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Elvis in his Las Vegas heyday

New three-CD boxed set looks at the way it was

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In the heat of the desert 30 years ago this month, Elvis Presley began a series of Las Vegas shows that would be crucial to his career.

After an initial stumble in Las Vegas early in his career, he had already won back the glittery entertainment capital with two high-profile, record-breaking stints in 1969 and early 1970.

Less than two years earlier, his remarkable comeback TV special made him a relevant voice in modern music. New hit songs like "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds" — along with a flashy new jumpsuited image — made people forget how he squandered the '60s on silly movies.

Manager Colonel Tom Parker took nothing for granted and heavily promoted the August Vegas run, calling it "The Elvis Presley Summer Festival," as if it was some Bavarian holiday event.

For Presley, it meant nothing more than a shift in gears in America's most extraordinary entertainment career, stepping away, at last, from his long run of dim Hollywood comedies with a flashy documentary film that would concentrate wholly on his musical side.

That meant far more preparation for the shows than usual. The rehearsal sessions, where he and his large, accomplished band learned more than 60 songs, were also filmed for the MGM film at Hollywood sound studios, as were many of the squealing, often-colorful fans surrounding the star.

The 30th anniversary of what became the film "Elvis — That's the Way It Is" is becoming the focal point of the events and the remembrance in Memphis next week marking the 23rd anniversary of the death of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

A new cut of the film "Elvis — That's the Way It Is — Special Edition," which is said to include a 40 percent increase of Elvis performance footage, got its world premiere amid Elvis Week events Saturday in Memphis.

Parker always hated the interviews with fans and other distractions that took away from the purity of Elvis' performance (the cigar-champing manager had originally conceived of the project to be a pay-per-view event). The folks at Turner Entertainment, which owns the rights to the film, obviously agreed and excised them to make room for the performances.

After some theatrical releases in select cities this fall, the film will be shown during the other part of the year devoted to Elvis — his birthday, with a letterbox screening Jan. 8 on Turner Classic Movies, followed by the DVD release the next day.

"That's the Way It Is" captures Presley's career at a turning point. He was by all accounts at his Vegas height, before the slide to the end of his career, when he died at age 42 in 1977.

In 1970, Elvis was totally in his element in Vegas. He had recent hit singles to sing and was not so far removed from his remarkable string of early classics.

His personal selection of material tilted heavily toward the maudlin ballads reflecting his own marital breakup. An average show would have a six-pack of cry-in-your-beer songs of loss, such as "Twenty Days and Twenty Nights," "I've Lost You," "There Goes My Everything" and "Don't Cry Daddy."

At the same time, he was open to contemporary songs of more weight, from Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," to the Beatles' "Something."

In the newly issued three-CD boxed set "That's The Way It Is — Special Edition" (RCA, $49.97), amid the remarkable rehearsals, the King also takes on "Yesterday" and melds the Beatles' "Get Back" to his own version of "Little Sister." (Some of that song's electricity comes from an errant microphone in rehearsal causing the King to cuss mid-song: "Son of a -----! Shocked the h--- out of me!")

The midnight show recorded 30 years ago Saturday, presented in its entirety on the second of the three-disc set, is called in the liner notes "probably the best concert ever recorded by Elvis Presley."

Besides 45 previously unreleased tracks, the original dozen tracks of the "That's the Way It Is" soundtrack are remixed and remastered to show the clarity of the band, from the low blat of the trombone to the high squeal of the trumpets. Sometimes you can hear too well, as when someone seems to be talking through the end of the ballad "Mary in the Morning." Presley's own stage repartee, always goofy and fascinating in its own way, provides a lot of entertainment between the belting songs — on stage and in rehearsal.

It's a playful Presley here. And though he's not bursting into laughs during the ballads, he alters lyrics enough so that, performed live, his version of the Righteous Brothers hit "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," which he would continue to perform for the rest of his career, briefly comments on his own weight problems (which would also be with him through the end of his career).

"Baby, baby I'd get down on my knees for you," he'd begin the bridge, ad-libbing: "If this suit weren't too tight!"

In his otherwise melancholy "Are You Lonesome Tonight" he lightens the tone by replacing the question "Do you gaze at the doorway and picture me there?" with "Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?"

With a package design that weds retro '70s color and typography to cool contemporary materials (a translucent cover), the box of "That's The Way It Is — Special Edition" is disappointing in the brevity of its liner notes in the 24-page booklet. Still, it will be of interest to die-hard Elvis fans with unlimited income (who have already been the target of six other new Presley titles this year, with two more boxed sets to come before the end of the year). Perhaps all the extra detail will come with the DVD release.