Elvis Presley's Legendary 1968 Comeback Special
January 25, 2015
Elvis' initial reaction to the special was negative. He felt it was another scheme by Parker, and was angered by the concept of singing Christmas carols on national television. His opinion started to change after he began talks with the special's producer, Bob Finkel. Finkel was then able to persuade Singer, NBC and Parker to alter the original concept of the show. Finkel received Parker's approval upon agreeing to his exigences: the show was to be centered only in Elvis, while enough material for a soundtrack album and a Christmas single was to be recorded. Elvis' enthusiasm for the project grew. He assured Finkel he was ready to produce a new material, different to anything he had previously made, while he remarked his lack of interest in Parker's opinion.
To reflect the new direction Elvis' career was intended to take, Finkel thought of director Steve Binder. Binder had directed the concert film T.A.M.I. Show and worked for NBC in Hullabaloo, as well as for the Petula Clark television special aired by the network. Finkel felt that the addition of Binder would refreshen Elvis' image, and that the director would be able to re-introduce him to the new audiences. Initially reluctant to direct the special, Binder was convinced by his associate, Bones Howe. Howe met Elvis during the 1950s, while he worked at Radio Recorders as an audio engineer. He insisted to work with Elvis, since he thought Binder had similar production methods. A meeting was arranged with Parker, in which Elvis' manager assured that the team would be given full creative control, while he stressed that the publishing rights to the material had to be under Elvis' name. Howe and Binder met with Elvis later that week, and told the singer they would prepare all the details of the special, and have them ready by the time he returned from his vacations in Hawaii.
'Elvis was hardly ever nervous – but he was then', drummer D.J. Fontana tells Rolling Stone, reflecting on the 1968 television special that relaunched Elvis' career. 'We played a couple of songs, and it got loose after a while, and it turned out fine. He just had been out of the public eye for a long time'.
If Elvis was nervous at all, though, it didn't show. When he appeared onscreen, it was with a piercing stare and a curled lip. He was dressed head-to-toe in black leather, and best of all, his voice sounded powerful: He wailed 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' and other hits like it was 1956. The hour-long broadcast, then dubbed Elvis and now known as the '68 Comeback Special', proved that the then–33-year-old still had swagger. For years, he'd been exiled in Hollywood – making movies instead of touring, as the Beatles blew up and rock got bigger than ever – so the show was a long-overdue return to pure performing for the singer. It was a daring move, and it almost didn't happen.
When Elvis' manager, the notoriously iron-willed Colonel Tom Parker, initially met with NBC in May 1968, he asked them to produce a special of Elvis singing Christmas songs. It was a novel idea, since most TV specials then featured multiple artists and this one would focus solely on Elvis, but it wasn't until onetime Hullabaloo director Steve Binder and his producer foil Bones Howe took creative control and told Elvis it could be an opportunity to do what Binder called 'something really important' – ditching the Christmas angle and instead re-announcing himself as a performer – that Elvis was sold.
Binder and Howe decided the special should tell the story of Elvis' life in music through the lyrics he sang, beginning with the chucka-chucka rhythms of Jerry Reed's 'Guitar Man' (later paired with 'Trouble') and showing how singing had delivered a sometime truck driver to stardom. They wanted it to end with Elvis singing a current hit, possibly 'MacArthur Park', though Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker was still hoping for it to end with a Christmas song. It was an idea that they'd develop until almost the last minute. Meanwhile, the singer went on vacation and slimmed down.
When he'd returned, the creators had decided to include an 'informal segment' – an off-the-cuff performance with a little scripted conversation. That, too, evolved as they watched Elvis riff with the other musicians during rehearsals. 'Elvis loved to improvise and talk about old times and play the songs and keep repeating them – he would get excited just by repetition', song arranger Billy Goldenberg said in Peter Guralnick's book Careless Love. 'So that the intensity of the song seemed to grow as he kept playing it, almost to a climax'.
They moved into the NBC studio on June 17th, rehearsing 'Guitar Man', and they began recording the choreographed 'story' section of the special three days later with a strong selection of L.A. sidemen, including guitarist Mike Deasy and drummer Hal Blaine. It was also then that Binder decided they needed another song to end the show, leading him to beseech vocal arranger Earl Brown to write what would become 'If I Can Dream' – a vision of unity and racial harmony – overnight as a replacement for Parker's Christmas song.
Elvis loved it. When he recorded the song, he did so in the dark. 'He was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song', Binder told Guralnick. 'And when he got done, he came in the control room, and we played it maybe 15 times. He just loved it so much'.
By and large, though, Deasy remembers Elvis as lighthearted during the recording sessions. 'My wife was at the rehearsal, and Elvis came in and walked up behind her', he says. 'I said, 'Kathie, I want you to meet Elvis'. And she turns around and elbows him right in the chest, and of course, he fell back and acted like it really hurt. We all got a good laugh. That's how cool he was'.
