The Transformation of Elvis Presley

The Story of the 1968 Comeback Special

The 1968 Elvis special – was not a comeback to Elvis – It was a tranformation into a new entity.  (Elvis was noted as saying he detested that title.  He said, that he didn’t go anywhere to come back from).  Elvis was the charts in the mid-1950’s!  In 1956 alone, he had 11 Top Forty hits. Five number one’s, and from March 10th until the end of that year, Elvis’ songs owned the number one spot almost 60% of the time.  Elvis altered the musical landscape like no one before him.  He created teen marketing, which before him had not existed.  He was truly the King of Rock and Roll. 

After returning from the Army, Elvis transitioned from live performances to movies. His manager Colonel Tom Parker (The Colonel) felt that Elvis could be seen by more people in a movie than at any single concert. It was also Elvis’s dream to star in movies,. This initially was a good opportunity for him, as it provided him stability, and worldwide exposure.  It also was a calculated move by Elvis’  manager, The Colonel to protect the image of his Brand called Elvis Presley.  The Colonel could protect him from overexposure, and limit his appearances.  It was the Colonel who felt that the goal was to constantly leave the fans wanting more.  For the most part, it worked to make Elvis one of the most bankable movie stars of his time. 

However, by the late-1960s, music, and movies had changed., Artists were writing their own songs and the amount of available quality music began to dwindle.   The Colonel kept hit writers such as Lieber and Stoller (Jailhouse Rock, and Don’t be Cruel), away from Elvis, never wanting to have anyone have leverage or influence over him. Instead of building relationships with quality writers, he was destroying them. The songs Elvis had to choose from began to diminish in quality and quality.  It didn’t matter to the Colonel, who felt that Elvis would have a hit if he sang the phone book. Considering some of the dismal songs Elvis recorded during this period that became marginal hits he had a point. 

In Movies, Musicals were not the draw that they once were. The public was clamoring for more action based films or serious dramas.  Having an actor break out into song was not the prescription for a hit.  Producer /  Director Hal Wallis said in 1961 “A Presley Picture was the only sure thing in Hollywood”.  Despite Elvis’ bankability. times were changing, and the deal Elvis had of 2 pictures per year was clearly coming to a close. Elvis was also growing tired of the musical format and he felt underutilized.  The Colonel was sure that he needed to change things up. If only to continue to get the most from his bankable star.

From a career perspective, Elvis needed a change.  His records weren’t selling as much, and he was growing weary of the type of material he was getting.  Since 1961, Elvis did not have a single top ten hit.   Elvis had become irrelevant in the music industry, and in Rock and Roll notably. To Rocka and Roll, its King was conspicuously absent.  In the movie field, the product began to diminish.  The movies began to get worse, as the Colonel began to maximize profits by reducing production costs. He was following the same script with movies that he had forced Elvis into with music. The Colonel refused to consider co-stars that would increase Elvis’ popularity.  Ann Margaret who had clearly created on-screen chemistry with Elvis in Viva LasVegas was never paired with him again.   Why increase costs and profits with a good script, when they would make just as much with a bad one? 

The Colonel’s ability to cut deals and maximize profits were cutting Elvis’ value.  While Elvis’ films made money, The Colonel was reluctant to change the formula.  For every movie Elvis starred in, he would receive 1/3 of the profits. While his contract stipulated that he would make $1 Million per film, he would add another million in merchandising and record sales.  Inferior or not, every Elvis film was a money-making machine.  But to Elvis’ upset, producers would use the profits from his films to make artistic projects, that Elvis would never be offered.  Elvis was having a hard time getting any quality movie roles.  Hollywood wasn’t interested in low budget musicals anymore, even if they did make money

Ultimately, however, the public couldn’t tell the Elvis scripts apart from one another.  Elvis was mired in one bad movie after another, with songs that would range from love songs to schmaltz.  While an occasional top 40 hit would pop up, none of the songs would be considered groundbreaking, or electrifying.  The British invasion had come and Elvis was not the musical juggernaut that he once was.  Elvis was moving further and further away from his roots of Rock and Roll, and he was no longer considered for serious acting roles.

