The inside story of the 1968 performance which made Elvis Presley cool again

By Warren Manger for MIRROR on-line

Elvis Presley in 1968 was a fading star.

He had not performed live in seven years, his Hollywood films had been panned by the critics (though they were loved by his fans) and musical tastes had moved on to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But then Elvis made his ’68 Comeback Special and with that one sensational TV show, he was The King once more. But if his manager Colonel Tom Parker had got his way the show which transformed Elvis and saved his career would have been very different.

Parker’s plan was for a corny Christmas special, with Elvis in a cheesy tuxedo singing 26 festive favourites. The show’s director Steve Binder had other ideas. Steve, now 85, says: “Colonel Parker gave me an audio tape, it was an hour of recorded Christmas songs. It never entered my mind that was what we were going to do.

“I told Elvis I thought his career was in the toilet. He hadn’t had a hit record in years. He wasn’t making any movies, so what was really making him this superstar was just Colonel Parker and his publicity machine.

“Television was a way to become the biggest star in the world the next day, or fall on your ass and that would be the end of your career. I think he respected my honesty and we just hit it off.”

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And so, under his direction, the tux was out and Elvis opened the show singing Trouble/Guitar Man, wearing a tight leather suit as black as his very dyed hair. His sideburns were sculpted – and big, like the collar on his jacket. Instead of crooning by an open fire, he sang with a guitar slung from his shoulders, hips swiveling and lips curling. Behind him was a gantry full of Elvis impersonators following his every move. The most memorable set was an improve session, which had Elvis jamming with his band, laughing and bantering between performances of Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and I Can’t Help Falling In Love. The show made him irresistibly cool again and cinemas have been screening the ’68 Comeback Special to mark its 50th anniversary.

Steve came up with the idea for the unplugged set when he saw Elvis jamming with friends in his dressing room at the NBC studios in Burbank, California. He says: “These are those moments where you get to look through the keyhole and see things you are just in awe of. I said, ‘I’ve got to film this. It’s better than anything we’re doing on stage’.

“Colonel Parker wouldn’t allow it, but he let us re-create it out on the stage. That’s exactly what I did, but it was never as great as the real thing I saw in the dressing room.” The Colonel almost scuppered the live segment by convincing Steve to give him all the tickets so he could fill the audience with Elvis fans. Instead, he dumped all the tickets at the studio entrance days before the show, telling security guards to hand them out. Steve says: “He implied there would be a plane from Memphis full of blonde, bouffant hairdos and big blue eyes, an audience like Hollywood had never seen before. I should have known better, but I bought it. We could have sold the tickets for a thousand dollars apiece.

 

"I expected there would be fans taking over all of Burbank to see Elvis. But there was nobody. The tickets were not distributed. “So we panicked. We called some friends at local radio stations and asked them to promote it. We sent somebody over to Bob’s Big Boy to ask customers eating hamburgers to come to see Elvis Presley and we somehow pulled together enough people.” It was just one of the surreal problems the crew faced. In the opening scene, the impersonators aped Elvis’ moves so enthusiastically it was feared the platform would collapse.

Steve says: “I ended up having too many Elvises. I hate to fire anybody, so I decided to use them all. We were afraid the scaffold was not going to hold the weight.”

While Elvis was dodging calls from other stars, including The Beatles, who were desperate to meet him, the fans who had followed his every move for years were nowhere to be seen. A tourist even approached Elvis and Steve and, failing to recognize The King, asked if they had seen any celebrities she could photograph. It had been a painful fall from grace for Elvis. Of the eight singles he released in the first half of 1968, just two scraped into the Top 40. He had made just a handful of appearances since being drafted into the US Army a decade earlier and he had put on weight.

But after a holiday in Hawaii with wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie, who was born in February that year, Elvis returned rejuvenated, tanned and thinner. His good mood faltered just once during filming, when one producer told him he was using too much black hair dye. Steve says: “When Elvis came back from vacation he was awesome looking. He was all tanned.

“Whether you’re male or female, you stopped to look at him.

He was that good looking.”

 

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NBC Studio's Burbank, Ca. June 1968.-11.

Elvis was nervous about his performance so Steve took him on to Sunset Boulevard at rush hour to prove that no one recognised him any more, though he later admitted that people probably thought Elvis was an impersonator. It helped Elvis through the rehearsals, but he got stage fright on the night.

