Last March, Priscilla Presley sat at the William S. Paley Television Festival in Los Angeles, watching a screening of a 40-year old TV special in which a man in a black leather suit recaptures his lost glory.
Beside her was Steve Binder, the producer-director of that long-ago show, originally broadcast as Singer Presents Elvis, but now better known as The ’68 Comeback Special. Eighteen minutes into the screening, Priscilla leaned over to Binder and said, “You saved his life. You saved his career.”
She was right. The proof is best found in Presley’s mesmerizing performance, which combines informal live sessions with large, choreographed production numbers, and is largely regarded as one of the most important and defining moments in the history of rock.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary, a new 103-song, four-CD box set, Elvis: The Complete ’68 Comeback Special, was released, featuring the whole story from the rehearsals to the finished show and outtakes. And Binder published a book, 68 at 40: Retrospective—the definitive volume on the making of the special, illustrated with 100 never-before-seen photographs taken by an NBC staff photographer, who shot the only photos on the set. Additionally, Graceland, Presley’s home and Memphis’s number-one tourist attraction, built a new exhibit around the show.
“We didn’t know we were doing anything historic at the time,” says Binder of himself and his production team. “This was just another special with a kid from the South who we never listened to. We’d only been exposed to him by [his early appearances on the variety shows of] Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle, and his records, which were not our thing, though we’d been amused by his publicity and the stories about [his manager] Colonel [Tom] Parker.”
Elvis, whose fluid hips and good-natured sneer had propelled him to national prominence in 1956, had been the most visible and influential figure in rock and roll. But by 1968, he had not given a full-length, live performance in seven years. His famously controlling manager had kept him indentured to a chain of lightweight movies—Elvis called them “travelogues”—that were hopelessly outdated, and which stifled his talent and creativity.
At 33, he had been musically eclipsed by a long list of British and American musicians, from the Beatles to the Jefferson Airplane. Now the Colonel had brought him to television for what was to be a routine Christmas special. Taped in June 1968, it would air on December 3 for the holiday season.
But though Elvis recorded two Christmas numbers, “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” the show was anything but a holiday special. Instead, Elvis roared through his old repertoire with the energy of a man reborn, and tackled new material with the hunger of an artist who instinctively knew he would never get such a chance again.
The show made history for a number of reasons, and not just because it was Nielsen’s number-one rated television special of the year. First, by Binder’s design, it was the only time in prime time network television that a whole hour had been devoted to one performer, without guest stars. Second, the “improv” section of the special--in which Elvis sits in a boxing ring of a stage with musicians Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana and entourage members Charlie Hodge and Alan Fortas—is now recognized as the first “unplugged,” or acoustic, concert by an artist who usually performed with electric instruments. (MTV would showcase the format to great success in the 1990s.) And most important to Presley’s artistic growth, the show was the first—and last—time Elvis, who listened to Binder’s fresh and modern concept for the show, would buck the creative control of the Colonel, who still insisted the show be a Christmas special.
“For its time, it was absolutely unique,” says Tony Stuchbury, an Elvis aficionado who lives in Bolton, England. “The whole package was new. Elvis was at his physical peak, and he sounded different to how people remembered him from the ’50s. Yet it harkened back to the ’50s, in that Bill Belew designed the leather suit for Elvis. Elvis never really wore leather professionally in the ’50s, but it was a link to the James Dean and Marlon Brando era, so the whole concept worked in a way that was nostalgic, but new as well. And everything just jelled right, with the production numbers telling Elvis’s story in an offset way. The whole thing is a masterpiece, basically.”
Elvis was so thrilled with such a revolutionary setting—where he could make his most passionate music since the early Sun Records days—that Priscilla reported he could hardly sleep. But he was also terrified. He admitted he was confused about his career, and didn’t know anything about television, but he hated coming back to Hollywood to do the movies. He was afraid he was so out of style that people would laugh at him.
“With that exterior of self-confidence and bravado, Elvis was actually a scared little boy when we did that special,” remembers Binder, who had already established himself with the respected 1964 concert feature film, T.A.M.I. Show, and the Hullabaloo series and Petula Clark special for television. “You can actually see him shaking when he first comes out.”
Before one of the 60-minute sets in front of a live audience, Elvis panicked, telling Binder’s business partner and music supervisor Bones Howe he was afraid he might freeze once he got out on stage. “He sat in that makeup chair and literally trembled, just really sweated,” Howe has recalled. “He said, ‘What am I going to do if they don’t like me?’” Binder tried to soothe Presley’s nerves. “If you get out there and you have nothing to say, and you can’t remember a song, then say, ‘Thank you,’ and come back. But you’ve got to go out there.”
Executive producer Bob Finkel had, for the most part, kept the Colonel occupied and jocular. He also tried a little levity on Elvis. At one point, Finkel informed the star that his blue-black hair was so dark they needed to add highlights it to keep it from producing an aura in the lights. “Do you think my hair’s too black?” Elvis asked incredulously.
“In those days, we didn’t have as much technical ability,” Finkel remembers. “So, I went to Colonel Parker and said, ‘Colonel, we’re going to have to do something with Elvis’ hair because it’s flaring.’ He said, ‘No, you’re going to do something about it, Finkel. I ain’t tellin’ him about his hair.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, but ask him to see me tomorrow morning before the rehearsal.’
“That morning I came in and there was Elvis, who was never anything but prompt. We went into the dressing room, and he said, “Mr. Finkel, sir, I’m very sensitive about my hair, sir.” I put my thumb under my [hair]piece, pulled it off my head and threw it on the floor. I said, ‘So am I, Elvis. Now what did you want to talk to me about?’ And his mouth dropped. He was stunned. I don’t remember exactly how we got out of that dressing room, because he and his guys were laughing, and I had to put the darn thing back on again. But the Colonel asked me later, ‘How did you fellows come out?’ I said, ‘I think we got him to do something.’”
When the special aired, it attracted an impressive 42 percent of the television viewing audience. Critics raved about Presley’s stunningly brilliant comeback, citing the raw energy of his performance and the naturalness of his self-deprecating, uninhibited repartee.
“The greatest thrill I got out of it was seeing a man in a small window of time rediscover himself,” Binder reflects. “The beauty of the special was being able to visually see him grow in confidence as he warmed up to the audience and realized, ‘Hey, it isn’t just public relations and hype that’s been going on for years—I’m really talented.’ That’s the legac