening to Elvis, Joe Esposito looked up, pointed at me and shouted "Someone's up there...get him!" and then Joe and Alan Fortas or Lamar started running up to the balcony. I leapt up and scurried to my left to where there was a corridor that led to downstairs stairwell. I found an unlocked door that led to a balcony spotlight and this is where I hid. Joe Esposito and company raced past this door and down the corridor saying "I think he went this way". It was from this perch that I watched the rest of the rehearsal.
My excitement peaked when I heard Elvis call out "Suspicious Minds" a song I had never heard before and it was GREAT. I got chills hearing that song for the first time. Soon Elvis called a stop to the rehearsal, put a towel around his neck and walked off stage.
While the orchestra was filing out, I got the nerve to go downstairs and climbed on the stage and went to the back of the pack of musicians as they were going down to the basement dressing room. I remember trying to look like I belonged and said to one of the musicians, "Hot in here, heh?"..."Yeah" was the reply.
By this time I walked past Elvis' dressing room and then congregated with the union musicians in the band room that was near by. The guy I was speaking to said, "What are you doing here?" and I explained that I was an understudy for Elvis' piano player. He laughed and asked me if I was going to the show tonight. I said "Sure" but secretly I marvelled at the thought, "There was a show tonight?"
After an agonising what to do "should I hide in the showroom and wait hours for the show to start, perch myself over the cat walk and watch the show from over the proscenium or go back to my hotel room and change and try to sneak back in?" I wisely chose the latter. I found my way out through the tradesman entrance, changed and in the early evening re-entered the same way I left and went upstairs and hid in the same spotlight closet.
PEP: What sort of mood was Elvis in during the rehearsal? Was he joking around with the band, did he go into one song after another or did he have many breaks in between songs?
Ian F-T: As I recall, the mood was upbeat but he was mostly all business. Yes there were breaks in songs as he was fine-tuning the band. Yes he did joke around. But he was in control of all the musicians and it was a real practice session.
PEP: How long do you remember the rehearsal being?
Ian F-T: Well, I watched for at least 35 to 45 minutes. The time flew by and before I knew it the rehearsal was over. Elvis left the stage first, then the TCB band and then the orchestra filed out. It was then that I decided to follow at the tail end of the procession in the hopes of meeting Elvis.
By the time I got downstairs Elvis was already in his dressing room and the door was closed.
PEP: What was it like being in the spotlight closet waiting for the show to start?
Ian F-T: For what seemed like an eternity, I watched the crowd enjoy dinner and cocktails. Just to the left of centre stage, there was one seat that was unoccupied. After dishes were cleared and the same seat was still "open", I stood up, steeled my nerves, took a deep breath and went for it. I walked down the same escape corridor and downstairs and opened the side exit door to enter the showroom. A security guard stood in front of me and said "Can I help you?" and I said "No, I've already been seated!" and with a confident step headed for the prize.
As I sat down, I took the full water glass in front of me, downed the water and poured myself a whisky (all the tables were supplied with complimentary bottles of liquor). By now my heart was in my throat and I was dreading the moment that someone might tap me on the shoulder and say this seat is taken. Because I was so scared, I didn't look around the showroom but just engaged in small talk with the guests at my table. I gave the same story that I was understudy to Elvis' piano player, which incredibly generated two requests for my autograph.
Thank God the lights finally went down...Sammy Shore, then The Sweet Inspirations...and I was saying "C'mon, c'mon Elvis get on stage before I am thrown out of here".
Finally, the trumpets blared in unison followed by a vicious drum beat, the curtains opened and then suddenly from my right, Elvis appeared. Slender and lithe, tanned and nervous.
The room exploded and a deafening roar came from the crowd and Elvis was bathed in praise and received his first standing ovation. After Elvis traversed both sides of the stage he found his way back to the centre where the microphone stand was situated and I was only 10 feet away from him!
I was amazed with the sight of Elvis reaching out with his right hand to take the mic and utter the first words of the evening and I saw his hand was shaking. Holy smokes, Elvis was trembling!
Then came "Well, its one for the money, two for the show..." and off Elvis went. Then ‘I Got A Woman’. The show proceeded with several up-tempo songs and after each group Elvis received a standing ovation from large portions of the audience. All in all it seemed like Elvis was given a standing ovation every other song.