To replace the oncoming loss of income.  The Colonel needed to find a way to get Elvis in front of his adoring public.  He set his sights on television (TV), to offset the possible loss of movie revenue.  He made an arrangement with NBC to have Elvis appear on TV if they would fund the next movie.   The Colonel felt that Elvis could to segue into regular TV specials – and keep money flowing.  The Colonel and NBC came up with the idea of a Christmas Special, and a deal was struck. 

Steve Binder, was assigned to Elvis by NBC to direct the Christmas special.  The Colonel’s idea was to have Elvis perform a Christmas show – like Andy Williams. This would keep with the Colonel’s carefully crafted image of his star.  Elvis had recently married and had a child on the way.  This was all part of the Colonel’s plan to make Elvis the homogenized family man, which would make him more of a bankable product.    

Binder had just completed two successful television concerts with Leslie Uggams and Petula Clark.  NBC thought he would be a great producer/director for this project. Both shows were considered ratings successes.   NBC wanted Elvis badly. And felt that providing  Binder would close the loop.  Binder was chosen because NBC executives wanted to put someone in charge who would focus on the musical performance quality.   Binder’s initial reaction was that he did not want to do the show. In his first meeting with The Colonel, he handed Binder a tape of 20 Christmas songs, that Elvis had recorded, and instructed him that he wanted these songs in a Christmas show.  Binder wanted no part of “Christmas Special”.  Initially, wanting to back out of the show.

Elvis also had his reservations about doing the show.  He did not want to do a Television special either.  His experiences earlier in his career with Steve Allen had made him distasteful of ever performing on TV. Elvis did not like the variety format.   However, he reluctantly came to have a meeting with Binder. To discuss the project

Binder’s partner Bones Howe, who produced the Fifth Dimension, and had a number of gold records to show, pointed him in the direction of Elvis’ earlier work. Bones understood Elvis’ impact and provided suggestions to his friend and partner.  Binder was not a fan of Elvis and was not familiar with his work. Other than seeing him on the Ed Sullivan show years before, he was too young to be exposed to Elvis’ earlier work.   Binder’s tastes were more focused on early 1960s music (Beatles / Beach Boy, and of course the 5th Dimension).  He had seen the Elvis movies and was not impressed with them.

However, at Bone’s insistence, Binder did some research. He learned much about Elvis during his research and came to an appreciation of his musical instincts.  He was clear that his vision and the Colonel’s did not match, he just needed to convince Elvis.  At their initial meeting,  Elvis asked Binder what he thought of his career at the moment.  Binder responded honestly, “In the toilet!”. Which took Elvis off guard.  He was not used to people being honest with him especially about his career.  Binder said what Elvis instinctively knew, that the music industry had changed, and Elvis had become an irrelevant part of it.  However, Binder stressed, there was a solution, and he felt that he alone had the formula if Elvis would entrust him to recreate him.

Binder approached Elvis with a plan to go back to his Rock and Roll roots.  Binder truly felt that Rock and Roll as Elvis created It, was still relevant, it had just become dormant.  Many other forces had come in to change the narrative and Elvis’ role.  Binder could change all of that with this special. He offered Elvis a plan that would have him become the topic on conversation at every water cooler, and truck stop on the Monday Morning after the show.  At this point, Elvis could have walked away.  Elvis’ ego could have taken over, and just walked past Binder. Elvis was still a star.  However, Elvis knew he had a point.  Binder convinced him that he had a plan that would work to remake Elvis in the eyes of the public.  He truly wanted to make Elvis relevant again.  To his credit, Elvis didn’t walk away but listened intently, and he agreed to move forward.  . 

Everything was set, and the team began their rehearsals.  Elvis was dedicated, instead of going home, and fighting traffic, he was spending nights in his trailer.  Binder noticed Elvis going into his dressing room during the rehearsals breaks and in the evenings. Curious, Binder noticed Elvis having an impromptu jam session with his friends and musicians who came by the set. Laughing and carrying on.  It was pure Elvis. 

