Elvis's '68 Comeback Special: The story of the greatest comeback gig of all time

1 June 2022, 11:46

Elvis: '68 Comeback Special - 50th Anniversary

By Mayer Nissim

As his movie career stumbled, The King of Rock and Roll returned with one of the greatest shows in rock and roll history.

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Elvis Presley is not just one of the greatest musicians of all time, he's a cultural icon who towered over the 20th century.

A vital part of his legend is rooted in what came to be known as the '68 Comeback Special.

After his world-conquering fame in the 1950s and early 1960s, it's fair to say that Elvis's star was on the wane.

His manager Colonel Tom Parker kept The King away from live performance for a whopping SEVEN YEARS, and rather than going into the studio to record proper albums, Elvis Presley was churning out ropey movie soundtracks for even more ropey movies.

It's fair to say that Elvis wasn't all too happy with where he was. He wanted a change, and in 1968, he got it. Here's how.

Whose idea was the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Laurel Goodwin in Elvis movie 'Girls! Girls! Girls!'

After he returned from the army in 1960, Elvis's manager Colonel Tom Parker nudged Presley away from music and towards movies.

Always a carny at heart, Parker pushed for low-budget musical comedies – the films promoted the soundtracks and the soundtracks promoted the films.

Elvis liked acting, and pushed for more straight dramatic roles. A couple of flops meant that stopped pretty quickly and it was back to the cheap musical movies, one after the other.

Producer Hal Wallis took it to the extreme. Cheap sets and scripts, minimal rehearsals and retakes, and limited shots meant the films were generally getting worse. Eventually, even Elvis's name on the marquee wasn't enough, and the films began to flop.

Wallis and Parker/Elvis parted company in 1967. The door to Hollywood was closing, but another door was opening.

Elvis Presley at NBC Studios for the '68 Comeback Special
Elvis Presley at NBC Studios for the '68 Comeback Special. Picture: Getty Images

It was in October 1967 that Parker approached NBC with a classic Colonel idea: a cheesy Christmas special in a $1.25 million (over $10 million in today's money) to cover a film, soundtrack and TV special.

It's fair to say that Elvis wasn't best pleased with the idea of crooning a load of carols. But on speaking with Singer Presents ... producer Bob Finkel things began to change.

Bob's idea was to do something a lot more interesting than Elvis singing 'White Christmas' on the telly: a special centred on Elvis himself.

The King was keen to perform new material, and Finkel won Parker over too by promising there'd be enough recorded for a soundtrack album and a Christmas single, too.

Who made the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Lesley Gore in The T.A.M.I Show concert film

Finkel enlisted director Steve Binder, who had helmed the groundbreaking T.A.M.I. Show concert film. Binder was convinced to sign up by his associate Bones Howe, who had worked with Elvis back in the 1950s.

Binder and Howe hired musical director Billy Goldenberg, Presley's people got arranger Billy Strange on board, and Chris Bearde and Allan Blye were hired as the writers, with Bill Belew on board for costume design.

It wasn't all plain sailing.

During rehearsals, Howe left and rejoined the project as producer and engineer over a dispute over the royalties for any soundtrack album and Strange left after Goldenberg complained that he hadn't handed in any arrangements.

Some ideas were proposed and shelved: a locker room segment was swapped out for an intimate sit-down concert, for example, while the scripted portions were cancelled and Elvis was instead given a list of topics to talk about between songs.

Elvis worked with choreographer Lance LeGault to work out his movements, and things were finally coming together.

When and where was the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special recorded – and when did it air?

Watch the trailer for Elvis

As you can tell from the finished film, the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special was made up of a number of recordings.

There was a sit-down section, stand-up numbers and two musicals.

“Elvis was hardly ever nervous – but he was then,” drummer DJ Fontana told Rolling Stone,

"We played a couple of songs, and it got loose after a while, and it turned out fine. He just had been out of the public eye for a long time."

Elvis Presley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special
Elvis Presley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special. Picture: Getty Images

The first recordings were made from June 20 to 23, at United Western Recorders.

This material was blended with live vocals taped during the production numbers on location at NBC Studios in Burbank, California, which were filmed on June 27 (two intimate "sit-down" shows with a small group) and June 29 (two "stand-up" shows with an orchestra).

The Elvis '68 Comeback Special aired on NBC on December 3, 1968 at 9pm ET as Singer Presents... Elvis. It was shown in the UK on BBC Two in December 1969 under the title The Fabulous Elvis.

There was a cinema re-release presented by Steve Binder and Priscilla Presley in 2018.

How could you get tickets for the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Elvis Presley during his '68 Comeback Special on NBC
Elvis Presley during his '68 Comeback Special on NBC. Picture: Getty Images

The Elvis's '68 Comeback Special wasn't a regular gig, but had a non-paying TV audience.

Despite having promised to bus in fans from over the US for the taping, The Colonel apparently hadn't got round to it.

Instead, Binder and Finkel yoinked some people from a nearby restaurant and also advertised on local radio to get the fans in.

Who played with Elvis on the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Elvis - That's the Way It Is - Official Trailer

On the June 27 sit-down sets, Elvis played with a small group of musicians which included guitarist Scotty Moore percussionist DJ Fontana, – members of his 1950s backing band The Blue Moon Boys. The group's bassist Bill Black had sadly died in 1965.

Rounding out the group was guitarist and backing singer Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas on percussion and Lance LeGault on tambourine.

The June 29 stand-up sets had a much bigger group of musicians.

