Steve Binder, Director Of Elvis' '68 Comeback Special talks about the King

By: Brett Johnson
Source: SHNS
June 28, 2004

Bones Howe, Steve Binder, Elvis Presley & Bob Finkle at 'Elvis' Press Conference 1968.
Bones Howe, Steve Binder, Elvis Presley & Bob Finkle at 'Elvis' Press Conference 1968.
Steve Binder had the guts to tell Elvis Presley his career was in the toilet and scored a rare victory in a power struggle with the singer's domineering manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Then Binder went out, turned a brainstorm into a jam session and directed the TV special that put the spark back in Elvis and restored him to greatness.

That was in June 1968. Fast-forward 36 years, when a deluxe seven-hour DVD edition of Binder's Elvis show was released this week as part of a celebration of an Elvis milestone.

Steve Binder & Elvis
Steve Binder & Elvis
July 5 marks the 50th anniversary of that 1954 day that Elvis walked into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., to cut his first record, 'That's All Right'.

Many consider that moment to be the birth of rock 'n' roll, though others trace rock's origins back further.

A DVD of a Elvis Aloha From Hawaii, Elvis : 68 Comeback Special and two CDs of historic music from Elvis and others also were released Tuesday.

Suddenly, with the big 5-0 milestone looming, many are talkin' Elvis again. Binder has loads of memories from working with The King all those years ago -- vivid, fond, funny and otherwise.

'If someone had told me back then that I would be getting interviewed in 2004 about the Elvis special we did, I would have said, 'No way',' Binder, now 62, said from a couch in his Mandalay Bay, Calif., townhouse recently.

After the 1968 special, Elvis had a new spotlight and hit Vegas shows almost up until his death in 1977 at age 42.

Parker died in 1997 at age 87. Binder has had a long career as director and producer. But for a few memorable weeks in 1968, they were together, making a little magic and history.

The original show, called simply 'Elvis', aired on NBC on Dec. 3, 1968.

If Parker had had his way, it likely would have been just another show with a celebrity singing Christmas chestnuts, probably soon forgotten. But in Binder's hands, and with The King's backing, it became legendary.

Binder got the idea to have Elvis and friends jam onstage, performing his hits and interacting with the crowd -- a forerunner of the so-called 'Unplugged' concept long before MTV even existed. He had Elvis do numbers with a full orchestra as well.

What they caught was Elvis on fire, dressed in a tight black leather suit for the jam sessions, oozing charisma, energy and sexuality. He was back.

Almost four decades later, the show still resonates in many places, including at Elvis' sprawling Graceland complex in Memphis.

'It was career salvation', said Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development for Elvis Presley Enterprises there and also one of the producers of the new DVD on the 1968 show.

'Of course, who could possibly know what would have happened if the TV special hadn't come along. Maybe there would have been another way to reboot his career. But who knows?'

Binder grew up in Los Angeles, went to film school at the University of Southern California and did radio during an ensuing Army stint. Later, he landed a job on a New York-based music show called 'Hullabaloo' and then directed TV specials for Leslie Uggams, and another with Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte.

After the Clark-Belafonte special, Binder got a call from Bob Finkel, an executive producer at NBC. Parker, Finkel told him, had struck a deal with the network to do an Elvis special. Finkel wanted Binder to direct and co-produce it. Binder was 26.

'I was so young', Binder said. 'I couldn't believe all this was happening.'

Binder agreed to a meeting with Elvis. The two hit it off, even though Binder was frank with The King.

'Basically, I told him I thought his career was in the toilet', Binder said.

Binder pitched a rough outline for the show; Elvis liked it. They agreed that Elvis would go off to Hawaii to get in shape for the special. They started putting the show together in June 1968.

Binder was determined to make the suave Elvis and his music the show's focus. Parker had other ideas: He wanted the show to be Elvis doing 20 Christmas songs, with no talking between numbers.

Every night after rehearsals and tapings, Binder noticed that Elvis would go to his dressing room and jam away with old friends. They would sing, play and joke.

'I said: 'Wait a minute, this is history. I want to film this', Binder said. 'And Elvis had a great sense of humor; I was determined to get that in there'.

Parker at first said no to taping in the dressing room but later relented on the idea as long as they did it on the studio stage. So the jam-session portion of the show was born.

'I was certainly fascinated by Elvis, but truthfully, I was not into his music', Binder said. 'I liked the West Coast sound, the Beach Boys and such. On the other hand, when I saw him perform through my camera lens, I accepted him for how great he really was'.

'The cool part for me seeing it through the lens was seeing him visually build his confidence', Binder said. 'When he realized they (the studio audience) loved him, he simply could not give them enough'.

Once taping was over, Parker found out about the show's thrust and threatened to pull out of the project unless NBC included at least one Christmas song. Fortunately, Binder said, during one improv session Elvis had sung 'Blue Christmas' and he had it on tape, so he agreed to throw that in. Binder edited the show down, and showed Elvis the final product. The King, he said, was pleased with it.

Parker offered Binder the directorial helm of Elvis' next movie, 1969's 'Charro', but later reneged on it when they got into a dispute over music royalties from the special. Binder and Elvis never spoke again.

Binder would go on to do TV shows involving Mac Davis, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Michelle Kwan and others. The Elvis special, he said, taught him that sometimes you have to stick to your guns.

'I can't tell you how many times I've been told, 'You'll never get work in this town again.' But I've had steady work for four decades'.

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