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Elvis Australia : Official Elvis Presley Fan Club

If I Can Dream by Paul Simpson

By Elvis Australia
Source: For Elvis Fans Only
December 13, 2008 - 10:07:21 AM

Some Elvis songs are still so fresh, so moving, they can be hard to listen to. And for me, the one song that still gives me goosebumps because of the power of the performance and the song's personal relevance to the King is If I Can Dream. It's widely known that the song almost never happened. Steve Binder, producer of the 1968 NBC TV Special that resurrected Elvis' career, was so desperate to avoid ending the show with a Christmas song - as the Colonel suggested - that he told Earl Brown, in charge of the vocal arrangements, 'Write me the greatest song you ever wrote'.

Steve Binder and Elvis Presley - 1968
Steve Binder and Elvis Presley - 1968

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative and Brown did pretty much what Binder had ordered. If I Can Dream was, after In The Ghetto, the most socially conscious song Elvis ever recorded. Binder had been impressed by Elvis' despair when Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and, for him, the song had another message: 'I wanted the world to know that here was a an who raised in prejudice but was above all that'. The song's very title resonated with the 'I Have A Dream' speech given by Martin Luther King, in 1963. King, of course, had also been assassinated - in Memphis - only months before the TV special was filmed.

Parker, like most show biz traditionalists, believed that messages were best left to Western Union. But Binder was inspired by the implicit liberalism in Elvis' remarkable rags to riches story. As a boy, teenager, man and singer, he had dared to cross the racial divide, showing an openness that inspired Peter Guralnick and countless others. And the hope for a land 'where all my brothers walk hand in hand' reflected the liberal impulse that was at the heart of Elvis' story. Elvis had proved, to turn a bit Biblical, that the last could be the first. And here he was, in song, hoping that this could come true for everybody.

The song's lyric was also uniquely personal to Elvis. His very life story seemed to prove Brown's point that 'as long as a man has the strength to dream he can redeem his soul… and fly'. Tragically, sometime in the next nine years, Elvis lost the strength to dream.

The personal, social and philosophical relevance of this song may explain why Elvis sings it, from the very start, as if his life depends on it. This is, as Greil Marcus said, music that bleeds. Elvis sings with the fervour of southern gospel and, at times, the echoes between his vocal and the backing singers, almost feels like the interaction between a minister and a choir.

And then there's the voice. In three minutes and ten seconds, Elvis' vocal offers us a remarkable blend of anger, compassion, humility, authority, urgency, gravitas and passionate concern. When he sings 'There must be peace and understanding some times', he is actually lecturing us, underlining our responsibility to dream of a better world. But he does so with such fragility, humility and concern, the lecture isn't offensive or arrogant. It is almost as if Elvis is rebuking us - and himself.

The song has been much covered but no one has matched Elvis. Few voices have the power, variety and charisma the song demands. Elvis sings as if his dream is our dream, so his lament is universal. Most of the cover versions - even Celine Dion's - don't have the same universality.

The song was later sung, as an ode to God, by the American jazz/gospel/blues Della Reese on the US TV series 'Touched By An Angel'. Reese's version of After Loving You was one of the records Elvis played a lot at Graceland in the 1960s, finally recording it at the remarkable Memphis sessions.

At the finale of the song, Elvis raises his arms, almost in a crucifixion pose, as if the song has drained the very essence of his being, Watching the versions on the DVD of the special, you can see how much he put into this - and how much he took out of it. Above all, you get a glimpse of what Jerry Schilling tried to describe when he watched the 1966 gospel sessions and felt that, as Elvis sang How Great Thou Art, that something mysterious was happening to his friend: 'as if his inner being was leaving his body'.

The sadness, forty and a half years on, is that Elvis is not with us to dream and redeem his soul and that we seem as far away from a land where mankind walks hand in hand as we ever were.

- More articles by Paul Simpson

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