That included (deep breath): The Blossoms on backing vocals, Tommy Morgan on harmonica, Mike Deasy on electric guitar, Al Casey on electric guitar, Tommy Tedesco on electric guitar, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, bass guitar, Don Randi on piano, Charles Berghofer on double bass, Hal Blaine on drums, John Cyr and Elliot Franks on percussion, Frank DeVito on bongo and Billy Goldenberg as orchestra conductor.

What was the setlist of the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Elvis Presley - Trouble/Guitar Man (Opening) ('68 Comeback Special)

As we've said, the comeback special is actually a combination of recordings: the sessions from June 20-23 at United Western Recorders, plus those two sit-down shows on June 27 and stand-up shows on June 29.

Those earlier sessions weren't technically any sort of gig, so let's leave them to one side (for now). Here's the full setlist of those four live shows.

June 27 – first 'sit-down' show

  1. That's All Right
  2. Heartbreak Hotel
  3. Love Me
  4. Baby What You Want Me to Do
  5. Blue Suede Shoes
  6. Lawdy Miss Clawdy
  7. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
  8. When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again
  9. Blue Christmas
  10. Tryin' to Get to You
  11. One Night
  12. Memories

June 27 – second 'sit-down' show

  1. Heartbreak Hotel
  2. Baby What You Want Me to Do
  3. That's All Right
  4. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
  5. Blue Suede Shoes
  6. One Night
  7. Love Me
  8. Tryin' to Get to You
  9. Lawdy Miss Clawdy
  10. Santa Claus Is Back in Town
  11. Blue Christmas
  12. Tiger Man
  13. When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again
  14. Memories

June 29 – first 'stand-up' show

  1. Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up
  2. Can't Help Falling in Love
  3. Jailhouse Rock
  4. Don't Be Cruel
  5. Blue Suede Shoes
  6. Love Me Tender
  7. Trouble / Guitar Man
  8. Trouble / Guitar Man
  9. If I Can Dream

June 29 – second 'stand-up' show

  1. Heartbreak Hotel
  2. Hound Dog
  3. All Shook Up
  4. Can't Help Falling in Love
  5. Jailhouse Rock
  6. Don't Be Cruel
  7. Blue Suede Shoes
  8. Love Me Tender
  9. Trouble
  10. Baby What You Want Me to Do
  11. If I Can Dream

Then came the Singer Presents... Elvis (aka the Elvis '68 Comeback Special) as broadcast on NBC, which combined the content from the earlier sessions with the live shows, and edited down to a snappy 50 minutes.

The running order for the original special and the original Elvis soundtrack, which featured long medleys of songs blended together as single tracks, was as follows :

  1. 'Trouble'
    'Guitar Man'
  2. 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy'
    'Baby What You Want Me to Do'
    'Heartbreak Hotel'
    'Hound Dog'
    'All Shook Up'
    'Can't Help Falling in Love'
    'Jailhouse Rock'
    'Love Me Tender'
  3. 'Where Could I Go But to the Lord?'
    'Up Above My Head'
  4. 'Blue Christmas'
    'One Night'
  5. 'Memories'
  6. 'Nothingville'
    'Big Boss Man'
    'Guitar Man'
    'Little Egypt'
    'Guitar Man'
  7. 'If I Can Dream'

A 1991 CD reissue added a bit more music and the 1998 Memories compilation ran to 35 songs over two discs.

Finally, the massive 50th anniversary four-CD The Complete '68 Comeback Special, clocking in at 104 songs and a runtime of five hours and ten minutes, was released in 2018. A three-DVD did the same for the video.

What was the fan and critical response to the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special?

Elvis Presley at NBC Studios for the '68 Comeback Special
Elvis Presley at NBC Studios for the '68 Comeback Special. Picture: Getty Images

Today, the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special is widely acknowledged as being the spark that got Elvis back on the road, back recording great music and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest performers and artists of the 20th century (and not just the 1950s).

At the time, it was a massive hit with audiences, topping the Nielsen ratings with 42% of the TV audience tuning in, while the soundtrack reached number 8 in the album charts, going gold.

The critics were a bit more mixed. The Chicago Tribune hailed the "dynamic, compelling, incredibly sensual" performance, but the Los Angeles Times, suggested that Elvis wasn't quite keeping up with his new rock 'n' roll contemporaries of his age.

Some other critics fell somewhere in the middle, hailing the reinvigorated Elvis, his renewed charisma and the magic and power of his performance, which underlined his impact on the culture, while not putting the set above everything else that was going on in music at the time.

How did the Elvis's '68 Comeback Special end with 'If I Can Dream'?

Elvis Presley - If I Can Dream ('68 Comeback Special)

Binder decided that rather than end the show 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' as the Colonel wanted, it needed something a little more.

He asked Walter Earl Brown to come up with a song, and knowing how devastated Elvis was by the murder of Martin Luther King in April of that year, he wrote 'If I Can Dream', which riffed on Dr King's 'I Have A Dream' speech from the 1963 March on Washington.

Elvis loved it, swearing: "I'm never going to sing another song I don't believe in. I'm never going to make another movie I don't believe in".

Typically, the Colonel needed convincing. "This ain't Elvis' kind of song," he said, incredibly. "Let me give it a shot, man," Elvis replied.

He did, and what emerged was one of The King's greatest ever recordings, immortalised in the '68 Special with those ELVIS lights. The single went to number 12 in the US and number 11 in the UK – his biggest hit for a few years.

Thank you, good night.