Elvis was 33 years old in 1968. He had just become a father. He was still making movies and had been doing so since 1956. He had not been before a live audience since the early 60s. Almost a decade. He still had a couple of years left in his movie contract and he was beginning to become restless to the point of outright despondency As he told his main squeeze June Juanico back in 1956, when he was in front of a live audience it was so intense for him that he thought his “heart would explode”. He missed the rush, the heat, although “miss” is too mild a word. His daughter being born increased his sense of urgency and meaninglessness. What, exactly, am I doing with my life? Negotiations had begun between NBC and Col. Parker for a “Christmas special”. Elvis standing by a Christmas tree crooning “White Christmas”, standing on a bare stage singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Fun fare for the whole family to enjoy. The safe Elvis. The family-friendly crooning Elvis.
Executive producer Bob Finkel had basically arm-wrestled the Colonel into giving up the idea of placing Elvis on a stage singing Christmas songs. The Colonel just wanted to make sure that an album would come out of it (just in time for Christmas) and to not have Elvis share the stage with anyone. It had to be a one-man thing. Fine, fine, he’s Elvis, that’s what we’ll do, of course. The NBC comeback special in 1968 was certainly not what the Colonel had in mind, but I have to believe it wasn’t what anyone had in mind, at least not initially. Who could plan for something like that? Because of that, the planning stages are almost as fascinating as the end result.
First, Elvis had a series of talks with Finkel. Finkel says, “I found Elvis as most people who dealt with him on this kind of basis found him, very courteous and kind and respectful, as I mentioned to him what I thought he would do.” Elvis, a smart businessman (something he gets zero credit for), did not leap eagerly at the chance. He played his cards close to the vest at first. This is the definition of good business sense. The talks continued. Finkel would do most of the talking, and Elvis would respectfully listen. Finkel then says that Elvis made a “revealing statement” to him at one point “that he wants this show to depart completely from the pattern of his motion pictures and from everything else he had done.” With a sudden whoosh in that moment, Elvis Presley revealed his cards. Elvis then went on to say, shockingly, that he had no interest in the Colonel’s opinion on the matter. “I want everyone to know what I can do,” Presley said to Finkel, a bare-faced statement from an artist in the final negotiating stages of the NBC deal. Breathtaking. Powerful. Heads of state couldn’t negotiate better than that. You can’t say those statements at the beginning stages. You look desperate and too eager, not at all a good look for one of the biggest stars in the world. Finkel immediately thought of Steve Binder as the perfect director for this project.
Binder was around Presley’s age but didn’t care about Elvis Presley’s music. It wasn’t his thing. He was more of a Beatles fan. But he was ambitious, and in his ambition and inspiration, aligned himself with the ache and hunger in Elvis Presley’s psyche (something Elvis rarely showed outright, why would he do that?), and created something that was, in the end, raw, bizarre, moving, and actually scary at points. The scary part is all Elvis. The whole thing is all Elvis. But the conception is part of what blasted Elvis Presley out of that cannon again, snarling and stalking and grunting and laughing with such power, such ferocity, such humor, that the force of it today is still startling, no matter how many times you see the footage.
Binder, like most really good artists, had a hunch. It was a radical hunch, but a hunch nonetheless. He followed through on it. That takes guts. He had a hunch that Presley was as competitive as anyone who ever walked the planet (although his in-person demeanor was polite and deferential, and he almost never showed his claws), and that his years in Hollywood, watching the British invasion, had eaten away at him. Binder wanted to put a fire under Presley’s competitive instinct. But you can’t really say that to such a big star, who obviously already was competitive (you don’t get to be that big a star without being competitive). “Listen, pally, I’m a millionaire many many times over. I think I’ve done just fine on my own,” could have been a response to such a comment. But Binder was on fire. On his first meeting with Elvis, he met the wild panther headon and told him what he wanted to do with the special. Presley, who had been a star for over a decade at that point, listened, as Binder read him the riot act, saying that this would be a chance to show everyone who he was. Binder wanted the show to be unique, not generic. Nobody could step into Elvis’ shoes. They were too original. Only Elvis could do such a special. It had to be created just for him and that is what they wanted to do. Binder told him he wanted it to be about him, he wanted Elvis to talk off-the-cuff about his experiences in the 50s, he wanted Elvis to play the old stuff, the stuff that had first made his name, he wanted Elvis to appear as raw and unvarnished as he had from the beginning. Because Binder had a sense that that guy was still in there. He hadn’t been crushed at all by his decade in Hollywood. He was still under there, boiling, burning, waiting to express himself. Elvis listened to the pitch and didn’t interrupt. Binder wasn’t sure if he was going too far so he asked Elvis how he felt about it. Elvis said, “Scared to death.”
