It's no secret that Elvis Presley was not particularly well served by the machinations of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was in 1968, however, that Elvis broke free from his spell, if only for a short while, defying Parker's vision of Elvis' adult years and, in the process, engineering rock music's most stunning (and satisfying) comeback.
NBC and sponsor Singer (of the sewing machines) had long wanted to present an Elvis Christmas special, and the King had no problem delivering some of his big Xmas hits, particularly "Blue Christmas." With the assistance of director Steve Binder, however, Presley began to envision the hour-long TV special as a way to reclaim his rightful place atop pop music's throne, one he'd largely forfeited after his return from the Army in 1960. Years of mediocre-to-horrible films, their equally suspect soundtracks, and the ongoing progress of popular music had left Elvis in the dust, both creatively and commercially.
The special changed all that immediately, re-establishing the King as a fine interpretive singer, a sexual presence (that black leather suit has practically become an icon all its own), a performer par excellence, and a real musician to boot. That last was especially borne out by the intimate jam session filmed for the special; some still believe it to be the finest set of music he ever played. Taken along with the special that surrounds it, it stands as one of the most amazing career resurrections in entertainment history.
1968 Timeline: Elvis '68 Comeback SpecialJanuary 12: NBC publicly announces Elvis' upcoming Christmas TV special, for which he will be paid $250,000. A unnamed film as part of the package will net the singer $850,000.
May 14: At a private meeting with NBC executive Bob Finkel, Elvis declares that he'd like to use the upcoming special to prove himself once again to his audience, saying "I want everyone to know what I can really do."
May 17: Steve Binder is hired as director for the TV special. His credits include the legendary 1964 all-star rock broadcast The T.A.M.I. Show, the weekly rock revue Hullabaloo, and the infamous 1968 Petula Clark TV special Petula, which featured the white Clark touching the arm of the black Harry Belafonte, to the outrage of Chrysler, the show's sponsor.
June 6: Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK, is assassinated in Los Angeles. Elvis' sadness over this death and that of Martin Luther King affect Steve Binder to the effect that he begins thinking about composing a "socially conscious" song for the King to sing on his special.
June 11: NBC costume designer Bill Belew suggests the white "preacher" suit and skin-tight black leather suit Elvis will wear in the special. He also suggests Elvis wear the famous gold lame suit designed by Nudie Cohen and seen on the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, but Presley, conscious of shedding his Hollywood image, agrees only to the jacket.
June 17: Elvis begins dance, vocal, and dialogue rehearsals for the TV special.
June 19: Having watched Elvis and his longtime band rehearse in their dressing rooms all week, Steve Binder decides to insert a similarly informal jam into the TV show. At first he decides to film the dressing room rehearsals themselves, then thinks better of it and decides to hold them in front of an audience, on the same stage Presley will be using for his more traditional "stand-up show."
June 20: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "Nothingville," "Let Yourself Go," "Guitar Man," and "Big Boss Man." He will use these and the following few days' recordings as guides for his live performance in the TV special.
June 21: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "It Hurts Me," "Little Egypt," "Trouble," "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," and "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?"
June 21: Binder asks musical director Bones Howe to write that "socially conscious" song for Elvis' big closing number, which had been slated as the standard "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Howe writes the replacement song, "If I Can Dream," that afternoon; after hearing it a half-dozen times, Elvis agrees to end with it.
June 22: Elvis records the songs "Up Above My Head," "I Found That Light," "Saved," and the "Trouble / Guitar Man" medley with which he will open the special.
June 23: Elvis records his last two guide tracks for the special, "If I Can Dream" and "Memories."