Singer Presents Elvis
The '68 Comeback Special
The 1960's promised much for Elvis. but as the decade progressed his Hollywood career meant that only devotees believed he was popular music's leading icon. But in one mesmerising show, Elvis won back his old fans and a new generation of admires.
From the opening bars of "Trouble" to the call for social harmony by a messiah-like Elvis dressed in purest white in the shows-closing number "If I Can Dream", the TV programme officially titled Singer Presents Elvis, broadcast on NBC in December 1968, leaves the viewer desperate for more.In between Elvis concocted an electrifying show made up of sections that had him jamming with former band members, singing solo to a live audience inches from his boots, dancing with backing dancers, and playing the guitar hero in a production sequence loosely based on his life story. There was a little seasonal fare in the show, but plenty of Elvis, but this isn't what Colonel Parker wanted when he opened negotiations with NBC over the Special with the intention of using television to revitalise Elvis' career and show that his client was still a serious musical proposition in the new era dominated by bands such as the the Beatles.
the Colonel wanted something like a Christmas Special, but the show's executive producer, Bob Finkel, chose a producer and director who was almost guaranteed to come up with something completely different. His name was Steve Binder, a 23-year-old who had shocked audiences with his most recent work, it was a special featuring Petula Clark, she was inoffensive in her own right, but not when she embraced her guest, the black artist Harry Belafonte, it was the first time of inter-racial interaction had been seen on primetime, and may people were offended.
During the early meetings between Elvis and the production team, Binder sensed that the star was dissatisfied with the type of work he had been doing and was aware that he had to create something truly original and authentic for the Christmas Special. Binder and his team set to work and, by the time a tanned, slim line Elvis returned from holiday in Hawaii, they had drown up an outline of the show and put together a script. There was nothing new about the rags-to-riches storyline, but Elvis went with it. Jerry Reed's song "Guitar Man", was to serve as a link to hold the story together. Elvis would be seen with a guitar slung across his shoulder, working his way up from nothing to headlining his own show. (a bordello scene was cut from the storyline by the sponsors, Singer, who thought it was inappropriate).
Binder knew how much Elvis loved to sing gospel songs, so the production team put together a pre-recorded gospel segment, there were also to be informal sections in which Elvis would appear jamming with friends and going solo to perform some old hits.
Rehearsals for the Special took place over the first two weeks in June 1968 at NBC's studios in Burbank, California, there were still many issues to be finalised, not least of which was the Colonel's insistence that a Christmas song be included in the programme, and the absence of a suitable ending
One aspect of the show, however, had been agreed - Elvis' costumes. On his Petula Clark special, Binder had worked with designer Bill Belew, who was commissioned to produce sketches for Elvis. Belew created some great costumes, but the most stunning would be the two piece black leather suit Elvis wore during the live show segments.
Throughout the rehearsals and subsequent recordings and filming, it was clear that Elvis and Steve Binder were developing a shared vision for the Special. The programme would lay bare the real Elvis, the poor white boy from the south who fused black and gospel influences to create a sound that no one had heard before, the Special would recapture the raw, rousing passion of Elvis' earliest performances, this would be completely different from the Hollywood Elvis. The bond created between Elvis and Binder smoothed over problems, such as replacement of Elvis musical director, Billy Strange, by Billy Goldenberg, it also generated moments of inspiration, an example is when Binder fly in Elvis' former band members Scotty Moore & D.J.Fontana to join in at the informal sit-down section of the live performances, and crucially, when he proposed a new composition, "If I Can Dream" for the final sequence, blowing the chance for the Colonel to get a Christmas song to end the show, Elvis not only agreed, but delivered one of the best performances of his singing career, that still lasts to this day.
Filming and recording for the show began in mid-June and was completed by the end of the month, throughout Elvis proved his commitment to the cause by spending long days on set and in the studio, adapting to the various demands of the show's varied format with passion, skill, humour and energy that often left him drenched in sweat. But not everything went smoothly, for the recording of the first live informal sections, Binder had to coax a nervous Elvis on stage, he almost had no audience, the Colonel had failed to distribute the tickets, so a call to a local radio station, and a visit to a nearby burger bar and rustling up of NBC employees soon filled the seats, so Elvis had a full house when he entered the boxing ring style arena and strapped on his guitar.
With filming complete, Binder edited the tapes to produce a 90 minute show, NBC executives then sent him away to cut it down to just under an hour, Singer Percents Elvis finally aired on December 3rd 1968, it was the number 1 show of the Christmas season and secured NBC it's biggest ratings of the year.
What the viewers saw was Elvis Presley re-born, they were drawn in by the bluesy "Trouble" and hooked by an Elvis looking cool in his black shirt and red neck tie rockin' through "Guitar Man", backed by a stack of silhouetted guitarists. Then there was a man jamming with his friends, Scotty Moore, D.J.Fontana, Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault. It was bluesy, raunchy, adorable and Elvis just oozed Sex appeal, sitting on the stage in black leathers bursting out songs like "Hound Dog", "Heartbreak Hotel" and "One Night", and there were the beautiful ballads "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", "Love Me Tender" and "Can't Help Falling In Love". The two main production numbers, the gospel medley and Guitar Man, are sheer entertainment that pay homage to Elvis' musical roots, the dance moves are slick, the singing displays the maturity of a master vocalist, the acting come naturally, here is Elvis showing the world who he is, right down to the odd Karate moves, wowing the girls and coming out on top.
The show ends with one of Elvis' greatest ever performances, standing alone in front of a giant neon sign saying ELVIS, he looks dazzling in his white suit, his vocals are outstanding and passionate, a message song that the whole of America could relate to after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it certainly wasn't the Christmas song the the Colonel wanted, in the end, the only seasonal song to make into the the special was a version of "Blue Christmas", he performs in the informal section of the show.
Singer Presents Elvis came better known as the Comeback Special, and Elvis was truly back, reminding older fans why he had turned their lives upside down in the 1950's and winning over a whole new generation of admirers.
20-30 June 1968
NBC Studios, Burbank, California
Elvis Presley - Vocals, Guitar
Scotty Moore - Guitar
D.J. Fontana - Drumsticks and guitar case
Charlie Hodge - Guitar
Alan Fortas - Guitar
Lance LeGault - Tambourine
3rd December 1968
Steve Binder - Bob Finkel - Bones Howe
60 minutes (including commercials)
Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
Baby, What You Want Me To Do
All Shook Up
Can't Help Falling In Love
Love Me Tender
Where Could I Go But To The Lord
Up Above My Head
It Hurts Me
Big Boss Man
If I Can Dream