The year is 1968 and this is some of what’s happening in television entertainment:
The Nighttime version of “Hollywood Squares” premieres on NBC, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” premieres on that same network, the 40th Academy Awards are postponed from April 8th to April 10th due to death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the 20th Emmy Awards results in wins for Get Smart, Mission Impossible and Barbara Bain, the “Danny Thomas Hour” last airs on NBC, “One Life to Live” premieres on TV, “Hawaii Five-O” is first broadcast on CBS, the first interracial TV kiss is shown on “Star Trek” between Kirk and Uhura, and Elvis Presley makes a comeback.
Elvis Presley started his career by changing the face of music in about a year’s time in the mid-1950s. In 1956, he had six number one hit singles spanning two number one albums. By the start of 1957, he was virtually untouchable, standing alone in the realm of popular music. In January of that year, he made his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the one where he could only be photographed from the waist up to avoid inciting and corrupting the country’s youth. Two days after that appearance, Presley received a notice from the Memphis, TN draft board alerting him that it would be very likely he would be drafted. He was.
On December 20, 1957 Elvis received his official draft notice for the U.S. Army and was supposed to be inducted in January 1958. However, due to commitments to Paramount Studios for the completion of Michael Curtiz’, King Creole, an extension was granted until the following year. On Monday, March 24, 1958 at 6:35 AM, Elvis, accompanied by his parents and a group of family and friends, reported to the Memphis Draft Board. There was no guarantee that, even given his popularity, Elvis Presley’s career would not be over, that audiences wouldn’t forget him while he served his country. Career phase one was over.
Elvis served in the Army until early 1960 when he received his honorable discharge. On March 20 of that year he entered RCA’s studio in Nashville to record tracks for his upcoming album, Elvis is Back! – career phase two began. Elvis is Back! would produce three #1 singles and the album would reach #2 on the U.S. album charts.
(I love the “living stereo” notation on the album cover, by the way, as opposed to the alternative, although I’m not sure what that would be).
On March 26, 1960, Elvis was given a special “welcome home” by another popular singer when he was the special guest on The Frank Sinatra Show, a short appearance that confirmed Elvis’ popularity had not waned during his stint in the Army. The show aired on May 12.
Right after the Sinatra Show appearance, Elvis went off to Hollywood to film Norman Taurog’s, G.I. Blues beginning the second phase of his career in earnest as this started the long string of sub-par films he made throughout the 1960s. Let me interject a moment and make clear that when I refer to Elvis films as ‘sub-par,’ I mean in comparison to the much-beloved classics I adore as far as film quality where story, characterization and dialogue actually count for something. But I still love Elvis movies just because they are Elvis movies. I’d lie if I said I don’t recognize some are a bit hard to take as even the songs he had to sing are sometimes painful to listen to, given his stature and talent. But still, watching Elvis in anything is far better than not watching Elvis at all any day of the week – he is my guiltiest film pleasure. And, among the many bad films, there are a few I absolutely love. Also, it’s worth noting that despite the high “cheese factor” of many of those films, not one ever lost money, which is testament to Elvis Presley’s presence and the fact he superseded the material he had to work with. Still, by the time he finished making those films with producer, Hall Wallis in 1967, the last of which was John Rich’s, Easy Come, Easy Go, Elvis was bored, frustrated and eager to get back on a stage. And that is the biggest ‘crime’ of that slew of films and this second phase of his career, that they kept him from performing live, which is what he was born to do.
So by 1968, Elvis Presley was not popular in the sense that he was not relevant in the popular music scene. It had been more than seven years since he had appeared on stage in front of a live audience. To reboot his career he needed a home run. He delivered a grand slam.
That December 3rd, when the special aired showing Presley stepping onto a small, circular stage, closely surrounded by a relative handful of very lucky, adoring fans, 42% of the television viewing audience in America was watching, making his now iconic, ‘Comeback Special’ the most watched television program in the country in 1968.
The special is all about Elvis, not surprisingly, and follows a variety show format with segments ranging from solo numbers where he is alone on-stage to jam-style sessions with friends/musicians to splashier production numbers. He performs classic hits, some “newer” rock numbers and gospel songs.
The show starts rather abruptly with an extreme close-up of a face – WHAT A FACE – singing “Are you looking for trouble…”. Um…yes! Er…I mean, the solo number turns into a production with many live silhouettes of “Elvises” in the background reminiscent of his famous production number from Jailhouse Rock, his 1957 film, directed by Richard Thorpe.
