Elvis Pres­ley’s Come­back Spe­cial still rel­e­vant, 50 years later


MEM­PHIS, Tenn. — Elvis Pres­ley wanted an hon­est an­swer. Steve Binder gave him one.

Pres­ley was meet­ing Binder for the first time in Binder’s of­fice in Los An­ge­les in 1968. A mu­sic and tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, Binder had been asked to put to­gether an NBC tele­vi­sion spe­cial fea­tur­ing Pres­ley, who had be­come more of a movie ac­tor than a rock ’n’ roll singer in the 1960s when the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones were dom­i­nat­ing the rock world.

Pres­ley and Binder talked for about an hour about mu­sic and es­tab­lished a rap­port, Binder re­calls. Then Pres­ley popped the ques­tion: “What do you think of my ca­reer?”

“I was young and brash in those days,” Binder told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a phone in­ter­view. “I said, ‘I think it’s in the toi­let.’ ”

Ac­cord­ing to Binder, Pres­ley said: “Well fi­nally, some­body’s talk­ing straight to me.”

That meet­ing be­came a mean­ing­ful step in the cre­ation of the one-hour TV show Singer Presents...Elvis, bet­ter known to­day as the ’68 Come­back Spe­cial. Aired on Dec. 3, 1968, the pro­gram was a rapturous re­turn for the 33-year-old Pres­ley, whose mu­sic had mostly stuck to sound­track songs from his of­ten pulpy, sac­cha­rine films. It was spon­sored by Singer, the sew­ing ma­chine com­pany.

Re­laxed at some points, en­er­getic dur­ing oth­ers — and al­ways in­spired — a still­hand­some Pres­ley sounds strong and soul­ful. He ap­pears gen­uine: He sweats, his black hair gets messed up.

The fi­nale fea­tures an emo­tional Pres­ley singing If I Can Dream, a mov­ing piece writ­ten for the show that served as a re­sponse to the tu­mult of 1968, when the Viet­nam War served as the back­drop for the as­sas­si­na­tions of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Pres­ley re­turned to promi­nence. He be­gan per­form­ing for sold-out crowds in Las Ve­gas and pro­duced From Elvis in Mem­phis, an al­bum that in­cluded Sus­pi­cious Minds and In the Ghetto.

Pres­ley’s ca­reer would slow down. He di­vorced his wife, Priscilla, and be­gan abus­ing pre­scrip­tion drugs. He died of a heart at­tack on Aug. 16, 1977, in Mem­phis.

Still, his pop­u­lar­ity has re­mained high. Grace­land, the tourist at­trac­tion built around his for­mer Mem­phis home, draws 500,000 vis­i­tors a year. HBO re­cently re­leased a doc­u­men­tary, Elvis Pres­ley: The Searcher. And his im­age and voice are reg­u­larly used in films, TV shows and com­mer­cials.

Much has been said about the im­por­tance of the ’68 Come­back Spe­cial to Pres­ley’s ca­reer. In a 2008 Los An­ge­les Times ar­ti­cle, writer Robert Lloyd calls it a “mo­ment of change.”

“He re­gains his voice,” Lloyd writes.

Tele­vi­sion had been an early friend to Pres­ley. He made ground­break­ing ap­pear­ances on va­ri­ety shows hosted by Ed Sul­li­van and Mil­ton Berle. Later, how­ever, they be­came sources of em­bar­rass­ment. Binder says Pres­ley com­plained that hosts openly made fun of him.

Pres­ley’s re­turn to TV re­quired a leap of faith. Binder says Pres­ley’s man­ager, Col. Tom Parker, wanted a Christ­mas-themed spe­cial.

“The colonel handed me a box with 20 Christ­mas songs in quar­ter-inch tape that disc jock­eys all over Amer­ica were play­ing on their ra­dio sta­tions as Elvis’ Christ­mas gift to Amer­ica,” Binder said. “There was no Elvis in it, other than him singing these Christ­mas songs.”

Binder would have no part of a Christ­mas show. The typ­i­cally hard-nosed Parker re­lented. The spe­cial in­cluded only a small ref­er­ence to the hol­i­day, with Blue Christ­mas.

Mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Billy Gold­en­berg, who pre­ferred mu­sic from West Side Story over Pres­ley’s Hound Dog, said he had to find a path to Pres­ley’s “sub­con­scious char­ac­ter, the things that were go­ing on that he didn’t say, but did.”

“He was ten­der and lovely and po­lite,” Gold­en­berg said dur­ing a fo­rum dur­ing Elvis Week in Au­gust.

Gold­en­berg said he also no­ticed “a lot of rage” in Pres­ley.

“There’s a lot of raw prim­i­tive­ness,” Gold­en­berg said. “There’s a lot of sex­u­al­ity in Elvis. And of course there is the ten­der side.”

Gold­en­berg wanted to “bring Elvis into the 1960s” and make him “valid.”

NBC’s in­vest­ment was val­i­dated. The spe­cial be­came its top-rated show of the year and has grown in stature since. The net­work hopes to repli­cate the magic next month. The Elvis All-Star Trib­ute will fea­ture Blake Shel­ton as host and will in­clude well-known per­form­ers recre­at­ing the orig­i­nal pro­gram, in­clud­ing Keith Ur­ban, Post Malone, Shawn Men­des, Jen­nifer Lopez, Car­rie Un­der­wood and more.

The clos­ing num­ber — If I Can Dream — fea­tures Un­der­wood, Men­des, Post Malone, Dar­ius Rucker and Shel­ton.

A box set re­leased in late Novem­ber in­cludes a Blu-ray ver­sion of the pro­gram, and Binder has writ­ten a book about the show.

A show he never thought would en­dure.

“Noth­ing is dated. That show could have been shot yes­ter­day,” Binder said. “I had no idea it would ever be seen again.”

The Elvis All-Star Trib­ute airs Feb. 17 on NBC

NBC’s The Elvis All-Star Trib­ute fea­tures mu­sic stars such as Keith Ur­ban and Post Malone (in­set) re-cre­at­ing Pres­ley’s ’68 Come­back Spe­cial, which launched The King back into the na­tional spot­light.

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