He loosened up somewhere around "Love Me Tender" and started to talk to the audience. The monologue was shorter than subsequent shows I saw but funny and the crowd responded with a roar of approval when Elvis said he missed the contact with a live audience "Thank you for coming".
The biggest ovation was after "Suspicious Minds" which went on for several minutes.
Elvis put his heart, body and soul into this classic which was at a slower and more agreeable tempo than the sped up version of later years. So much of the show was like a dream that is hard to recall even the morning after let alone almost 40 years later.
To my recollection the audience was still standing and clapping through "What'd I Say" when Elvis walked off stage and then a torrent of screams from the audience when he returned to reprise the Ray Charles classic. Elvis thanked the audience for the warm response and he was beaming, smiling ear to ear and basking in his triumph. I don't know if it was sweat or tears coming from his eyes as he launched into "Can't Help Falling In Love".
The curtain fell on this triumphal performance and the electricity that was felt first in anticipation of Elvis arrival on stage and throughout his performance slowly began to dissipate.
I stayed in the showroom until it was almost empty collecting Opening Night menus left behind (no prices listed) and which were signed by the likes of Carol Channing and Dick Clark. Then from the stage someone yelled out "Hey Pat, y'all going back stage to see Elvis" and Pat Boone who was sitting at the table next to me said "No, me and Debbie already spent time with Elvis before the show and he's going to give a press conference anyway". I immediately formulated my plan to sneak into the press conference.
PEP: How did you get into the Press Conference?
|Ian F-T: I found the Conference room on the Casino level, bought a ball-point pen, loosened my tie, tried to look older than 18 and entered the conference room ready to say something smart like "AP" or UPI" but no one was at the gate so I just walked in and slid in between well wishers at the side wall of the small convention room. It wasn't long before Elvis came out he walked in to a roar from the press Corp and well wishers accompanied by his father, Joe Esposito, Lamar Fike, Sonny West, Charlie Hodge and of course the Colonel.
Incredibly there were no mics recording the event as far as I could see. Elvis was standing as he responded to all the questions from the field of reporters. Elvis was affable, humble and sharp and clearly in a jubilant mood.
Elvis' answers were standard (waiting for the movie contracts to expire, missing a live audience, etc.) -no shocks that would make tabloid fodder.
PEP: Ian how long was the Press Conference?
Ian F-T: About 20 minutes for the interview. When the questioning was over Colonel Parker said "I am not known for being a nice guy but you will see there is a press package here on the table that contain photos of Elvis. Anyone who wants to come around a get an autograph can". After the Colonel said that, I raced to the front and grabbed a press package along with everyone else and proceeded to go around three times getting an autograph from Elvis each time.
On the third go round Elvis broke the ice, like he recognised me and asked for my name and then personally autographed the photo. He wrote "To Ian ...Elvis Presley". The two photos of me with Elvis (below left with Elvis) were taken that 3rd time around.
PEP: Ian, what was included in the press package?
Ian F-T: The press package contained promotional and press release material for the new International Hotel. But the real prize were the three photos of Elvis, all from the promo for the 68 special: a black & white head shot of Elvis playing his J200, a black & white photo of him with arms folded wearing the burgundy "Gospel Sequence" suit and also a face shot colour photo similar to the cover jacket of the "Any Day Now" 45 release with red shirt, scarf and slicked-back hair. (see below)
|By the way, I should mention when I did get enough nerve to ask Elvis a question I asked him about Viva Las Vegas and in retrospect it was a stupid question...But this is what I asked him "Elvis, what do you think of 'I Need Somebody to Lean On'?" since the song was my melancholy favourite at the time. Elvis querulously said "That was a ballad wasn't it?" and before I could say anything else Fats Domino shouted from the back of the room "Hey Elvis" and Elvis replied "Hi Fats" and then the photographers proceeded to really go after them both with cameras in hand, flashing away.
And then he turned back to me and said "Did I answer your question?"
And I said, "Yes Elvis, thank you " and then Elvis asked if he could have my pen and I am embarrassed to say I said no and that I wanted to get his Dad's signature and Elvis just said "ok".
Groan, before I knew it, my brief time with Elvis had ended, in what seemed that it lasted only seconds. I never did get the chance to say what a great show he had just performed and anything like how much Elvis and his music meant to me or how his gospel music got me focused on God - Ironically several years later Sherman Andrus of the Imperials and I performed at First Baptist Church in SF and he sang harmony with me on "He Touched Me".