Being scared was always good for Elvis Presley. But Elvis agreed to Binder’s idea and then the real work began. Binder worked with his writing team to come up with a script and a format. (The format of the thing is still weird if you watch it now. Nothing like it before or since. In a way, it has no rhyme or reason, except that it is a moment of ultimate myth-making with jagged jagged edges, clawing at the audience, hurting them, exciting them. But you watch the thing and you still think, “Jesus, how did they get the balls ….”)
Elvis was on vacation with his family in Hawaii, working out and dieting and getting himself in shape for the special. They would start preproduction in early June of 1968. First, Binder and his writers presented to Elvis their script ideas. The show would have a theme, a man searching for happiness and finding he had had it all along. “Guitar Man” would be used as the link. A bit cheesy, and Binder wasn’t really hip to the idea himself, but when Elvis heard it, he loved it. He loved the whole thing. Binder says, “We told him, ‘We don’t want you to like it one hundred percent. We want to get your input. What you like. What you don’t like.’ He said, ‘No, I like it all.'” In the middle of the initial meetings with Binder and the writers, Robert Kennedy was killed and Presley was devastated. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis two months before, and Elvis had been devastated by that as well. He talked with Binder about it, saying how he felt terrible about these deaths, but even more so about Martin Luther King because it had happened in his hometown and everyone already thought Southerners were a bunch of racist hicks. It really tore him up. Binder started to see that other side of Elvis, the one everyone saw who knew him. Big giant star with dyed-black hair, mascaraed eyelashes, a leather jacket and an entourage, but articulate and compassionate. Binder wanted to try to capture that too. Everything. He wanted everything to go into the special. It was really dangerous times in 1968. What relevance did Presley have in those days? Binder saw, in those conversations about Kennedy and King, that everything about Elvis Presley was relevant. It had been so in 1956 and it was so now. (The show-stopper “If I Can Dream” was borne out of those conversations Binder had with Presley about the scary times in which they were living.) Presley never did message songs. He changed his tune, radically, in 1968.
Dave Marsh writes in his Elvis book:
The TV special, then, was an opportunity for an elaborate and dramatic announcement and confirmation of Presley’s continuing genius. It was not automatically a high artistic risk because even marginal fans would have to tune in for one last glimpse of the King, one last chance for him to reign again. If there was a problem, it was making Elvis aware of how high the stakes could be. Only Elvis, on the other hand, could raise the pot to its limit.
To put it plainly, Steve Binder wasn’t the guiding genius behind Elvis in 1968 any more than Sam Phillips had been in 1954 or Col. Parker had been in 1958: What carried the show was Elvis and his music, which transcended every obstacle it faced, every shed of mediocrity. Steve Binder has never again produced another show of the quality of the Elvis special – for that matter, most of the production, staging and choreography of the Elvis special itself was sheer formula television.
Binder did play a crucial role in the special: He filled a spot that had been too long missing from Presley’s creative environment. He was the instigator, the man who pushed Elvis to the hilt, forcing him to use the deepest and best parts of himself, inciting Elvis to work hard for once, to lay aside his laziness and prove that he was as great as the myth said he was.
There then was a notorious incident when Binder, trying to prove a point to Elvis Presley, suggested that he and Elvis take a walk down the Sunset Strip. Elvis Presley never went outside like that. He was always protected, either in cars driven by someone else, or on his motorcycle in Memphis where he could get away from people. But he never just walked down the damn street. He stopped going outside like that in around 1956, 57, and his life had been entirely engineered so that he could avoid being totally mobbed. Binder, again working on a hunch, wanted to show Elvis something. The two of them stood on Sunset Boulevard for a good 15, 20 minutes, outside a topless bar. Nobody looked at Elvis. Nobody stopped. He was totally anonymous. Nobody cared. Either they didn’t recognize him or they didn’t care. This did not sit well with Elvis, so he started doing things to call attention to himself, but still nobody stopped. There was no mob.
(Marsh does make the point that out in the heartlands of America, as opposed to the jaded heart of Hollywood, Presley probably still would have been mobbed.)
Presley didn’t say much when he and Binder returned to the office. He was quiet and thoughtful. Binder had wanted to scare Elvis Presley. He did.
