Elvis Presley’s return the 1968 ‘Comeback Special article

We say now, and always, THANK YOU to Steve Binder for having the vision and will to produce Elvis’ 1968 Singer TV Special aka Elvis 1968 ‘Comeback Special.

Courtesy of Jeff Schrembs and http://www.ElvisCollector.info:

1968 Comeback Special collageElvis 1968 Comeback Special

Original concept

Despite huge success in both his music and acting careers following his release from the army in 1960, Presley’s career had declined steadily in the years leading up to 1968. The music scene had changed dramatically since his last U.S. #1 single in 1962, and Presley was in no doubt that bands such as the Beatles, and the British Invasion in particular, were leading “the swinging sixties”.

Partly due to the repetitive scripts and laughable song choices, as well as the general feeling that he was “uncool”, Presley’s films had been making less money with each release and he was tiring of Hollywood. Colonel Parker, Presley’s manager, had found it increasingly difficult to secure the usual $1,000,000 fee for a Presley film, and had no alternative than to take a different approach. Parker negotiated a deal with NBC for $1,250,000 to finance both a television special and a film (1969’s Change of Habit).

Parker wanted the show, which was scheduled as a Christmas season broadcast, to be little more than Presley singing Christmas carols. He believed the special could simply be a TV-version of the Christmas radio show Presley had contributed to the year before. Binder argued that the special was an opportunity to re-establish the singer’s reputation after years of formulaic movies and recordings of variable quality. He and Howe hired writers to script a show with specific themes: they envisaged large set designs, dance sequences and big productions of Presley’s hits. However, Binder was open to any variations on this that would showcase the singer’s talent, and Presley was apparently very happy to go along with this flexible approach.

The special eventually included an extravagant musical sequence featuring Gospel-style numbers, a semi-autobiographical “mini-movie” centered around the song “Guitar Man” and other re-recordings given lavish set designs. A segment set in a bordello featuring the song “Let Yourself Go” was initially passed by the network’s censors, but was removed at the request of the show’s primary sponsor, Singer Corporation, as it was deemed too risqué. (The first public appearance of this sequence was in the expanded video version of the 1981 documentary film This Is Elvis. It was later restored for RCA’s 3-DVD release in 2004.) The special ends with Presley appealing for world peace and tolerance with the song “If I Can Dream.”

Studio recordings for these segments were made at Western Recorders in Hollywood, California between June 20 and 23 and featured an orchestra and The Blossoms as background vocalists: Fanita James, Jean King and Darlene Love. Other musicians included drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Don Randi, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, bass player Larry Knechtel and harmonica player Tommy Morgan.

Live segments

It was after rehearsals at Western Recorders that Binder took special note of how Presley and the other musicians would spontaneously unwind by improvising old blues and rock ‘n’ roll numbers. Binder commented: “…and that’s when I really got the idea: Wouldn’t it be great if I had a camera in here and they didn’t know I was here?”

Presley is said to have been very apprehensive about the idea of performing live. His last live concert had been at the Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on March 25, 1961. Binder offered a lot of support and reassurance to stop the singer from rejecting the idea of any live segments. He realized some songs already re-recorded or scheduled would need to be cut (The special was only an hour long). He quickly arranged for rehearsals to take place to capture the feel of Presley’s informal studio jamming, drafting in the surviving members of Presley’s original backing band – Scotty Moore andD. J. Fontana (bassist Bill Black had died in 1965). He also brought in Presley’s friends Alan Fortas, Lance LeGault and Charlie Hodge to encourage Presley and make him feel at ease. Two sessions took place, each about two hours in length; the first on June 24 and the second on the 25th. Both took place in the informal surroundings of the dressing room at NBC. They were recorded by Presley’s friend Joe Esposito using the singer’s own tape recorder. Many songs were tried, including “Danny Boy”, “Blue Moon”, “That’s My Desire” and “I Got A Woman”, before the final repertoire was decided for the actual TV recording.

Subsequently, at 6.00pm, June 27, Presley took to the stage for the first time in over seven years, resulting in four one-hour live shows being taped at NBC’s Burbank studios. A black-clad Presley sat down and jammed with band mates for two shows, each show having a different audience. There was a one hour break between them (enough time for Presley to shower and have his outfit dry cleaned after performing under the hot studio lights). In the second two, recorded at 8.00pm, June 29, he remained standing and sang live to a mix of live and pre-recorded backing, again in front of two different audiences. These four sessions are often referred to collectively as “The Burbank Sessions”, the name coming from not just the venue, but the titles of two collectible bootleg LPs which feature them. The role of each musician at the two sit-down performances was:

Elvis Presley: vocals, guitars (acoustic and electric – he and Scotty Moore use the same ones and swap them)

D. J. Fontana: drumming, using a guitar case
Alan Fortas: guitar back-slapping, occasional vocals
Charlie Hodge: acoustic guitar, occasional vocals
Lance LeGault: guitar back-slapping, tambourine
Scotty Moore: guitars (acoustic and electric)

Filmed in the round, only a small portion of these – and the stand-up sets – were included in the televised special. Presley and the others played and sang while interjecting personal stories of his music and early performances. Referring to music and his religious upbringing in a break between songs, Presley says: “Rock and roll is basically gospel (music), or rhythm & blues (is too). It sprang from that, people have been adding to it.” He also makes reference to the leading groups of the time, like The Byrds and The Beatles, and notes how things have improved and not just changed, like the standard of musicians and sound engineering. Presley is also prompted to speak about a Florida concert at which the police had filmed the show, threatening to use the film as evidence to prosecute him for “vulgarity.”