Steve says: “I was called into the dressing room and he said, ‘Steve, I can’t do it’. I said, ‘Elvis, you’ve got to go out there’. “When he went out there, he was scared to death. The opening number he was shaky. His throat was dry. Then, little by little, this amazing surge of confidence flowed through his body.” Elvis put on such a show that Steve made it a 90-minute programme, but it was cut by NBC to the planned 48 minutes by the time it aired in December 1968. The Colonel insisted they include the only festive song they had filmed, Blue Christmas.

The ’68 Comeback Special was so successful it landed Elvis a residency at the International Hotel in Vegas, where he put on 700 shows between 1969 and 1976. Steve was there on the first night, but The Colonel was so jealous of the mutual respect between the two men that he reportedly later had his secretary block all of Steve’s calls to Graceland. The full director’s cut of the NBC special only aired years later as part of a tribute to Elvis after he died.

Steve says: “My last conversation with Elvis, he told me how much he passionately loved that special. It is very rare to hear an artist tell you that. I thought it would air one time and that was it.

“I’m so thrilled it’s coming back 50 years later. “Aside from the millions of Elvis fans worldwide, I think it’s good that the younger generation get a chance to see him. “To be honest, I had no passion for Elvis Presley’s music when we met, I was into the Beach Boys. When I saw him perform, I accepted how great he really was.”

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December 4, 1968. The NY Times.

Rock Star's Explosive Blues Have Vintage Quality

By ROBERT SHELTON

In an effort to make new contact with a generation he has done more to influence than it may realize, Elvis Presley finally got around to making his first television special.

"Elvis" was presented last night by the Singer Company on the National Broadcasting Company network. Parts of the hour program were unbelievably stagey, but other parts were believably effective and natural glimpses of one of the pop-culture phenomenons of the century at work where he works best, in music.

The chief surface impression of the show is that Mr. Presley, who unleashed a storm, pro and con, with his rock 'n' roll dynamism in the mid-nineteen-fifties, is today rather a conservative compared with his rock-stylistic children, from Liverpool to Laguna. The program does underline the fact that Mr. Presley still knows more about basic rock than most inheritors of his style.

The best of Presley, in 1956 and last night, was the gyrating country singer who got the message of the hard beat and explosive body motion from Negro gospel and rhythm-and- blues singers. Elvis still grinds his pelvis, lets his hair cascade over his forehead and sweats as if he had been stoking coal with his guitar.

He goes through a dozen costume changes, but spends most of the show in basic black leather. Glistening in the studio lights, the leather evokes memories of the rural rowdy, the motorcycle cowboy, the inner-directed adolescent maverick who came from the same spiritual family as James Dean and Marlon Brando.

The best of the show is a retrospective of Mr. Presley's early hits, such as "Trouble," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," and "Jailhouse Rock." His gentle ballad singing is able, but not his distinctive signature.

There is much about Mr. Presley to poke fun at. His twisted smile suggests a cross between George Wallace and Richard Burton. His slack jaw and pained ecstasy seemed to have been ordered from the studio cosmetics man. The weepy, shrieking girls who surround him reach a reductio ad absurdum when the star presents one grateful girl with his sweaty handkerchief.

But there is more about the show to praise than to lampoon. As the progenitor of the rock 'n' roll revolution that has swept the world, Mr. Presley made history translating the free and total involvement of self in rhythm into an erotic and Dionysian experience.

He helped bring the pop world from illusion to reality. He was the catalyst for making youth pop into a medium alive with sexuality and urgency.

One early TV appearance, on the Ed Sullivan Show, kept Mr. Presley prim for the family by showing him from the waist up. Times have changed. This show was a full-length portrait.

Then, around 1957, the second but esthetically weakest Presley period began. After signing with R.C.A. Victor Records, Mr. Presley cut about 50 gold, or million-selling records. It is estimated he has sold more than 200 million recordings. His 29 films, none of which were up to his talents, have grossed the star at least $1-million each. He became a super-star with a super-image, packaged into a super-commodity.

What this special points out is that this charismatic performer was at his best 10 years ago, but he hasn't lost his grip on the best music he had to offer then. Today's rock generation will, more than likely, ask that the real, early Presley stand up. The slickness and hokum of the show are happily relieved with moments when Mr. Presley is just picking and joking with his musicians, when he lets his body and voice serve as vehicles for spontaneous emotion to pass through them, when he talks, modestly, of how Negro music influenced him.

This should suggest an even stronger Presley special, out of the studio and back to the streets of the black and white South that formed him: The churches of East Tupelo, Miss., where he sang; the truck-driving in Memphis; the early recording discouragements, and the break-out as a sex symbol and musical volcano.