After the opening number, the scene changes to Elvis in the iconic black leather suit (is it getting hot in here?), singing “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and that is it. Hook, line and sinker there is no doubt this is THE man. The production numbers later in the show are interspersed between these more intimate ‘black leather’ segments on the small stage with his band. All are enjoyable although in varying degrees – The segment where he sings a medley of gospel songs, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child / Where Could I Go But to the Lord / Up Above My Head / I Found That Light / Saved” backed by a trio of singers, including the fabulous Darlene Love, which then turns into a full-blown production number is a lot of fun to watch. Rock and Roll aside, Elvis could sing gospel as well as anyone. It’s no wonder that of the 14 Grammy nominations Elvis Presley received, his three wins were for gospel recordings. In this gospel segment, Elvis wears a maroon suit and he rocks it.
My least favorite segment is a rock and roll medley that starts with “Guitar Man” and a slew of Go-Go style dancers in hot-pink bell-bottom ensembles. Too many girls to suit my tastes plus the numbers and production are also ill-conceived and disjointed. This part has the exact “cheesy” feel of the worst of his films and when seen in close proximity to the other, far superior segments it stands out. Then there’s the popular white-suit number where he sings, “If I Can Dream” in front of the giant E-L-V-I-S letters (photo above) to close the show.
All of it is entertaining but there’s no doubt the black leather segments of Elvis just on stage doing what he did best are what one takes away, what lingers, what packs a punch. That is when he is most sincerely and recognizably, Elvis. He moves uncontrollably at times, and it does often seem he is unaware of his own movements, they just happen. These segments are also where he best exhibits his incredible voice and great humor – what makes this show worth watching again and again and again.
As I was looking through IMDB for dates, etc. I came across a bit of trivia about that black leather suit that’s very interesting. It states that Elvis’ long-time manager, ‘Colonel Tom Parker’ originally wanted Elvis to perform in a powder blue tuxedo, singing Christmas carols since the show was airing in December. It was the show’s producer, Steve Binder that tossed out the Colonel’s idea (thank God!) and came up with the concept of Elvis performing his classic hits in a black leather outfit. Leather on Elvis Presley was a match made in heaven, if I do say so myself. I mean, just look at him. I’m not just babbling here.
I’ve seen this special several times since I bought the Deluxe Edition DVD so when I played it in preparation for this post, I intended to basically have it on as background noise while I typed. Over two hours later I’d typed the title of the post. Nothing else. Elvis is nothing short of mesmerizing and incredibly beautiful. It is not as a fan – or not as a fan alone – that I say that his sexual energy is palpable, not to mention his ultra coolness. It’s really no wonder why both men and women are, to this day, enamored of Elvis Presley. There has never been nor will there ever be anyone like him. And the 68 Special shows all that was the man and entertainer more personally than anything else ever can. I mean that in comparison to concert footage and specials from subsequent years, like the “Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite” special from 1973, which I adore as well but where we see a much more confident ‘King’ displaying all his regalia in expert style. In the 68 special he’s raw, unadorned and just Elvis. Or, as “just” Elvis as Elvis ever was. His talent rules the day even though I can’t quite stop discussing how he looks. It’s an incredibly powerful combination.
Elvis: 68 Comeback was taped in June, 1968 in Burbank, California and was actually titled simply, Elvis when it first aired on NBC. Many today consider this special one of the great moments in rock and roll music history. I have to agree although I can’t say I’ve seen most of the other “great moments” or even that I know what they are. Regardless, I am certain he is an original. What no one can dispute is the impact this particular show had on Elvis Presley’s career. It was a triumph. Elvis Presley was back full force with renewed energy to record and return full-time to the concert stage – career phase three began and ‘The King’ reigned supreme in a new and exciting phase of Elvis entertainment. A new era. The phenomenon.
Now, it occurs to me that anyone reading this may think that I’m not exactly an unbiased commenter in regards to the subject of this post. If that’s the case then disregard my opinions and read what critic/reviewer, Ethan Brown had to say in New York Magazine in 2005:
“The ’68 Comeback Special would be one of the greatest performances in pop history, but in the context of Elvis’s career, it is something even bigger, a cultural signpost along the lines of Dylan at Newport or the Band’s “Last Waltz.” Just when Elvis seemed to have been relegated to the dustbin of history, he created this portrait of an artist seeking relevance and finding it—capable of mocking his own legacy, all the while reclaiming his role as the creator of an entirely new cultural language.”
I couldn’t have said it better!
When Elvis returned to the live stage after the success of his 1968 television special and after having met all of his Hollywood movie contract obligations, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969 for a four-week, 57-show engagement that broke all existing Las Vegas attendance records. After that there was no looking back, although sadly as it would turn out, for far too short a time.
I post this in memory of the one and only, Elvis Presley who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935. He would have celebrated his 81st birthday this week.
Quiet thought come floating down
And settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touched them and they burst apart with sweet memories,
– words & music by Bill Strange & Scott Davis – “Memories”
“It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.”
-Greil Marcus, From his book “Mystery Train,” remembering the 1968 TV Special
As this is my first post of the year, I want to extend best wishes to all for health and prosperity in 2016 and beyond.