Presley sings many of the songs he was famous for including: “That’s All Right”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “One Night”, “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. He also reprises Jimmy Reed’s”Baby What You Want Me to Do” on several occasions and includes the less well known songs, “Tryin’ To Get To You” and “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”. As each session progresses, he can be observed playing and singing with such gusto that he occasionally feels the urge to rise up and sing off mike, even when he uses the electric guitar with no strap (during a reprise of “One Night”).

During “Love Me Tender”, he sang particularly to his wife, Priscilla, who was in the audience. During the first verse, he jokingly replaced the line “You have made my life complete” with “You have made my life a wreck…err, complete” as a brief, lighthearted joke. It drew a giggle from the audience, including Priscilla.

In both sit-down shows, Presley sits between two of the women sat at the edge of the stage to sing the final song, “Memories”. Although this move was Binder’s idea, Colonel Parker had originally been concerned that the audiences would contain older, more reserved adults and that this might give the impression that Presley had lost some of his appeal (The only time Presley had ‘bombed’ at a live gig was in front of a mature audience in Las Vegas in 1956). Parker had therefore arranged that young women should be seen nearest the stage during filming.

The stand-up shows feature Presley performing a similar energetic set by himself, mostly without guitar. He performs on the same small stage (no more than ten feet square) which is closely surrounded by the audience. Musical backing this time comes from an unseen live orchestra and the Blossoms. Presley also sings to a pre-recorded track on a few songs that were intended to be integrated into other parts of the show.

Acclaim

The edited broadcast of December 3 – combining the big, choreographed numbers, lavish sets and some of the informal live sessions – was an enormous success. The show was the highest-rated television special of the year. According to Binder, it was probably the first one-man TV special to appear on commercial American television. Previously, TV specials tended to be packed with guest stars, like Frank Sinatra’s Timex Special of 1960, in which Presley himself appeared with other celebrities, including Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr..

At the beginning of the ’68 Special project, a nervous Presley had said to the executive producer Bob Finkel: “I want everyone to know what I can really do.” Critics generally agree that the broadcast did show what Elvis Presley really could do – in addition to making profitable, but generally uninspired movies and soundtracks. The ’68 Special is widely credited with revitalizing his career: chart statistics for the summer of 1968 suggest that Presley’s recording career was becoming all but non-existent and irrelevant. After the special, he began his stint in Las Vegas and toured, achieving a string of record-breaking sell-out performances across America. Chart successes returned, including a U.S. number one in 1969 (“Suspicious Minds”) and a U.K. number one (“The Wonder of You”, (1970)) – his first since 1965.

The live segments of the ’68 Comeback Special in particular gave the audience more than a glimpse of Presley’s charismatic and emotionally charged performing style that won him his first fans in the 1950s. This is arguably even more evident in the later uncut versions of the special .

Additional information

Two versions of the special were initially aired by NBC. The first included Presley singing “Blue Christmas” – the only seasonal song Binder agreed to use. When the special was rebroadcast the following summer, this was replaced with a performance of “Tiger Man”.
In 1984, one of the sit down sessions was released uncut and unedited by Media Home Entertainment, Inc. on a video as Elvis – One Night With You. RCA Video Productions also made a shorter version for television and an album. The original special has also been made available for television and home video – the reissued version restores the censored musical numbers from the “Guitar Man” segment, and features both “Blue Christmas” and “Tiger Man”.

In June 2004, RCA Records issued a deluxe 3-disc DVD release containing all the video footage still in existence, including bloopers and incomplete performances. It features a 24-page color booklet with text written by Greil Marcus.

A number of songs were shortlisted for recording but were rejected. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was cut in favor of “If I Can Dream”. Undistinguished songs showcasing his movie career, like “Cotton Candy Land” and “How Would You Like To Be”, were axed – as was “U.S. Male”. A song that was partially re-recorded but did not make the final show was “A Little Less Conversation”, a track from Presley’s then-current film release, Live a Little, Love a Little. In 2002, this version was used as the basis for a popular remixed version of the song by Junkie XL, giving Presley his second posthumous #1 hit in Britain (he has now had a record twenty-one no.1s in the British charts). The remix reached #1 in an additional 20 countries, and was added, at the last minute, to the quadruple platinum 2004 compilation ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits.

The show’s opening sequence, “Trouble/Guitar Man”, was copied or paid homage to on at least three later occasions. The first was Falco’s music video for the title track of his fourth album, Emotional(1986), including giant red letters spelling the artist’s stage name instead of ELVIS. He was followed by an even more open tribute in the video for Texas’ 2000 song “Inner Smile”, featuring a leather-clad Sharleen Spiteri singing in front of an Elvis-like red TEXAS sign and remarkably resembling a young Elvis, thanks to the use of prosthetics. Finally, the opening sequence was re-shot as an almost exact copy (down to the same opening song with the same arrangement) in Robbie Williams’ 2003 live DVD The Robbie Williams Show. The stage sets in Williams’ show are also similar to the ones in Presley’s.
Trix also paid homage to the opener for one of their 2011 commercials.

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