Elvis goofed around a lot at the rehearsals, too. He'd push recordings to just a few minutes before midnight – driving the music-union representatives crazy – only to finish perfectly on time. And when the band recorded 'Guitar Man', he came out of the vocal booth to dance to the music. 'He was in such good shape', Deasy says. 'He was into karate, and he was physically very cool. He's taller than you thought, but he was out there doing this dance while we were playing and it was a super connection. It became bigger than the music itself'.
Elvis' easygoing manner didn't stop his entourage from losing their cool trying to impress him, though. 'From the moment he walked in the studio, it was almost like all the guys there were bowing down to him, but he didn't care whatsoever', Blaine recalls. 'Once in a while, he'd say something like, 'I'm a little bit thirsty', and 15 guys would run at him with Coke bottles. And because he was studying karate, all those guys were doing the same thing. Elvis would come into the studio and one guy would leap out at him, like he was going to kill him, and Elvis would go into his stance. It was really hysterical.
'The demagoguery was just unbelievable, but Elvis was truly a gentleman and a sweetheart of a guy', he continues. 'He just acted the way a country boy would act'.
At a press conference a few days before the taping, Elvis was humble. 'We figured it was about time', he said of why he wanted to do the special. 'Besides, I figured I'd better do it before I got too old'.
On June 27th, Elvis spent the early part of the day rehearsing a planned gospel medley and shooting the show's amusement-park production number. Parker had been in charge of distributing the tickets for the informal 'sit-down' segment, but he'd failed to deliver (reportedly giving most of them to an NBC security guard). So Binder and his team ran to a Bob's Big Boy and begged people to come watch Elvis. After the singer got over initial stage fright, they began at 6 p.m.
Along with Moore and Fontana, guitarist Charlie Hodge and percussionists Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault joined Elvis in what looked like an open boxing ring to play a loose, carefree set for a couple hundred fans. 'This is supposed to be the informal section of the show, where we faint or do whatever we want to do, especially me', Elvis said jokingly. 'I first started out in 1912'. And then they played fun, boyish versions of 'That's All Right', 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Love Me' and a dozen other classics (including 'Blue Christmas' for the Colonel), including a rendition of 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' on which Elvis howled. In the middle of 'Baby, What You Want Me to Do', Elvis stopped the music to show off that his lip could still twitch the way it used to. And after announcing that 'One Night' would be his last song, he quelled the boos in the audience by slyly saying, 'Man, I just work here!' with a twinkle in his eye. He also showed his tender side, singing the ballad 'Memories' surrounded by two young women.
During the set, Fontana beat his drumsticks against a guitar case rather than a drum kit. 'We'd done that from time to time', he recalls. 'We didn't really rehearse. We'd just go out there and wing it and do the best we could. That's all me and Scotty and Elvis really needed. We picked the songs right off the top of the head. It was just about how we did it in the early days'.
At one point, Elvis proclaimed that 'rock & roll music is basically gospel or rhythm and blues', which, in the final broadcast, segued to a medley of gospel songs he especially enjoyed. 'Elvis knew the old, old hymns of the church', recalls Darlene Love, who sang backup on the NBC special with the Blossoms. 'Whenever we had a break, he would go, 'Darlene! Do you know this one?' He'd go get his guitar, and I'd say, 'Yeah. Come on, let's sing it', and we'd go off in the corner to sing it'.
The gospel sequence, filmed the day after the sit-down set along with the special's infamous 'bordello' sequence that was cut from the initial broadcast for time, also fulfilled another mission for Binder: 'I wanted to let the world know that here was a guy who was not prejudiced, who was raised in the heart of prejudice, but who was really above all that', the director told Guralnick.
'The choir was originally all white', Love recalls. 'So they took the Blossoms with three black girls and put them in with the mix to make it sound more gospel. We thought that was going to be the end of it, but at the sessions, Elvis and the Blossoms got to talking – me mainly, because I had a big gospel background. Eventually he decided the Blossoms should be in the 1968 special'.
Love remembers Elvis as being 'a little shy, very introverted' during the rehearsals. 'He was very nervous because he hadn't performed in years', says the singer, who was so excited about working with Elvis that she snuck into the audience to watch during the tapings. 'When you talked gospel with him, though, he was just like a friend sitting down talking. But he was very nervous because he had become a movie star and hoped the performance would be all right. He was very concerned about, 'How do I look? Do I look all right?' He was just like a normal person, but he was Elvis Presley. So how could you be normal?'
