Elvis conductor Joe Guercio dies in Nashville

Joe Guercio, the veteran Las Vegas bandleader and arranger best-known for his work with Elvis Presley, died Sunday of cancer in Nashville, Tenn. He was 87.

Guercio toured with Presley in the 1970s and conducted the orchestra that accompanied him both at the Las Vegas Hilton and on the road. Guercio also composed the six-note “rise and fall” that became known as “The Elvis theme.”

Guercio spent most of the past 15 years living in Nashville. But his Las Vegas career ran from the 1950s well into the 1990s. After his first visit to Las Vegas as a pianist and conductor for singer Patti Page, the Buffalo, N.Y., native settled in Las Vegas in 1967 and four years later became the musical director at the Las Vegas Hilton.

As part of his later career, Guercio introduced ticketed concerts to locals-oriented casinos. He booked early career appearances by the likes of Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks into Arizona Charlie’s, 740 S. Decatur Blvd., while working as entertainment director there in the early 1990s.

Over the years, Guercio conducted or collaborated with stars including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Jim Nabors, Florence Henderson, Diahann Carroll, Connie Stevens, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and even “Bonanza” TV star Lorne Greene.

Streisand’s 1972 hit “Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead” was based on a live medley Guercio arranged for her. And Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” duet with the voice of her late father, Nat King Cole, stemmed from Guercio persuading her to sing with a video of her father in her stage shows.

But Guercio will be forever associated with Presley in the 1970s, the era captured in the concert films “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is,” which was filmed at the Hilton, and “Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii.”

Guercio wasn’t part of Presley’s debut engagement in 1969, but from 1970 through 1976, he arranged charts and conducted a 30-piece orchestra for the rock legend.

When Guercio and his first wife, Corinne, went to see a reissue of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Corinne turned to him during the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” music and said, “Don’t you get the feeling Elvis is about to walk out?”

From that point on, he never walked out to anything else.

Guercio and the Hilton parted ways soon after Presley’s death in 1977. He returned as entertainment director in 1985, after working as Diana Ross’ musical director.

When Arizona Charlie’s opened in 1988, Guercio and choreographer Penny France, who would become his second wife, sold the casino on a Strip-style cabaret show, the “Naughty Ladies Revue,” which became a fixture through 2000.

Guercio also introduced ticketed concert acts to the 160-seat lounge and later to a multipurpose room on the second floor. In 1997 though, Arizona Charlie’s fell on hard times. Guercio began dividing his time between Las Vegas and Nashville to follow the success of “Elvis — The Concert,” in which a live band and orchestra played along to Presley’s isolated vocals and film footage extracted from his concert specials.

The concert brought Guercio back to the Hilton in 1998 and to the Aladdin’s concert hall in 2002. In 2011, back surgery prevented Guercio from being honored at the Las Vegas Rock Reunion Hall of Fame event that included his rocker son Jim.

Guercio was twice widowed in marriages to dancer-choreographers. Corinne “Corky” Wolfram was a dancer and choreographer who met Guercio when both were working at the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City. They married in 1956, and she died in May 1986.

France was a British singer-dancer who went on to stage lounge revues and operate retail boutiques. They married in 1998, and she died in 2005.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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