I drafted this article years ago, when I first saw Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special. I shelved it though, after being caught up in other article ideas. The new Elvis movie inspired me to have another go at this piece. Personally, I was feeling somewhat lost myself when I saw the movie, and the part about the Comeback Special especially touched me — it gave me that much-needed jolt in finding myself again. Hope you enjoy this one.
“I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.”
Elvis Presley was in the make-up room. He looked tense and nervous as he asked everybody else in the room to leave. He called for only one person to be in the room with him, and that person was Steve Binder.
Binder was the producer behind the televised concert that they were just moments away from taping. It was to be Elvis’s first time performing in front of a live audience in seven years.
“What’s the problem?,” asked Binder, as he entered the room.
“Problem is I changed my mind,” said Elvis. “I don’t wanna do this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t remember anything I sang in the dressing room. I don’t remember any stories that I told. My mind is a blank, Steve. Let’s just call it off. It’s not gonna happen.”
“Elvis,” Binder said to him. “I’ve never asked you to do anything that you don’t wanna do…But you’ve got to go out there.”
The 60’s were an all-time low for Elvis. His image as the enigmatic rock and roll singer had mostly been forgotten as a thing of the past. He had spent years focusing on his acting career, starring in a string of humiliating and poorly-made films. He was tired of being a cash cow, of being used in merchandise and commercials under the force of his emotionally-abusive manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
As artists like Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were reinventing rock and roll music, Elvis was becoming obsolete.
He needed a miracle to revive his career, so he went to Steve Binder. Elvis asked the question, “What do you think of my career?”
“I think it’s in the toilet,” Binder famously responded.
Elvis laughed and said, “Well finally, somebody’s talking straight to me.”
The Colonel had gotten Elvis a deal with NBC to perform a special Christmas TV program, in which he would sing nothing but Christmas songs — an idea that Elvis wasn’t in favor of.
However, Binder saw an opportunity in that deal for Elvis “to do something really important.” His idea was to forget the Christmas angle, and instead use the special as a platform for them to re-establish Elvis as a performer, for the King of Rock and Roll to reclaim his throne.
They soon went to work. The writers for the special holed themselves up in their office, listening to every Elvis record they could possibly get their hands on. With the songs they picked for the special, they knitted together a story of Elvis, from his humble beginnings to his stardom.
The songs were also reimagined, played differently to the trends of the time. As Elvis’s then-wife Priscilla put it, “this was bringing him back to the beginning, yet going into the future.”
During the production, Elvis lived in the NBC studio, as he had a bed in his dressing room. Every day, Elvis would retreat into his dressing room after rehearsal and play the piano. Together with anyone that happened to be in his room at the time, he would jam and talk about his younger days for hours.
Binder sought to recreate that image of “the real Elvis” that he saw in the dressing room, out onto the TV screen. The special would have an “informal segment”, where Elvis would play acoustically, improvise freely with no rehearsals, and have an unscripted conversation with his audience about his old times — very much a forerunner to the concept of MTV Unplugged.
Binder even had Elvis’s original bandmates, drummer DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore perform with him to make him comfortable during the informal segment. Everything was fun and playful as they used to be, with Fontana even drumming on a guitar case, rather than a proper drum kit.
“We’d done that from time to time,” said Fontana. “We didn’t really rehearse. We’d just go out there and wing it and do the best we could. That’s all me and Scotty and Elvis really needed. We picked the songs right off the top of the head. It was just about how we did it in the early days.”
Producing the special, especially the informal segment, didn’t happen without its share of obstacles. The Colonel did his utmost to sabotage the segment, threatening to not broadcast it, and not distributing the tickets — expecting it to be cancelled if there was no audience.
“We had to beg people, even at a drive-in restaurant eating breakfast, to come over and see Elvis Presley,” said Binder.
The Colonel continued to assert his power on Elvis and the crew, demanding that they perform Christmas songs as he had planned.
“When we were in the middle of production, Elvis and I get called to the Colonel’s little office near the stage,” said Binder. “Elvis is standing alongside of me, and the Colonel says, ‘Elvis wants a Christmas song in the show, don’t you, Elvis?’ I look over and Elvis has his head bowed and his hands covering his crotch like a little kittle kid and he says, ‘Yes, sir,’ to the Colonel. I said, ‘If Elvis wants a Christmas song in the show, I’ll put a Christmas song in the show.'”
As they walked out of the Colonel’s office, Elvis jabbed Binder in the ribs and said, “Fuck him.” He insisted, “I don’t care what the Colonel says, don’t put one in.”
Despite the resolve to revive his career, Elvis was a nervous wreck.
“(He was) nervous because he didn’t know if his audience was going to accept him,” said Priscilla. “People had not seen him perform in so long. It felt like his record career was over as well. It was intense.”
“The ’68 Special, it was either the beginning or the end of his career,” she said.
To help him calm down, Binder told Elvis to “just enjoy yourself.” He told Elvis to not worry himself with where the lighting or the cameras were. Today, that advice may seem obvious. But back in the day, it was unconventional. While performers used to have to stand on marks of tapes on the floor to indicate the lighting and camera positions, Binder’s way was to let Elvis roam free, and have the camera and lighting follow him.