I so regret that and the fact that I didn't give Elvis my pen. I felt like such a jerk after the event was over. But I realise that I was just awed in his presence and was still reeling from the buzz I got from all the stealth of sneaking into the show and seeing the historic performance that catapulted Elvis to new heights and then later the press conference.
Photographs were being taken constantly by the sea of photographers ...the shutter clicks sounded like a rushing ocean tide.
Too soon the conference and the autograph session was over in about 45 minutes overall, Elvis retreated and I was still in a daze and disbelief, but the reality was that in hand were the opening night menus, the press package and 3 signed 8x10's of Elvis.
(Right: The photo Elvis signed for Ian in glorious colour)
"Here is the colour photo Elvis signed for me in glorious colour. On the back is the 1969 advertisement for Elvis's opening. A nice souvenir but I hope you and the fans enjoy this to share" - Ian F-T
Note the difference in Elvis' printed signature below, and his real signature above!
PEP: Man that was one incredible Elvis story! Can I ask you a few more questions to help give us all a further insight into what you saw and heard on the July 31st Perfomance?
For example, How was this Opening Night performance compared to performances that were recorded by RCA later on in the month, that we all now get to hear almost 40 years later? Meaning, did the show appear tight?
Was the sound up to par, were there any technical glitches of any kind? As I've read Barbara Streisand had a few in her Opening Show. Glitches that is....
Ian F-T: Well, first of all I can tell you, there were no sound glitches on the Invitational night that I was aware of and all that rehearsing really paid off. As a musician I marvelled at how tight the band was and how responsive they were to Elvis' lead and even whims. When I look back at the Invitation night as contrasted with the subsequent performances I saw, Elvis was a bit more controlled in this first performance. In contrast by mid-August, Elvis was loose as a goose and joking, changing the set list, jumping on the piano if he felt like it. Unquestionably at all the performances I saw, he owned the stage.
He controlled the audience, was light-hearted and later in the season took more chances. That first show lasted between 60-70 minutes whereas many of the other shows went 100 minutes or so. In the later shows Elvis was doing more of the American Studios songs explaining that a live album was being recorded. I don't recall any "untested" numbers being performed in the first few shows either.
PEP: Do you recall, did Elvis or the band make any mistakes Opening Night, that you recall?
Ian F-T: No mistakes. The show went like clockwork. As I recall, everyone delivered and were on their best showmanship behaviour.
PEP: Any different songs this night, not normally sung by him later on in the month?
Ian F-T: No, it was a tried and true set but since I didn't make a song list, as I should have for posterity's sake, I can't recall any major surprises outside of being knocked out by Suspicious Minds. I do remember at the '69 shows occasionally Elvis would tell Larry Muhoberac to "get off...I feel like playin' the 'pee-ana'" and then launch into a very tight and aggressive "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" complete with "goodbye Tarnell darlin, down the road I go".
It was later in August that I experienced some different material. The songs that stick out in my mind were "Inherit The Wind" and I think I heard "Rubberneckin" and "This Is the Story" but it is hard to remember. Sorry. I do remember an event in early Elvis' return performances when he started singing "Return to Sender" when the piano player couldn't come up with the chords, even after Elvis threw out the key. Elvis bailed on the song as I squirmed in my seat as I could have backed Elvis on that one blindfolded.
PEP: Did Elvis appear nervous at the beginning of the performance?
Ian F-T: For damn sure. As I explained, there was a blend of fear and joy when he entered the stage and when he reached for the mic on his opening song, "Blue Suede Shoes" his hand was shaking and he was trembling. So vulnerable and human while knocking out the song with the bravado ala "Mean Woman Blues" in "Loving You".
PEP: Did Elvis thank any particular stars for attending the show, like Sam Phillips or Fats Domino for example?
Ian F-T: I regret to say I don't recall him mentioning any stars that night. I don't recall any one person getting the spotlight. Frankly there were so many people from the music and entertainment industry present, he most certainly would have left someone out if he started thanking anyone for coming. No, this was Elvis' night and everyone present knew they were in a subordinate position and privileged to enter the king's court.
(Right: Elvis with Joe Esposito, Frank Sinatra & Fred Astaire)
PEP: Could you describe in more detail what the crowd reaction was like for Elvis Opening Night?
Ian F-T: The electricity was palpable. The anticipation of the crowd on this potentially precipitous and momentous occasion lent to an uneasy and anxious anticipation of what was about to be revealed before their eyes and ears. When the lights were dimmed the crowd was unsettled, almost agitated and loud and then when the horns and the band ignited in the famous loop intro, the crowd was temporarily silenced, women screamed and all eyes and crowd energy focused on the expected entry point and when Elvis appeared and when like a dancer sidestepped across the stage, a powder keg exploded followed by a residual thunder of applause and screams welcoming Elvis. Because Elvis was the true royalty in the room he was given what was due to him from the film and music stars present. He was at that moment the undisputed "King" and those present were his subjects.
PEP: How many standing ovations do you recall?
Ian F-T: The show was a knockout. Standing ovations throughout.
PEP: How long was the show?
Ian F-T: About 65-70 minutes and shorter than the next few nights shows that I saw by about 10-20 minutes.
PEP: Did you notice any film cameras recording the show or any recording devices set up to record the show?
Ian F-T: No. Incredibly these shows should have been preserved for the world to see Elvis' great vocal, dancing and performance talents. The Colonel saw how explosive Elvis was and knew far in advance that Elvis was booked solid for 30 days. Ironically Elvis was fearful of not being able to fill a showroom that held as he told those close to him "millions of people". The Colonel should have done something to preserve this season on film as well as the February 1970 season. Thank God we have Summer 1970 documented but for the life of me I can't figure out what took so long.
PEP: Did you personally notice any film or recording stars of the time attending this performance, if so, who were they?
Ian F-T: When the curtain came down, I saw I was seated across from Pat Boone and his daughter Debbie and it was from them I learned that Elvis was giving a press conference. However I did not look around the showroom before the show started as I did not want to stand out and look out of place. It was all I could do keep my heartbeat to a safe level.
I picked up several menus for souvenirs and later noticed they contained signatures of "The Colonel", Dick Clark and Carol Channing and I still have to decipher the others. Thereafter I located the conference room, took a deep breath, and walked in. I retreated to the side so as not to be conspicuous.
Minutes later, Elvis of course walked in to a roar from the press corp and well wishers as I already mentioned. I should add too, during the press conference my eyes were only on Elvis and I admit I was in a daze and still fearful I might be thrown out. No filming but large cadre of photographers of course. No obvious recordings. But I do suspect that the English fellow who offered Elvis to come to perform in the UK may have had something up his sleeve. Elvis took the questions standing up so he was not miced. So ya never know there may still be hope there is a recording of the press conference out there some where.
PEP: How many other Elvis shows did you see during August 69' and what were your seating arrangements like for the other shows?
Ian F-T: Besides the Invitational performance, 4 shows (August 1 & 2). Later in mid August I drove down to Vegas to see another 6 shows! Since I was solo for these shows, it was easier to fit me in up front and I always tipped to get up to the front tables. In the beginning I would tell the person seating me "Give me a good seat and I will take care of you" and show a cupped hand with the greenback barely showing. After being seated up front I would give $5.00 to $10.00 - show tickets were $15.00 for both the Dinner for a 3-course meal and the Midnight Show-3 drinks included. Later in the season as the waiters got wise they would want to see what I was offering before seating me and if it wasn't enough I would be seated somewhere higher up on the showroom floor.
My second line of attack would be to tell a waiter to put a chair at the end of one of the front tables after the lights went down and after the showroom was sold out, and with a modest tip this worked every time. You can get an idea of where I often sat by looking at the two photos of Elvis I took with my trusty instamatic. I always thought it was unfair of Emilio and staff to seat at the back of the showroom those who waited for hours for the showroom doors to open and who were first in line saying the front of the room was reserved (unless the person was female and attractive). I learned that it was best to enter at the end of the line as the wait staff usually saved a number of front table seats in the hope of getting bigger tips.
PEP: It's amazing to think that 'Suspicious Minds' hadn't actually been released as a single at the time, yet Elvis used it as the key-piece of his show?
Ian F-T: I remember that on one of the early August performances of 'Suspicious Minds' Elvis took a running start and dropped to his knees sliding several feet and with impeccable timing stopped right at the punctuation point and cried out "Oh let our love survive...". Outstanding and dramatic showmanship! and you should have heard the screams!
PEP: Ian this has been a exceptional interview, one that I think will get many talking about how lucky you were. What more would like to add?
