A date with Elvis – the return of the ’68 Comeback Special

Elvis Week

The iconic 1968 Elvis NBC television special is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, while the week of August 13 also marks the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary of the television special, it’s being released on the big screen for the first time.

What has become known as the ’68 Comeback Special started out as a typical carny pitch by Col. Parker, Elvis’ manager. Parker pitched the over-the-top deal to NBC in the fall of 1967 as a “Christmas special”. Essentially the deal was to convince NBC to finance a movie, the TV special, and a studio album. All in an effort to prop up Elvis’ then failing movie career. Col. Parker’s vision was to feature Elvis singing carols in a tuxedo.

Elvis in decline.

By the mid 60s, Elvis had been reduced to low-budget, low-quality formulaic movies, Col. Parker even ceased production on any of Elvis’ non-soundtrack recordings. Elvis had grown restless and bored with the movies, culturally Elvis was left adrift and irrelevant. The music and culture he had helped define had surpassed him.

It is doubtful, Col. Parker’s original pitch for the TV special with Elvis performing only Christmas carols would have done much for his only client. Even Elvis was disinterested at the prospect.

This all changed when NBC executive Bob Finkel brought in young Steve Binder to direct the special. Binder had something other than Christmas carols in mind for the special. Steve Binder, who was known for going “against the grain” on occasion stood up to Parker’s instances, seeing Elvis’ career was at stake, and wanted to do “something really important.”

With Elvis now excited by the prospect of the special as invisioned by Steve Binder, over the summer of 1968, Elvis would bring back his former band. Including his original guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana in an effort to return to his roots.

Freed from the meddling of Col. Parker’s creative control, NBC carefully crafted the 50-minute special.  The special would showcase all sides of Elvis’ material, from his earliest recording to his gospel numbers – expertly woven together to tell the story of Elvis’ rise to fame. At the heart of the special, Elvis performed live for the first time in seven years, adored in the now iconic all black leather suit.

Singer Presents, Elvis.

The special was originally billed as “Singer Presents Elvis”, with Singer Sewing machines as the lead sponsor. It aired Dec. 3, 1968 at 9:00 pm ET taking the top ratings for the week. In today’s fragmented viewing audience, it is almost unimaginable to comprehend a 42% viewer share all watching one show at the same time.

The bluesy rebel song “Trouble” opened the special with Elvis belting out in a tight close-up “If you’re looking for trouble you’ve come to the right place.” The song instantly restored Elvis’ rebel persona and captured his caged animal charisma.

By the end of the special, Elvis dressed in an all-white suit stood in front of his namesake marquee sign and performed the moving “If I Can Dream”. The song was written for the special by Walter Earl Brown after Elvis had expressed concern and sadness of the state of the world in 1968. The year saw the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Jr. To Elvis and much of the world, it felt as if the world itself was going to end. In my opinion, “If I Can Dream” is as relevant today as it was then.

Legacy

In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Elvis got his career on track, Col. Parker got his soundtrack album and a new Christmas single. The world got Elvis back.

Make your date this week with Elvis and 1968 check your local listings.

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