Once the cameras started rolling, his anxiety gradually went away. And soon, it became inevitable: Elvis was back.
Clad in his all-black leather outfit, his presence was nothing short of electrifying as he belted out and danced to his classic tunes. This was the man who would sneak into African American churches and bars as a child to listen to their gospel music and blues. Here on The Comeback Special, as it would later be called, he was in that same spiritual place — lost in the music, and one with himself again.
The special climaxed in its hopeful and emotionally-charged finale, If I Can Dream, a song written by Earl Brown for Elvis. The song is a call for unity and peace, written in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and inspired by the leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As Elvis sang his heart out in the song, his statement in the special was clear — that he was far from being a thing of the past. He was very much still alive, and not only that — his music had also become much more important in their present age. No matter how turbulent the times seemed to be, his voice, his music, were the people’s beckoning candles in helping them believe that things were going to get better.
Priscilla, who had never seen Elvis perform live before, remembered that moment, “We just sat there and watched the show and never said a word. And then, of course, the telephone calls were coming in, and reviews. And, oh my gosh, it was such a relief. It was so great to see him smile again.”
The special had a colossal impact on budding musicians. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, remarked that he could remember exactly where he sat, and where the TV was set up in his home when the special was on. He said, “It’s one of those things that’s imprinted on my memory forever.”
Binder was similarly dumbfounded, saying that he had “no knowledge or understanding about how incredibly talented he really was until that show.”
“To me, it was watching Elvis rediscover himself,” said Binder. “When we began the production, he didn’t know if he was famous because of the Colonel and his PR machine. But he rediscovered himself. He just gained so much confidence.”
Elvis had rediscovered the pure, unadulterated joy of playing music that he did as a child. And for the first time in many years, he realized just how good a musician he truly was.
Our work, and also life in general, can get stale every now and then. Things can feel dry and mechanical, especially when we’re caught up in our routines and just making a living.
In these moments, boredom creeps in. We might become depressed. We might distract ourselves with entertainment and luxury, but emptiness continues to fill our lives — that longing for something meaningful doesn’t go away, until we deal with it.
As Elvis’s story teaches us, we can get ourselves out of this rut and make a comeback — whether creatively or personally — by returning to our inner child.
The child inside us longs to play and have fun. And a way to reconnect with that child is to rediscover the interests and influences that we had when we were little. Because in those early fascinations are who we truly are.
By staying true to those roots, we are being authentically ourselves, and we don’t have the need to impress others or put up an act. We simply have to play.
As another musician, Jimi Hendrix offered, “If you’re looking for real happiness, you go back to the happiest days you had as a child. Remember when playing in the rain was fun?”
He also said that, “The deeper you get into it, the more sacrifices you have to make…Someone is going to have to go back to his childhood and think about what they really felt, really wanted before the fingerprints of their fathers and mothers got a hold of them, or before the smudges of school or progress.”
For Elvis, The Comeback Special undoubtedly helped him experience being “in the moment” again, as journalist Warren Zanes put it.
He no longer had to try too hard to find himself musically. Just as Bruce Springsteen said of Elvis, “You could take the boy out of Memphis, (but) you really couldn’t take Memphis out of the boy. The roots that you come from are always compelling to return to no matter how far away you get.”
But the special also gave Elvis a sense of courage and belief in himself that he had never had before. It made him realize that his artistic freedom was truly in his own hands, and not at the mercy of anybody else. As he told Binder, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.”
However, it’s important for you to remember that finding yourself and making a comeback isn’t a one-time thing. For all of us, there will inevitably be more than a few times when we find ourselves at a crossroads again, and we need to go back to square one to figure out who we are, and what we value.
And that’s okay.
Elvis died just less than ten years after The Comeback Special. Elvis’s rebellious streak against his manager during the comeback period didn’t last into his final years. Despite his frustrations, he failed to stand up against The Colonel’s manipulation and financial abuse. In each deal he had with him, he kept thinking it was his last — that “just one more deal” and he could do what he wanted.
Elvis never lived his dream of touring the world, and sadly, never performed outside the United States and Canada. He spent his final years being tethered to a concert residency, as he played 636 consecutive shows at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. During this time, he put on a lot of weight, and numbed himself with barbiturates, tranquilizers and amphetamines.
Reflecting on Elvis’s death, Binder said, “I don’t think Elvis died of drugs. I think he died of boredom. After the special, I didn’t communicate a lot with him, because I was persona non grata insofar as the Colonel was concerned. I tried, but couldn’t get through to him and then I moved on…When I heard that he had passed away, I saw pictures of him as this bloated figure, but I just knew that he was trapped and he didn’t have the strength to get out of it. He ended up being a saloon singer in Las Vegas, which is the last thing he wanted to do. But, you know, every great story has some kind of great tragedy in it, and this is a great tragedy to me.”
Yet, his music lives on. And through his successes, as well as his failures, he has taught us to be our truest selves, always.
“God bless him,” said the late musician Tom Petty. “He was a light for all of us. We all owe him for going first into battle. He had no road map, and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later. We should dwell in what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music.”