Elvis Presley and the Invention of Music Television (MTV)

The 1968 Comeback Special

When you watch the NBC Special honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Elvis Presley 1968 Comeback Special (Elvis hated that term – He said that he never came back from anywhere, he was always there), keep in mind that Elvis was the first to introduce two new musical formats during that special.  The first was the music video, and the second was the acoustic or “unplugged” section of the performance.  These formats ultimately became what was the basis of MTV. 

In the early days of television, musical variety shows existed in different formats.   Ed Sullivan was probably the first to come to mind, and there were many others.   Most of these shows featured major acts from Country and Western to Jazz, comedians, as well as other vaudevillian acts to entertain the families of America.  Elvis Presley was the first to deliver Rock and Roll as a musical genre to the youth of America on television in 1956.  Appearances on the Dorsey Brothers show, then The Steve Allen Show, and finally on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Elvis’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show was seen by 87% of the American people.  The most ever to be tuned in at one time in the history of television (only eclipsed more than 20 years later by the moon landing in July, 1968).  Elvis’ three performances on the Ed Sullivan show paved the way for The Beatles and others to be introduced to the American market.  Ultimately, the success of Elvis and Rock and Roll paved the way for the introduction of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Show, and George Klein’s local Memphis show called Talent Party.   

However, it was the success of Elvis’ 1968 Special that created the ultimate genre of MTV.  The format was the brainchild of Producer/Director Steve Binder, who was tasked to create a “Christmas Special” by NBC Television.  The show in its current format almost didn’t make it to television.  Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ longtime manager wanted a Christmas show, similar to what Andy Williams hosted for many years.  The Colonel’s vision was Elvis singing Christmas Carols in front of a Christmas tree. 

Steve Binder, had other ideas. 

At his first meeting with Elvis, he suggested what today would be called a “RE-BOOT” of Elvis’ Career.  Binder who came of age during the Beatles, and Beach Boys era (his partner Bones Howe was also the producer of the musical group the 5th Dimension), was not a witness of Elvis’ rise in 1956.  He was a youngster during the Ed Sullivan performances.  He did not have the appreciation for Elvis’ position in Rock and Roll, as well as in music history.  When he was able to appreciate Rock and Roll, it had already been part of musical culture. Binder, had no idea of the veritable desert that existed in music prior to Elvis’ appearance on the scene.  After performing more research and coaxed by Bones Howe, to investigate Elvis’ contributions, Binder had a greater appreciation of Elvis’ role in the evolution of Rock and Roll, as its King.  What Binder realized, was that after 8 years of movies, Elvis had not abdicated his throne, but rather stepped aside to do other things.   

When Elvis asked what Binder though of his career at the moment, Binder replied: “in the toilet”.  Unfortunately, not many people spoke to Elvis that frankly, and for good reason.  Elvis was still a superstar of epic proportions. As such, people were reluctant, to be honest with Elvis.  Binder explained that Elvis had become irrelevant in the music industry, and if something was not done, he would be part of the lore – just like the dinosaurs who roamed the earth and ruled for a time.  To Elvis’ credit, he did not take Binder’s words as an insult but as coaching for a transformation.  Binder explained that he wanted the world to re-evaluate Elvis; the next day Elvis would become the talk of every water cooler and truck stop in America.  Binder wanted to remind the word of what made Elvis the King of Rock and Roll. Elvis agreed and Binder got to work.

Elvis needed no co-stars. Elvis’ stature made it clear that there was no one else who could attempt to share a stage with him as an equal.  He had no equal in terms of Rock and Roll, and his body of work proved that.  Binder’s next solution was for Elvis to perform small musical snippets. The first format was music videos of Elvis performing his hits as well as various new songs written for the occasion.  The “Guitar Man” segment, for example, was the precursor of the music videos made popular on MTV 20 years later.

The last segment, the live raw acoustic segment, was the precursor to the “Unplugged” videos also made popular on MTV.  This came about by accident.  During the show’s rehearsals, Elvis and his entourage would move to the trailer for relaxation.  Instead of sitting back between takes, Elvis would be joined by many of his friends and musicians.  They would move into the dressing room, and as Elvis would always do he would jump into impromptu jam sessions.  Binder after coming across these sessions needed to find a way to incorporate them into the show.   The live “unplugged” sessions showed Elvis’ genius and artistry, that no choreographed and orchestrated sessions could do.  It showed the King in all his regalia, and in his element – holding court. It showed his sense of humor and how he could hold an audience spellbound with music and personality. 

The show was an unmitigated success and proved Steve Binder’s predictions.  The next day, Elvis was the talk of every water cooler, and truck stop in America.  Elvis would rejuvenate his career and would move to another level of superstardom. 

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