By Alan L. Chrisman
Elvis Presley was born on Jan. 8, 1935, so he would have been 80 years old.
In 1968, he appeared on TV for his “Comeback” Concert. The Beatles and the British Invasion had changed pop music and Elvis seemed somewhat passed by. He hadn’t had a #1 single since 1962. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had put him in increasingly worse movies and Elvis had grown bored with them; he wanted be taken seriously as an actor. His manager had completely run his career since Sam Phillips had discovered him at his Sun Studios and had sold him to RCA Records. Elvis had been releasing less and less rock songs (John Lennon said his hero, had “died” after he went in the army) and more and more mainly watered- down ballads and forgettable songs from his movies. Elvis’ popularity was declining and so were his sales. Parker had always rejected having Elvis on TV the past several years, but even he knew, they had to something.
So the idea of a TV Special was considered. Elvis was reluctant to perform live again. His last concert had been in Hawaii in 1961. The TV show was originally conceived with a gospel–influenced section, a mini-documentary based around the song, “guitar man”, and more lavish-set pieces. But the producer, Stephen Binder, noticed that Elvis felt most comfortable warming up in his dressing room jamming with members of his band doing blues and informal versions of some of his old songs. It was Binder’s idea to film also a part in front of a live audience with them seated all around the singer and his musicians.
In this section, Elvis is seen dressed in a leather outfit and playing with some of his original band from the old days, Scotty Moore, guitars, and D. J. Fontana, percussion (bassist, Bill Black, had died in 1965). Elvis re-creates several of his hits in a medley. But he still has a sense of humor, even making jokes about himself and his new musical competition, which had changed the face of popular music.
The Special was shown on NBC TV on Dec. 3, 1968 originally as a Christmas-time special and a soundtrack, some pre-recorded before, was also released. To everyone’s surprise, it was the highest–rated TV special that year and the album became his biggest selling one in years. One of the singles from the special and the album was especially written for Elvis to end the show , the hopeful and almost–gospel song, “If I Can Dream”. When Tom Parker had first heard it, he said, “This ain’t Elvis’ kind of song”, but Elvis said after hearing it, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in and I’m never going to make another picture I don’t want to do.” It was partly based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, and was released just two months after King had been assassinated in 1968. Elvis, after the glowing reception to the Special and album, would go on after this boost of confidence to tour America, play Las Vegas, and choose better songs and to have another #1 hit, “Suspicious Minds” in 1969.
The TV Special is generally credited with re-vitalizing his career. Elvis had shown that he still had it and his humor and charisma were still there. It truly was Elvis’ “comeback”, as it was later dubbed.
Elvis doing” If I Can Dream” from his 1968 TV “Comeback” Special: