Elvis Presley and the ’68 Special
At 9 pm sharp on Tuesday, December 3, 1968, the debut broadcast of the NBC TV special Elvis began.
The first shot was a tight close up on Elvis’ face as he sang the opening lines of “Trouble” from his 1958 film King Creole, Elvis’ favorite out of all his movies: If you’re looking for trouble/you’ve come to the right place. The look on Elvis’ face is menacing; instead of the slicked-back pompadour of his recent films, a few locks of hair hang with perfectly studied casualness over his forehead. By the time he reaches the chorus, the camera has pulled back enough to capture him from the waist up, sleekly attired in a well-tailored pair of black pants and a shiny black shirt rakishly open to halfway down his chest, his wrists encased in sturdy black leather cuff-style bracelets. The somber look is offset by a crimson red scarf around his neck, matched by the red Hagstrom V-2 guitar, with its red-patterned strap, that hangs on him with its neck pointing down.
At the end of the chorus, he stands stock still while the camera pulls back further to reveal he’s standing in front of a huge set of scaffolding, each rectangular space filled with a silhouetted replica of himself, each with his own guitar, each striking a series of different poses as the music switches from dark rhythm & blues to a bright country-rock — at least as country-rock as you can be when you’re using an orchestra. Elvis is determinedly strumming his own guitar now, and right before the verse begins, a bemused smile crosses his face, a momentary look of jaunty, playful confidence that shows how fully in command he really is, and he launches into “Guitar Man.” The song had always been a good match for Elvis, but he sings it now with a renewed intensity, a fierceness even, that his previous studio version had lacked. The screen behind the scaffolding turns red now, as Elvis sings of the itinerant guitarist, searching for a place to fit in, but only encountering rejection.
And just when you think it can’t get any more exciting, it does. After an instrumental break, Elvis concludes the song, singing flat out through the last verse. He’s singing seemingly alone in the dark, until the camera pulls back once again to show that he’s actually standing between the “L” and “V” in a set of giant letters that spell out his name, E-L-V-I-S, in brilliant red lights. The horns wail as the song comes an end, and there’s a slow fade out as Elvis scratches out a rhythmic beat on his guitar.
It was one of the most remarkable moments of Elvis’ career. If you’d closed your eyes when Elvis went into the army in 1958 and not opened them again until the airing of the special decade later, it would have seemed an entirely natural progression; it would have been easy to imagine that the movie years of the 1960s hadn’t happened at all. Just the opening three and a half minute sequence of what has come to be called the “Comeback Special” represented not just a moment of rebirth for Elvis, but also one of redemption.
Elvis had burst onto the music scene in the 1956 with such force he was nicknamed “the Atomic-Powered Singer.” His career momentum was curtailed when he entered the army, but all initially seemed well after his discharge in 1960, when the hit records and films continued. But then came the slide. Live performance stopped in favor of movies, which became increasingly anodyne; dated romcoms with Elvis in some macho occupation (race car driver/boxer/pilot), pursuing an initially disintered leading lady and singing mediocre songs like “Do the Clam” and “Yoga Is As Yoga Does.” Then came the British Invasion, folk-rock, Motown, and psychedelic rock. Once an innovator, by 1968 Elvis had been left behind.
Salvation arrived in the shape of the Elvis show. Elvis’ manager had wanted him to do a conventional Christmas special, but the show’s director, Steve Binder, and his creative team, had something else in mind. They were working with the most compelling performer of his generation. Why not create something that drew upon those very strengths that had made Elvis such a sensation?
And so they did. The special is all pure, unadulterated Elvis; no corny skits, no guest stars, and, aside from some between songs chat, no dialogue. It’s just Elvis, reminding the audience of what a powerful force he could be when he was doing what he did best. There’s a gospel music sequence, highlighting Elvis’ love of that genre, the temperature rising through a medley of “Where Could I Go But to the Lord,” “Up Above My Head,” and the exhilerating “Saved.” There’s a longer production number, relating a story of an aspiring “guitar man” rising to fame, meant as a gentle send up of his movies. There’s a stirring anthem that’s a plea for peace and understanding at the end, “If I Can Dream,” Elvis attired in white, reaching for that “beckoning candle” he sees out there in the dark.
And then he put on the leather.
Costume designer Bill Belew created what would become one of Elvis’ most iconic outfits, a black leather ensemble of trousers, jacket, and no shirt. In one sequence, he paces like a jungle cat, in a boxing ring-style set up before an adoring crowd, singing beefed up, modernized, versions of hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock.” “Been a long time, baby!” he enthuses, pausing to take a hankerchief from a fan to wipe his sweaty brow. Another sequence has the same boxing ring, but Elvis gets to sit down this time, accompanied by two of his ’50s musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana (playing an empty guitar case on this occasion). Both the “sit down” and “stand up” shows (as they’ve been dubbed by fans) are incendiary performances. Watching them is like seeing a man who’s been held in suspended animation for years joyously coming back to life.
The soundtrack and film of the Elvis special have been reissued numerous times ever since. Both the 2004 deluxe edition DVD (the special, the two sit down shows, the two stand up shows, outtakes), and the 2008 CD box (the soundtrack, rehearsals, and all the sit down/stand up shows) felt like they were definitive, and it turns out that they were. The new ’68 Comeback Special (50th Anniversary Edition) set has no new material, but does bring all the elements of the previous DVD and CD boxes, and other previously released outtakes, together in one package for the very first time (though the visual elements are only being offered on Blu-ray, not DVD). The other elements are still available separately, but the new set is handy if you want to pick up everything in one fell swoop.
The Elvis special sparked a run of other successes. A month after it aired, Elvis recorded in Memphis for the first time since his Sun Records days, serving up the hits “Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” and “Kentucky Rain.” He returned to Las Vegas in triumph in August 1969. Another slide would soon begin, continual touring eventually proving to be the same kind of trap the movies had been. The comeback special allowed Elvis to rise to a new challenge, but there wouldn’t be enough of them in the years ahead.
An all-star tribute to the show is set to be aired on television in January 2019. But who needs to watch a tribute when you still have the original version at hand? There’s simply no substitute for that glorious, shining moment when Elvis was again given material that was worthy of his talents, and the King firmly reclaimed his crown.
(Parts of this story were adapted from Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback by Gillian G. Gaar)