Two days after the sit-down set, they did filmed the 'stand-up show', in which a particularly sweaty Elvis sang modernized versions of his hits for shrieking fans with the band Binder put together with Blaine and Deasy. He'd clearly gotten over his nerves by this point, as he joked with the audience – 'You have made my life a wreck, nah incomplete', he sang with a laugh during 'Love Me Tender'. Over the course of two sets, Elvis performed 'Jailhouse Rock', 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Trouble' and 'Guitar Man', and he lip-synced 'If I Can Dream' in front of now-iconic red lettering that spelled out 'E-L-V-I-S' – a look later mimicked in videos by the bands Danzig and Texas and parodied on The Simpsons. The set even exists as a cookie jar, a copy of which Blaine keeps in his trophy case. (Producer Bob Finkel later claimed to have had the lighted letters set up with a generator on Parker's front lawn.)
Although Elvis began work on his next movie, a Western called 'Charro', a week after shooting, the special transformed his career. When it aired on December 3rd, it was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the number-one show of the season. Moreover, the show's soundtrack album made it into the Top 10 and was later certified platinum, and the single, 'If I Can Dream', made it up to Number 12 and went gold; both were his highest-charting releases since 1965.
'Comeback? I'm here. I haven't been anywhere'
'It was a lot for him', recalls Love, who would work with Elvis later on the 1969 film 'Change of Habit'. 'He'd say, 'How can this be a comeback, when you think about it. Comeback? I'm here. I haven't been anywhere'.
After the taping of the first sit-down session, Elvis called Parker to his dressing room, and expressed to him his desire to return to touring. During a press conference, Paker announced that Elvis would soon embark himself on a 'Comeback Tour'. The selection of Parker's words angered Elvis, who felt he was being labeled a 'has-been'. Elvis was also interested in further collaboration with Binder, but Parker avoided it. By January 1969, propelled by the success of the special and his renewed enthusiasm, Elvis started to record his return to non-soundtrack albums under producer Chips Moman. Recorded at American Sound Studio with the house band known as 'The Memphis Boys', the resulting country-soul album was entitled From Elvis in Memphis. The non-album cut 'Suspicious Minds' became Elvis' last chart topper of his career and one of his signature songs.
Parker arranged Elvis' return to performing live. He made a deal with Kirk Kerkorian, owner of the Las Vegas International Hotel for Elvis to play the newly built, 2,000-seat showroom for four weeks (two shows per night, with Mondays off) for $400,000. For his appearance, he assembled a band later known as the TCB Band: James Burton (guitar), John Wilkinson (rhythm guitar), Jerry Scheff(bass-guitar), Ronnie Tutt (drums), Larry Muhoberac (piano) with friend Charlie Hodge (rhythm guitar, background vocals) also joing Elvis on stage. The band was complimented by the backing vocals of The Sweet inspirations and The Imperials. His initial Las Vegas show attracted an audience of 101,500, setting a new Vegas performance record. By 1970, Elvis began to tour the United States for the first time in thirteen years.
Steve Binder and Bones Howe talk about the '68 Comeback Special
Steve Binder Talks about Elvis and The '68 Comeback Special
Interview with Steve Binder
Interview with Bones Howe
Elvis '68 Comeback Special: The Press Conference | June 25, 1968
Elvis Presley : American Sound Studios Sessions
Review : 68 Comeback Special Deluxe Edition DVD
The Colonel's Birthday
On June 26th. there was an on-set birthday party for Colonel Tom Parker. Colonel was given an autographed portrait of Executive Producer Bob Finkel dressed as Napoleon. The portrait is still a part of the Colonel's collection in the Graceland Archives. Elvis also sang for the Colonel's pleasure a parody of 'It Hurts Me' written for the occasion by Chris Beard and Allan Blye. The new version of the song went:
'It hurts me to see the budget climb up to the sky. It hurts me when Finkel gives me trouble, when I see all my money go just for one g---damned ol'TV show. It hurts me the way that Finkel spends my dough. The whole town is talkin' they're callin' me a fool for listenin' to Binder's same ol' lies. Finkel calls me, says I've got no choice then hangs up the phone in that damned Rolls Royce. It hurts me when my tears start to flow, they promised me sure if I would give in that I would-that I would never go wrong, but tell me the truth is it too much to ask for one lousy tired ol' Christmas song...?'
It Hurts Me
Parody lyrics by the '68 special's writer's Chris Beard and Allan Blye
It hurts me
to see the budget climb up to the sky.
It hurts me
when Finkel gives me trouble.
When I see all my money go
just for one g---damned ol' tv show,
it hurts me
the way that Finkel spends my dough.
The whole town is talkin',
they're callin' me a fool
for listenin' to binder's same old lies.
Finkel calls me, says I've got no choice
then hangs up the phone in that damned Rolls Royce.
It hurts me
when my tears start to flow.
They promised me sure
if I would give in
that I would - that I would
never go wrong, but tell me the truth
is it too much to ask
for one lousy, tired ol'
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