That was the real Elvis Presley, who affected the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and countless others. The films and ballads and record hits may have made him into a super-star. Mr. Presley could make himself an artist again, by bringing it all back home, in the white and black South, where it all began.

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“If I Can Dream” & The '68 Comeback Special.

 

by Robert Fontenot

 

It's no secret that Elvis Presley was not particularly well served by the machinations of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was in 1968, however, that Elvis broke free from his spell, if only for a short while, defying Parker's vision of Elvis' adult years and, in the process, engineering rock music's most stunning (and satisfying) comeback.

 

NBC and sponsor Singer (of the sewing machines) had long wanted to present an Elvis Christmas special, and the King had no problem delivering some of his big Xmas hits, particularly "Blue Christmas." With the assistance of director Steve Binder, however, Presley began to envision the hour-long TV special as a way to reclaim his rightful place atop pop music's throne, one he'd largely forfeited after his return from the Army in 1960.

Years of mediocre-to-horrible films, their equally suspect soundtracks, and the ongoing progress of popular music had left Elvis in the dust, both creatively and commercially.

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The special changed all that immediately, re-establishing the King as a fine interpretive singer, a sexual presence (that black leather suit has practically become an icon all its own), a performer par excellence, and a real musician to boot. That last was especially borne out by the intimate jam session filmed for the special; some still believe it to be the finest set of music he ever played. Taken along with the special that surrounds it, it stands as one of the most amazing career resurrections in entertainment history.

 

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1968 TIMELINE: ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL January 12: NBC publicly announces Elvis' upcoming Christmas TV special, for which he will be paid $250,000. A unnamed film as part of the package will net the singer $850,000.

 

May 14: At a private meeting with NBC executive Bob Finkel, Elvis declares that he'd like to use the upcoming special to prove himself once again to his audience, saying "I want everyone to know what I can really do."

 

May 17: Steve Binder is hired as director for the TV special. His credits include the legendary 1964 all-star rock broadcast The T.A.M.I. Show, the weekly rock revue Hullabaloo, and the infamous 1968 Petula Clark TV special Petula, which featured the white Clark touching the arm of the black Harry Belafonte, to the outrage of Chrysler, the show's sponsor.

 

June 6: Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK, is assassinated in Los Angeles. Elvis' sadness over this death and that of Martin Luther King affect Steve Binder to the effect that he begins thinking about composing a "socially conscious" song for the King to sing on his special.

 

June 11: NBC costume designer Bill Belew suggests the white "preacher" suit and skin-tight black leather suit Elvis will wear in the special. He also suggests Elvis wear the famous gold lame suit designed by Nudie Cohen and seen on the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, but Presley, conscious of shedding his Hollywood image, agrees only to the jacket.

 

June 17: Elvis begins dance, vocal, and dialogue rehearsals for the TV special.

 

June 19: Having watched Elvis and his longtime band rehearse in their dressing rooms all week, Steve Binder decides to insert a similarly informal jam into the TV show. At first he decides to film the dressing room rehearsals themselves, then thinks better of it and decides to hold them in front of an audience, on the same stage Presley will be using for his more traditional "stand-up show."

 

June 20: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "Nothingville," "Let Yourself Go," "Guitar Man," and "Big Boss Man." He will use these and the following few days' recordings as guides for his live performance in the TV special.

 

June 21: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "It Hurts Me," "Little Egypt," "Trouble," "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," and "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?"

 

June 21: Binder asks musical director Bones Howe to write that "socially conscious" song for Elvis' big closing number, which had been slated as the standard "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Howe writes the replacement song, "If I Can Dream," that afternoon; after hearing it a half-dozen times, Elvis agrees to end with it.

 

June 22: Elvis records the songs "Up Above My Head," "I Found That Light," "Saved," and the "Trouble / Guitar Man" medley with which he will open the special.

 

June 23: Elvis records his last two guide tracks for the special, "If I Can Dream" and "Memories."

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NEXT: THE TIMELINE CONTINUES, SINGLES, SOUNDTRACKS, AND MORE June 27:

 

At 6 pm, Elvis and his band tape the informal jam session on center stage at NBC's Studio 4, a performance many consider his best of all time. However, the Colonel, unhappy with the direction of the show, has withheld all tickets to the performance, forcing staffers to run into a nearby Bob's Big Boy restaurant (4211 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank) and plead with patrons to come see a real honest-to-goodness Elvis concert. (The King himself is extremely nervous at performing live for the first time in seven years, and is told by Binder that once he goes out there, he can just get up and leave if he can't take it. A close look at the performance shows that, once on stage, he pretends to do just that.) Two shows, an afternoon and an evening, are performed. This performance would later serve as the inspiration for MTV's Unplugged series.

