Viva Elvis! How the 1968 'Comeback Special' that saved the King's career almost never happened

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Elvis Presley in his 1968 “Comeback Special,” which is receiving a 50th-anniversary rerelease. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Elvis Presley is enshrined in music history as the King of Rock and Roll, but he’s also television royalty.

His meteoric rise from regional musical act to world-famous superstar synced up perfectly with the evolution of TV from a curiosity into America’s mass medium of choice. With his swinging hips and seductive voice, young Elvis was perfect camera fodder for the endless cycle of variety shows dominating the medium’s early years. His campaign to conquer the airwaves reached its zenith with his 1956 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show  — an iconic appearance that launched him out of living rooms and onto the big screen.

One of the people who watched Elvis’s inaugural Ed Sullivan appearance was Steve Binder, a 23-year-old music lover from California — a world far removed from Presley’s Deep South upbringing. “I was amused by him, but I wasn’t into his music at the time” Binder tells Yahoo Entertainment about that early Elvis sighting. The next time he paid any serious attention to Presley came more than a decade later, after he had parlayed his ear for music into a behind-the-camera career in television, just as Motown and the British Invasion rushed in to fill the void left by Elvis’s departure for feature films. As television’s audience swelled, Elvis’s own audience contracted — turned off by his increasingly forgettable movies and music and turned on by the fresh sounds of the Beatles and Diana Ross.

By 1968, it was clear that Presley’s career needed the boost that only TV could provide. That’s when the singer’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, struck a deal with NBC for an hour-long primetime slot, and producer Bob Finkel suggested that the special be directed by Binder, who had made a name for himself with the pioneering 1964 concert film T.A.M.I. Show.

The resulting telecast originally aired on Dec. 3, 1968, under the title, Singer Presents… Elvis. These days, though, it’s more commonly known as the ’68 Comeback Special, as it singlehandedly restored its star to the center of American rock music.

“I don’t know any artist who could have done what Elvis did,” Binder says now, as the special prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary with special theatrical engagements on Aug. 16 (the anniversary of Presley’s death) and 20 courtesy of Fathom Events. “He’d not performed in front of anybody live for almost nine years, and he did this entire special cold. He just went out and started; it was unbelievable that he could perform like that. I didn’t call it the Comeback Special [at the time], but I’m glad they did, because it truly is, in my opinion, one of the greatest comebacks not just in entertainment but also in history.”

Elvis’s name is spelled out in lights in the beginning of his 1968 “Comeback Special.” (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Seen today, the special remains a marvel, for not only Presley’s spirited performance but also Binder’s fluid direction — a clear influence on future concert movie classics like Stop Making Sense. Opening with a shot of Elvis on a pitch-black stage tearing into “Trouble,” the camera pulls back to reveal a giant set filled by silhouetted guitarists arranged Jailhouse Rock-style.

The scene shifts as Presley seamlessly segues into “Guitar Man,” this time surrounded by oversize letters that spell out “Elvis” in red lights. From there, the special mixes footage of the singer performing his greatest hits and new material surrounded by screaming fans with lavish production numbers staged on colorful sets with a veritable army of backup dancers. (For the record, the version that Fathom is screening in theaters is Binder’s preferred 90-minute cut that includes a bordello sequence that was edited out of the original broadcast.)

Even in the CGI era, it’s an eye-popping spectacle and, according to Binder, a very different production from what NBC and Parker initially agreed upon. A notoriously controlling figure in his client’s life, the Colonel envisioned a traditional Christmas special for Elvis and, on their first meeting, made it blindingly clear to Binder that he was expected to deliver that exact vision.

“The first thing that happened when I walked into his office was that he handed me a quarter-inch audio tape with a picture of Elvis on the front surrounded by Christmas holly and a Christmas wreath. He said, ‘NBC and myself have decided that this is going to be the special: 20 Christmas songs, and no dialogue from Elvis other than ‘Hello,’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’ I didn’t react, because I was so stunned! By the end of the meeting, I thought I had totally blown it.”

As it turned out, Parker had taken Binder’s stunned silence for acquiescence and agreed to let him meet with Presley one-on-one to discuss the planned Christmas-themed concert. That turned out to be a mistake on the Colonel’s part but a major boon to music history as the two men bonded instantly over Presley’s career woes.

“The first question Elvis asked me was, ‘What do you think of my career?'” Binder recalls. “And I said, ‘I think your career’s in the toilet!’ I thought he was gonna kill me, and then he broke out laughing and said, ‘Finally, I’m getting somebody who speaks to me about the truth.'” Agreeing that a traditional Christmas special would further flush away the opportunity for a major career comeback, Presley made it clear to his exacting manager that Binder would be calling the shots creatively.

Not that Parker willingly allowed himself to be benched, of course. Even as Binder pushed ahead with his own ideas, the Colonel took every opportunity he could to gum up the works. Binder’s central mission with the special was allowing the audience to glimpse the man behind the music legend, and one of the ways he hoped to achieve that was by filming the late-night jam sessions that Presley had almost every night in his dressing room. Informed of this plan, Parker torpedoed the idea of bringing a camera in to record the merrymaking, but he grudgingly agreed to let Binder re-create the experience onstage.

Director Steve Binder at the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s “’68 Comeback Special” in 2008 (Photo: Michael Germana/Everett Collection)

On the day it came to shoot that segment, though, the Colonel went behind the director’s back and whispered his doubts into Presley’s ear. “[Parker] didn’t trust that it would work, so on the day, Elvis called me privately into the makeup room and told me he didn’t want to do it. I told him, ‘Elvis, you gotta go out there. I don’t care if you don’t sing or tell stories, you gotta at least say ‘Hello.’

“When I started to tape the segment, I still didn’t know if he was ever going to walk out of the makeup room! But he walked out and did two different shows with two different groups of people, and it was pure improvisation. I didn’t tell him what to, and I didn’t stage him. The only thing I told him was to forget it was television and just do whatever he felt like. It’s the one moment in history where audiences got to see the real Elvis … a three-dimensional person, not a stick figure.”

As Binder notes, to watch Elvis in the ’68 special is to witness an artist rediscovering the joy of his craft. “It reminds me of when Sally Field won her Oscar and said, ‘You like me,” he says, chuckling. “I think Elvis experienced that same thing when he was performing in front of the audience and realized, ‘Hey, I’m really talented.'”

It’s no accident that Presley parlayed the show’s monster ratings — it was NBC’s highest-rated telecast of the 1968-69 season — into a second act that included multiple tours, a Las Vegas residency, and a bizarre photo op with Richard Nixon before drugs and poor health brought his star crashing back down to earth in the late ’70s. He also made two more (and decidedly lesser) TV specials, 1973’s Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite and Elvis in Concert, which aired two months after his death.

Despite being the catalyst for that comeback, Binder never worked with Presley again after their shared triumph — a parting gift from a still-angry Parker. “The Colonel was only interested in power and everybody had to go through him to get to Elvis. Once I challenged that … there was nothing he could offer me that would make me change my direction. So he kept me a mile away from him; I never saw or talked to Elvis again after I did the special, even though he gave me his secret phone number and whispered for me to call. When I called that number, it was already blocked.”

The Elvis ’68 Comeback Special will screen in select theaters on Aug. 16 and Aug. 20

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