Ian F-T: At the press conference I got a small sample of Elvis the man. No star attitude, a quiet humility was evident in this man called "the king". Subsequently I have seen fans throw a crown on the stage with a shout "you're the king" and I have heard Elvis reply, "There is only one king, Jesus!".
At no time did Elvis ask me or anyone else, "How did you like the show?" or what did you think of this or that. He was not fishing for compliments, he was not starved for attention...he was just there for his fans and just being Elvis.
PEP: Ian, I just can't let you go yet I have to bring up that this wasn't the only season you saw Elvis, in fact you saw him like over 60 more times. Right?
Ian F-T: Yes and the count may be more than that as I went to Vegas and Tahoe for the various seasons and only missing a few. I did my best to record the shows by sticking a bulky Sony tape recorder down the back of my pants and then covered it up with a bulky sports coat. I avoided taking photos so as not to interfere with my recording the shows. I did meet Elvis again in mid August 1969 when I sneaked into the basement and camped out in front of his dressing room. I faked out the security guard with the same old "I am Elvis' piano player understudy" line.
When Elvis came out of his dressing room at about 3:30 AM with white short-waisted jacket, scarf and bling, looking haggard from 3 hours on stage, I prevailed upon Elvis to sign an autograph for my sister and one for me on the back of the 1969 postcard advertising his Summer performance and on a 1969 pocket calendar. Here are the two shots I took that night (below). I gave copies to Shaun Shaver, where if I am not mistaken, he used one of them in one of his books a number of years ago, maybe both of them.
Again I was so awe-struck I didn't ask the embarrassed security guard to take a picture of me and Elvis with my faithful instamatic. I did see Elvis in Seattle and photographed sans recorder as well as the San Francisco Cow Palace and Oakland shows. I saw Elvis in so many different moods and performances, mostly in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe and despite the vicissitudes of Elvis' personal life he always gave what he had to give. I am so thankful I was there to share in the experience. But it is so special and I am so fortunate to have the two photos you provided to me from the '69 Press Conference to remind me of that special opening night and season of 1969.
PEP: What’s it like looking back at your experiences?
Ian F-T: One last thing I will say and that will be it, I promise. I was so in the moment at the time. Years of seeing Elvis on the screen, watching his every move, wishing I could channel the same song tones as Elvis while growing up to be my own man. At this stage of my life I was still in the early transition to manhood and so everything Elvis did was larger than life, dramatic and soul grabbing. I have often reflected on that first experience and it taught me that if you want something bad enough and you fully commit you just might get it. Elvis lived up to every expectation I ever had of what it would be like to see him perform live. He was phenomenal. Watching Elvis at the press conference confirmed to me that his charisma extended beyond the stage. He was a beautiful humble human being with an incredible gift that he exploited to the limit. As for me I can say that every boyhood dream of one day seeing Elvis perform and meeting him came true that night.
PEP: Ian my sincere thanks to you for taking the time to do this interview, you are the first person I know out side of the inner circle who has been able to give us fans another inside look into what took place for Elvis on July 31st 1969 as well as his August 1st press conference. So again, I, we..... Thank You !
EIN: In 2010 Ian Fraser-Thomson still has plenty of Elvis still left in him since he continues to play and perform music, still composes and always features some Elvis in his shows. Here are two recent performance pictures - although he modestly admits that 41 years after first seeing Elvis in concert even he might be getting a little older too!
Ian F-T:The memories of the Elvis years are dear to me particularly the Vegas and Tahoe years when I could see Elvis up close and personal for so many shows. After seeing Elvis perform a litlle over 60 times, I felt like I got to know him better. His performances were very personal in his manner and dynamic in song presentation. Elvis was a beautiful humble human being with an incredible gift that he exploited to the limit.
Interview & EIN presentation by Piers Beagley - original interview by PEP, FECC.
-Copyright EIN, May 2010
Click to comment on this interview.
EIN thanks PEP from FECC for the help and Ian Fraser-Thomson for the contact and extra photos.
'ELVIS Vegas '69' by Ken Sharp - last year's 40th Anniversary book tells the remarkable story of Elvis' return to the concert stage told through first-hand accounts by those lucky enough to be on hand to witness Elvis' miraculous artistic and creative rebirth.
See EIN's book review and more Elvis 1969 images here.
CLICK HERE for 'ELVIS Vegas '69' purchase details
DO NOT MISS OUT on our eye-witness review of ELVIS LIVE August 23rd 1969 by Joan Gansky - Click here.
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