Just how far removed from cultural relevance was Elvis Presley in 1968?
When Singer — the maker of sewing machines — brokered a deal with NBC to sponsor three TV music specials, the company’s go-to artist list consisted of Hawaiian pop crooner Don Ho, Las Vegas king of glitz Liberace and Presley.
If that weren’t enough, Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, envisioned his client’s show as a traditional holiday special. At his first meeting with Steve Binder, who produced and directed the special, Parker handed him an audiotape containing 20 Presley recordings of Christmas songs; on the box was a picture of the King, a holiday wreath behind him.
All that was missing was an ugly sweater.
“I thought, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” Binder says in an interview with The Times. “’I don’t want to do some Andy Williams or Perry Como TV special.’ I thought it was over.”
Yet in mid-1968 when the negotiations were underway for Presley’s appearance on NBC the following December, Binder managed to forge a bond with the singer that resulted in him defying Parker, however briefly.
The result was a turning point in Presley’s career. Indeed the Singer-sponsored show “Elvis” was subsequently referred to as “The 1968 Comeback Special.” Over the course of one hour, a 33-year-old Presley galvanized TV audiences with electrifying performances that gave fans a persuasive reason to forgive him for nearly a decade’s worth of formulaic Hollywood B movies that enriched his (and Parker’s) bank accounts but virtually depleted his musical credibility.
“If there hadn’t been the ’68 special, I’m not sure he’d occupy the place in rock music history he does today,” says Alanna Nash, a veteran music writer and author of “The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley” published in 2004. “I saw it on the big screen this past summer in Denmark at an Elvis event I was doing. You just can’t take your eyes off him. He’s so magnetic. It’s such a miracle to watch him regain his confidence after those awful movies like ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’
“What’s Greil Marcus’ famous quote about it? ‘It’s like watching a man find his way home again,’ ” Nash says. “That’s really what it is.”
To mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the show that first aired Dec. 3, 1968, Sony Legacy is issuing an expanded “Comeback Special” box set with five CDs and two Blu-ray discs, a set that goes well beyond the original single LP soundtrack and even beyond the 40th anniversary four-CD set with additional audio released in 2008.
The new set contains all the audio and video recorded for the show, which first included only about 47 minutes of performance material interspersed with the requisite 13 minutes of commercials for a one-hour prime-time TV show at that time. It also comes with an 80-page book with photos and other documentation of the show, plus a new oral history assembled from video/filmmaker Thom Zimny’s interviews for the recent HBO special “Elvis Presley — The Searcher.”
Subsequently, through a serendipitous fluke, the “Comeback Special” has usually been shown in a 90-minute director’s cut that Binder created, but which NBC originally rejected.
Along with several production numbers, the heart of the original special was an in-the-round performance sequence in which Elvis jammed and engaged in playful banter with his longtime band mates, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana (bassist Bill Black had died three years earlier) along with other musicians in front of a small, live studio audience.
Dressed head to toe in a tight black leather suit, Presley exuded raw sexuality as he and the band worked their way through essentially ad-libbed renditions of songs including “That’s All Right,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” “One Night” and “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,” among many others.
Binder, now 85 and living in Ventura County, says despite his initial misgivings about the ideas Parker was bandying about early on, he was persuaded to take on the project by Bones Howe, the respected music engineer.
“If it wasn’t for Bones Howe, I never would have done it,” Binder says. “He said, ‘Steve, you’re crazy not to do this. I engineered an album with Elvis and I really think you’d hit it off with him.’”
A few years earlier, in 1964, Binder had directed one of the 1960s’ greatest rock-R&B specials, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which captured vibrant live performances by James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and others, filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
But the subject of that show never came up when he met with Presley to talk about what his projected special might look like: “I was not curious enough to even ask him about that.”
The in-the-round portion of the show, which many consider to be the template for “MTV Unplugged” when it emerged a couple of decades later, was also the result of happenstance.
“He’d been renting a home in Beverly Hills at that time, but while we were rehearsing, he said, ‘How about me living in my dressing room while we’re making the show?’ If it hadn’t been for that, there would have been no acoustic sessions. How he unwound after rehearsals was he just jammed in his dressing room with whoever was around. That’s what triggered the idea. I thought ‘I’ve got to get a camera in here.’
“The Colonel wouldn’t allow me to bring a hand-held camera in, but I kept pleading with him day after day. He finally said, ‘I’ll let you re-create it out on stage, but I won’t guarantee I’ll let you use any of it,’ ” Binder says.