 

The songs performed at the "Sitdown Show" are as follows: "That's All Right, Mama," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me," "Baby What You Want Me To Do," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again," "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," "Blue Christmas," "Tiger Man," "Trying To Get To You," "One Night," and "Memories."

 

June 28: Elvis tapes the "gospel medley" portion of the show as well as a controversial "bordello" scene that was never broadcast: NBC censors had no objections, but the sponsor, Singer Sewing Machines, didn't want to upset viewers.

 

June 29: Elvis performs the show's intro as well as the two "stand-up" musical sets, this time in front of a packed house. The songs performed are as follows: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "One Night," "All Shook Up," "Can't Help Falling In Love," "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Love Me Tender," the "Trouble / Guitar Man" intro, and a first pass at "If I Can Dream."

 

June 30: The finale of the TV show, "If I Can Dream," is perfected by Presley in five takes.

 

August 20: Having just seen a rough cut of the TV special, the Colonel is outraged, and in a two-page memorandum to the producers outlines several grievances, most notably a complete lack of Christmas songs. If at least one Christmas song isn't featured, threatens Parker, the network will be forced to do an entire Christmas special with Elvis to honor its contract. The dispute is resolved easily enough when a version of "Blue Christmas" from the "sit-down" show is edited back in.

 

December 3: The TV special, whose official title is simply Singer Presents Elvis, debuts on NBC at 9 pm EST and is a giant commercial and critical smash, taking in a full 42 percent of the nation's television viewing audience and cementing Elvis' "comeback" for all time.

 

December 10: Fresh off the success of the special, Colonel Tom Parker negotiates a performance deal with the William Morris Agency: eight shows a week in Vegas for one month. Price: half a million dollars.

 

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ORIGINAL BROADCAST: ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL

Opening: "Trouble" / "Guitar Man" (medley)

 

Sitdown show:

"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"

Standup show:

"Heartbreak Hotel" / "Hound Dog" / "All Shook Up" (medley) "Can't Help Falling In Love"

"Jailhouse Rock"

"Love Me Tender"

"Are You Lonesome To-night?"

Gospel production number:

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" / "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?" / "Up Above My Head" / "Saved" (medley)

 

Sitdown show:

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise) "Blue Christmas"

"One Night"

Performance:

"Memories"

 

Guitar Man production number:

"Nothingville" / "Guitar Man" / "Let Yourself Go" / "Big Boss Man" / "It Hurts Me" / "Little Egypt" / "Trouble" / "Guitar Man" (medley)

 

Closing number:

"If I Can Dream"

 

SITDOWN SHOW #1 (6 PM): ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL

"That's All Right"

"Heartbreak Hotel"

"Love Me"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"

"Blue Suede Shoes"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise) "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"

"Are You Lonesome To-night?"

"When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again"

"Blue Christmas"

"Trying To Get To You"

"One Night"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise) "One Night" (reprise)

 

SITDOWN SHOW #2 (8 PM): ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL

"Heartbreak Hotel"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"

"That's All Right"

"Are You Lonesome To-night?"

"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise) "Blue Suede Shoes"

"One Night"

"Love Me"

"Trying To Get To You"

"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"

"Santa Claus Is Back In Town"

"Blue Christmas"

"Tiger Man"

"When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again"

 

1968 Come Back Special presented by Sing
1968 Come Back Special presented by Sing

OFFICIAL SINGLES: ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL November 5, 1968:

"If I Can Dream" b/w "Edge Of Reality" (RCA Victor 47-9670)

 February 25, 1969: "Memories" b/w "Charro" (RCA Victor 47-9731)

 

OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK ALBUM: ELVIS '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL November 22, 1968:

Elvis NBC TV Special (RCA LPM 4088):

Side 1:

"Trouble / Guitar Man"

"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"

"Baby What You Want Me To Do"

"Dialogue"

"Medley: Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up" "Can't Help Falling In Love" "Jailhouse Rock" "Love Me Tender"

Side 2:

"Medley: Where Could I Go But To The Lord?

"Up Above My Head / Saved"

"Dialogue"

"Blue Christmas"

"One Night"

"Memories"

"Nothingville"

"Dialogue"

"Medley: Big Boss Man / Guitar Man / Little Egypt / Trouble / Guitar Man"

"If I Can Dream"

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