One of the few false starts in the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley’s early entertainment career was an ill-fated run in Las Vegas in 1956. Elvis, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana spent two weeks trying to light a fire under a stodgy bunch of middle-aged gamesters. Even this fortnight drubbing displayed a silver lining, as an enthusiastic throng mobbed a special Saturday teenage matinee performance. This pointed to the demographic which would make up the sold-out shows when Presley returned in earnest to become the hottest ticket in town from 1969 through the end of his career. Plus, it was during this trip to Vegas that Elvis saw Freddie and the Bell Boys perform their take on “Hound Dog,” which nine million records later we now know as Presley’s take on “Hound Dog.”
Somewhere between blue suede shoes and jumpsuits, Elvis revisited Vegas, this time for one of his most memorable movies. For once Presley was teamed with a starlet who was able to meet his star power with a charisma and charm that leveled the playing field.
There was probably only one man working on the Viva Las Vegas project who wasn’t absolutely swept off his feet by Ann-Margret, and that was because Colonel Tom Parker always qualified any thought, word, or deed based on what effect it would have on his wallet and that of his client, Elvis. No stranger to the world of green felt and garish carpet, Parker was always making sure that the odds were stacked in his favor. Rather than be dazzled by Ann-Margret’s brilliance, Parker calculated how much camera time she was taking away from his meal-ticket. With director George Sidney and cinematographer Joseph Biroc keenly aware of how much the camera loved the starlet, that calculation was mounting.
Swedish-born Ann-Margret Olsson, by this point, no longer needed the Olsson. Her smash success in the movie musical Bye Bye Birdie placed her on a hyphenated-first-name basis with practically the world. Birdie was loosely inspired by Presley’s life experience, farcically combining his induction into the army with his Ed Sullivan exposure. Ann-Margret played the lucky girl who won a goodbye kiss from the departing rocker-turning-recruit. Elvis, by the way, was offered that role, but Colonel Tom didn’t see the upside of Presley playing a part that was a parody of himself. We will ignore the wags who would say that’s what most of his movies already were doing.
Once they got together, to say that Elvis and Ann-Margret had chemistry does an injustice to the periodic table. Aside from the off-screen shenanigans, from the outset, the duo displayed a natural ease and provided perfect counterpoint to on another.
Soundtrack recording began in July, 1963, at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Perhaps it was the galling thought of having to devote space on an Elvis album to those duets with Ann-Margret, not to mention the specter of having to include solo performances by the actress herself, that led Colonel Tom to release only an EP single from the movie instead of a true soundtrack album. The two gems that did surface did so as a single. Side A was a late-project afterthought, a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” At the time, that song and the B-side, “Viva Las Vegas," were victims of the backwash of Beatlemania, both sides charting, but neither able to reach to top 20.
Doc Pomus had never been west of New Jersey when he wrote the title track for the movie. It took a couple of decades, but the song “Viva Las Vegas” would finally get legs as a popular movie and sitcom musical foil for glitz, glamour, and all manner of egregious cultural vacuousness. An easy target for parody, Ann-Margret was among the snipers, belting out “Viva Rock Vegas” for a Flintstones movie project in 2000. And perhaps that Vegas rock had the Colonel rolling somewhere.