“It was Elvis who came to me and said, ‘Do you think we could get Scotty and D.J. to do this with me? He was so [mad] at Parker for breaking them up in the first place,” he says.
Binder loved the idea, and arranged for Moore and Fontana to be in that segment. It was the last time they ever played with the man they helped turn into a global cultural phenomenon 14 years earlier starting with revolutionary recordings they made with producer Sam Phillips at his Sun Studio in Memphis.
“We didn’t rehearse it,” Binder says of the onstage jam session. “Elvis just sat down with all those guys — they just came in and did it. They knew all the songs, all the ones he loved, and it was totally real. We got two [one-]hour sessions of him doing improv. The beauty of it for me was that not only was he honest, he forgot he was doing a show with Scotty and Bill, and they were just playing together again.”
You’d never know it from what came through the TV cameras, but Binder recalls that Elvis was uneasy about the show. “He was nervous as hell when we did this special,” he says. “When I worked with him, he was extremely unhappy with where his career had taken him. He wasn’t sure if he could come back.”
Presley needn’t have worried. The special triggered a rejuvenation of his career — some using even stronger terms for the event that paved the way for a new round of hits including “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love” and set the stage for his final years of work in Las Vegas.
“It was a resurrection in the way he came back stronger than ever,” says Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which is hosting a session about the show with Binder on Dec. 2 of what he calls “Comeback Special Weekend” at the institution.
“This was pure unadulterated emotion and the essence of rock ’n’ roll,” Harris says. “I think that learning the narrative of how it came together just gives us a better appreciation for Elvis’ true concern and his love and passion for the music.”
“Another really important part of this whole thing is how Binder was able to see what Elvis was doing in his downtime in his dressing room, find a way to actually incorporate it into the show and then capture that moment,” Harris adds. “So many performers put a lot of time and effort into making their performances look perfect, and trying to make them look unrehearsed. One thing that makes this special so great is that it’s not perfect — it’s raw and it’s real and it’s fantastic.”
Binder and project partner Spencer Proffer, a music industry veteran, are planning a series of activities over the next year highlighting the “Comeback Special” and Binder’s role in its creation.
In August, special-event producer Fathom Events showed the special on some 2,000 screens, and next year Proffer says he and Binder are planning another session in which Binder will discuss the making of the show, during which he’ll be joined by guest musicians who will perform their takes on some of the songs, mixed in with the vintage footage of Presley on stage.
They’re also moving forward with a documentary film about Presley and Binder’s friendship to be directed by John Scheinfeld (“Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary”) to follow the Fathom screenings in 2020.
Proffer also persuaded Binder to expand a “modest” book he’d written about his experiences with Presley and the show into a more lavish coffee-table book they’re targeting for broader distribution next year. It’s titled “Comeback ‘68/Elvis — The Story of the Elvis Special.”
NBC is also getting into the act with a TV special revisiting Presley’s show assembled by veteran Grammy Awards telecast executive producer Ken Ehrlich, with contemporary musicians offering their renditions of the songs Presley sang that night 50 years ago. That special is slated to air early next year.
Proffer also is helping bring Nash’s biography of Parker to the big screen after years of negotiations with different parties interested in telling the tale.
One of the most significant facets of the whole “ ’68 Comeback Special” story is that it’s one of the few instances in Presley’s life where he overruled Parker, who has been widely pilloried over the years for the way he managed the singer’s career, starting with the 50% management commission he collected — with Presley’s approval.
In addition to rejecting Parker’s original idea for the show to be a Christmas special, Elvis — and Binder — also found a way around Parker’s request that they include one Christmas song to be released as a single. Instead, they closed the show with a powerful original expression of social justice, “If I Can Dream,” written for him by W. Earl Brown, credited on the show for “special lyrics and vocal arrangements.”
“We became very close while working on the show,” Binder says. “Elvis once told me, ‘Steve, I never want to sing any more songs I don’t believe in…. I never want to make another movie I don’t believe in’ and going on and on and projecting into the future. He wanted to travel the world, experience things he never had the opportunity to do.
“I said, ‘Elvis I hear you, but I don’t know if you’re strong enough to stand up to the Colonel,’ ” Binder says. “He always pulled his power play over Elvis, and Elvis would humbly bow his head. He never stood up to him in any other confrontations. In the end, unfortunately, I was right.”