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The inside story of the 1968 performance which made Elvis Presley cool again

Mirror logo Mirror 17/08/2018 Warren Manger
a group of people standing around each other: Elvis Presley during "Guitar Man" opening number of his '68 Comeback Special © NBCUniversal Elvis Presley during "Guitar Man" opening number of his '68 Comeback Special

Elvis Presley in 1968 was a fading star.

He had not performed live in seven years, his Hollywood films had been panned by the critics (though they were loved by his fans) and musical tastes had moved on to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

But then Elvis made his ’68 Comeback Special and with that one sensational TV show, he was The King once more.

But if his manager Colonel Tom Parker had got his way the show which transformed Elvis and saved his career would have been very different.

Elvis Presley et al. standing in front of a crowd © Credits: NBCUniversal

Parker’s plan was for a corny Christmas special, with Elvis in a cheesy tuxedo singing 26 festive favourites.

The show’s director Steve Binder had other ideas.

Steve, now 85, says: “Colonel Parker gave me an audio tape, it was an hour of recorded Christmas songs. It never entered my mind that was what we were going to do.

“I told Elvis I thought his career was in the toilet. He hadn’t had a hit record in years. He wasn’t making any movies, so what was really making him this superstar was just Colonel Parker and his publicity machine.

In Pictures: Go behind-the-scenes with Elvis Presley during his '68 comeback special (Provided by Arizona Republic)


“Television was a way to become the biggest star in the world the next day, or fall on your ass and that would be the end of your career. I think he respected my honesty and we just hit it off.”

And so, under his direction, the tux was out and Elvis opened the show singing Trouble/Guitar Man, wearing a tight leather suit as black as his very dyed hair. His sideburns were sculpted – and big, like the collar on his jacket.

Instead of crooning by an open fire, he sang with a guitar slung from his shoulders, hips swivelling and lips curling. Behind him was a gantry full of Elvis impersonators following his every move.

The most memorable set was an improv session, which had Elvis jamming with his band, laughing and bantering between performances of Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and I Can’t Help Falling In Love.

Elvis Presley, Priscilla Presley are posing for a picture © Credits: Redferns

In response to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Elvis, in a pure white suit, gave an emotional rendition of If I Can Dream.

The show made him irresistibly cool again and cinemas have been screening the ’68 Comeback Special this week, to mark its 50th anniversary.

Steve came up with the idea for the unplugged set when he saw Elvis jamming with friends in his dressing room at the NBC studios in Burbank, California.

He says: “These are those moments where you get to look through the keyhole and see things you are just in awe of. I said, ‘I’ve got to film this. It’s better than anything we’re doing on stage’.

Watch: You'll Never Walk Alone - Aretha Franklin - Elvis Presley - Liverpool FC Tribute - YNWA (Provided by Independent Online)

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“Colonel Parker wouldn’t allow it, but he let us re-create it out on the stage. That’s exactly what I did, but it was never as great as the real thing I saw in the dressing room.”

The Colonel almost scuppered the live segment by convincing Steve to give him all the tickets so he could fill the audience with Elvis fans. Instead, he dumped all the tickets at the studio entrance days before the show, telling security guards to hand them out.

Steve says: “He implied there would be a plane from Memphis full of blonde, bouffant hairdos and big blue eyes, an audience like Hollywood had never seen before. I should have known better, but I bought it. We could have sold the tickets for a thousand dollars apiece.

"I expected there would be fans taking over all of Burbank to see Elvis. But there was nobody. The tickets were not distributed.

a group of people performing on stage in front of a crowd © Credits: NBCUniversal

“So we panicked. We called some friends at local radio stations and asked them to promote it. We sent somebody over to Bob’s Big Boy to ask customers eating hamburgers to come to see Elvis Presley and we somehow pulled together enough people.”

It was just one of the surreal problems the crew faced. In the opening scene, the impersonators aped Elvis’s moves so enthusiastically it was feared the platform would collapse.

Steve says: “I ended up having too many Elvises. I hate to fire anybody, so I decided to use them all. We were afraid the scaffold was not going to hold the weight.”

While Elvis was dodging calls from other stars, including The Beatles, who were desperate to meet him, the fans who had followed his every move for years were nowhere to be seen.

A tourist even approached Elvis and Steve and, failing to recognise The King, asked if they had seen any celebrities she could photograph.

a close up of a man © Credits: WireImage

It had been a painful fall from grace for Elvis. Of the eight singles he released in the first half of 1968, just two scraped into the Top 40. He had made just a handful of appearances since being drafted into the US Army a decade earlier and he had put on weight.

But after a holiday in Hawaii with wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie, who was born in February that year, Elvis returned rejuvenated, tanned and thinner. His good mood faltered just once during filming, when one producer told him he was using too much black hair dye.

Steve says: “When Elvis came back from vacation he was awesome looking. He was all tanned.

“Whether you’re male or female, you stopped to look at him. He was that good looking.”

Elvis was nervous about his performance so Steve took him on to Sunset Boulevard at rush hour to prove that no one recognised him any more, though he later admitted that people probably thought Elvis was an impersonator.

It helped Elvis through the rehearsals, but he got stage fright on the night.

Steve says: “I was called into the dressing room and he said, ‘Steve, I can’t do it’. I said, ‘Elvis, you’ve got to go out there’.

“When he went out there, he was scared to death. The opening number he was shaky. His throat was dry. Then, little by little, this amazing surge of confidence flowed through his body.”

a man wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone © Credits: NBCUniversal

Elvis put on such a show that Steve made it a 90-minute programme, but it was cut by NBC to the planned 48 minutes by the time it aired in December 1968.

The Colonel insisted they include the only festive song they had filmed, Blue Christmas.

The ’68 Comeback Special was so successful it landed Elvis a residency at the International Hotel in Vegas, where he put on 700 shows between 1969 and 1976.

Steve was there on the first night, but The Colonel was so jealous of the mutual respect between the two men that he reportedly later had his secretary block all of Steve’s calls to Graceland.

The full director’s cut of the NBC special only aired years later as part of a tribute to Elvis after he died from a heart attack, brought on by drug use, in 1977, aged just 42.

Steve says: “My last conversation with Elvis, he told me how much he passionately loved that special. It is very rare to hear an artist tell you that. I thought it would air one time and that was it.

“I’m so thrilled it’s coming back 50 years later.

“Aside from the millions of Elvis fans worldwide, I think it’s good that the younger generation get a chance to see him.

“To be honest, I had no passion for Elvis Presley’s music when we met, I was into the Beach Boys. When I saw him perform, I accepted how great he really was.”

  • Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special is in selected cinemas.
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