Binder was mesmerized by these sessions.  He wanted to incorporate them into the show.  Elvis suggested adding his old bandmates, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, (Elvis’ original guitarist and drummer).  Bill Black, his original Bass player, had died a few years earlier.  Binder researched Elvis’ popularity in the 1950s and crafted a plan to portray Elvis in “the raw”.  This plan was hatched by and proved to be one of the single great moments in television history.  While whittled down to only 15 minutes in length, it showed Elvis with a minimal amount of arrangement showing the world ingredients that made Elvis the King of Rock and Roll

Binder had the prescience to capture the Genius of Elvis in all his glory.  Binder’s focus was on the music that made Elvis famous.  It was Elvis performing with a guitar, Scotty accompanying him, and DJ drumming on the back of a guitar case.  Elvis proved it was all about the music, and his interpretation of it.  There were no swiveling hips (that would come later), it was all about the music, and Elvis’ interpretation of it that brought people to him.  This fifteen minutes of Elvis in the raw displayed it clearly.  Elvis would not need a co-star as most musical shows at that time would require.  Elvis didn’t need it, he would own the entire night. He would continue the show in a Black leather outfit, with an Orchestra to accompany him. Elvis’ performance would cement his place upon his throne.  There was enough material for 90 minutes, but NBC chose to air the 60-minute version. 

Initially, The Colonel did not get wind of Binder’s plan until it was too late.   He still thought he was going to get a variety special of Elvis singing Christmas songs in front of a fire, or around the Christmas tree.  When he found out what had transpired he was livid with Binder. Where were his Christmas songs?  Reluctantly, Blue Christmas was added to the mix to satisfy the Colonel’s insistence of the Christmas song.  When The Colonel ultimately found out that the Christmas show had truly gone awry and became THIS! , he was more than upset.  Behind the scenes, he had started to try to dismantle it.

However, Elvis would have no part of that. The energy was back, and he was rejuvenated. He would not allow the Colonel to diminish this moment.  He had as always artistic control.   He was also excited for the first time in years.   Elvis took control, and he saw the importance of this moment. Elvis was transforming before everyone’s eyes.  The acoustic portion of the show became the most important part of the transformation – and his career at that point. The show had no guests and featured the King of Rock and Roll in his element.  Joking and laughing, telling stories, and then performing all of his hits.   All of a sudden Elvis became ELVIS again.   He began having fun, joking around (which Binder also put into the show) the raw energy was apparent. The world got a glimpse of The King of Rock and Roll holding court.  The transformation had begun. 

Finally, the team needed to find a finale to the show.  The decision to end the show with the Song “If I can Dream”, was met with the same upset by The Colonel that the entire production had provided him.  The Colonel was adamant that Elvis not perform a song that was considered a political statement.  However, the recent cold-blooded murders of Martin MLuther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, were still raw, both in the public’s eye as well as in Elvis’ mind.  Elvis wanted to make a statement, in his own way.   When the song was presented to him, he was determined to perform it.  The Colonel, fortunately for the world, could not dissuade Elvis.  He performed the song in typical Elvis style.  Elvis sang the song with such passion that he fell to knees practically crying at the end of his performance. 

When the show aired, Elvis had scored a ratings blockbuster and returning with critical acclaim.  The next day Elvis was relevant again in the music industry.  Binder’s prophetic words that Elvis would be the talk of the nation the next day occurred all of this with Steve Binder’s help,, Elvis was elevated back to the top of the music profession.  The transformation was complete. 

Unfortunately, as was the case with all of Elvis’ positive influences, Binder and Elvis would never work together again.  The Colonel forbade it.  He was not about to have anyone influence his product, and move him in a direction he did not orchestrate.  For that moment in time, Elvis proved once again what made him the King of Rock and Roll. 

On February 17th NBC, will spend 2 hours in a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the special.  It is still billed as Elvis’ Comeback special.   However, Elvis would never accept that title.  It should be called the Transformation Special, as Elvis transformed from a 1950’s phenomena, and a 1960’s movie actor, to a national treasure, and perennial Superstar.  Nothing about Elvis had diminished, and at that moment the King reclaimed his throne.   A throne that was not abdicated, but left dormant, until he returned.      


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