Elvis had been isolated for too long, and he was too confused by his drop in record sales and movie grosses to consider the reaction on the Strip anything but a symptom. This was a more profound threat to him than any drop in revenues. His career might stagnate but, despite all his economic insecurity, Elvis knew he would never have to return to the poverty of his youth. The withering of his notoriety, on the other hand, was something he could not stand.
If Elvis possessed a single uncomplicated goal in life, it was to become an unignorable man. If he had a straightforward, easily explainable reason for his long hair, his pink shirts and flashy suits, for his Cadillacs and mansions and the huge rings now adorning his fingers, it was his unquenchable desire for recognition. He could not bear the thought of anonymity.
From that moment on, Elvis not only did whatever Binder said (a powerful alpha animal always respects another alpha in the room – either they fight to the death or align forces), but contributed his own ideas. He knew what he wanted to do. He didn’t care what anyone else said. The Colonel still thought they were working on a Christmas special. Elvis never contradicted the Colonel, to his face or behind his back, but he did say privately to Binder that everything was going to be all right. He’d handle everything. He did.
Billy Goldenberg was hired as the musical arranger (that is a whole story in and of itself) and he was tearing his hair out at some of the grandiose orchestrations. He also wasn’t a huge Elvis fan, but from his first moment meeting him (he came upon Elvis Presley playing “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano in the rehearsal room), he was captivated. He too wanted to capture all of Elvis, in his simplicity and complexity, in the special. The musical arrangements were key. Goldenberg said:
I wanted to tune in to Elvis underneath. I wanted to tune in to the perversity, frankly, that was deep down inside of him, but the only place that he would project it was onstage. I mean, he would sing and do all of the visual stuff that he did, and then after he finished he would laugh at it. But there was no question that he tuned in to the darkness, to the wild, untamed, animalistic thing. That was [such] a big part of Elvis; he did not make his statement by being sweet. He was blatantly sexual, and that was something I wanted in the music. And if I could get that, I felt I was getting closer to the raw Elvis. Not the Elvis that came in the room to talk to you, because he was the sweetest person in the world, I mean, he was [the] good son – I think that was a lot of Elvis’ problem.
Very insightful observation. Going through the arrangements for “Guitar Man” was a crucial moment for Goldenberg. Elvis would have the final say, of course. Goldenberg felt tension on the first day they showed him what they had come up with. Then:
First I rehearsed the orchestra alone, and everybody was in the control booth – Elvis, the Colonel, Finkel, the guys, everyone. It was a most frightening night for me. Anyway, we rehearsed it all the way through, and I was really quite happy with it, but as I finished I looked in the control room, and nobody was saying anything, and I thought, Well, they must have hated it. Then Elvis walks out into the studio, says hello to the musicians – we had a pretty large orchestra, violins, cellos, French horns, I think there were around forty or fifty pieces – and he says, ‘What are these over here?’ I said, ‘Those are French horns.’ He said, ‘Ah, that’s real interesting – do you think I can sing with that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, can I try? Can I sing with the orchestra now?’ And the guys come out, and they were kind of talking among themselves, making little negative comments, saying how this would never do. But Elvis is not listening to them. He goes into his little isolation booth, and I start up the orchestra, and he does the entire thing. And it was really dynamite. It was just – thrilling. He started very quietly, and then he built and built until it was just absolutely raucous, and he was bathed in sweat, at the end of the first rehearsal.
Then the guys, of course, realizing that he liked it, said, ‘Oh, that’s terrific’, and I saw Steve breathe a sigh of relief, and Bones started to get into some of the musical things with Elvis. But Elvis kept rehearsing this ‘Guitar Man’ sequence, and when he got through for the evening, it was like he had just fornicated. I mean, he was on such a high, he was so involved and excited and emotionally charged – I don’t remember anything in my life like that, frankly. It was a high point.
Of course he did end up singing a Christmas song, actually two of them, and it was during the now-famous “informal sit-down sessions” portion of the show (which are interspersed throughout the special). He sang a semi-aborted version of one of the dirtiest songs he ever recorded, “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (more on that here), as well as “Blue Christmas”, but it was a far cry from Elvis in a white suit standing by a fake set with a fireplace and stockings hung by the chimney. Elvis is head to toe black leather, playing Scotty’s electric guitar (they switched early on), and is basically a portrait of sexual power and clenched dangerous energy, not family-friendly, not family-friendly at all.
While there is much to say about the 1968 comeback special, and Dave Marsh covers it very well, as do a host of others, I wanted to point out a couple of clips just to show the kind of radical re-thinking as well as entrenching attitude of the entire enterprise. You can almost feel Elvis Presley digging his damn heels in as the thing goes on. Try and get him off that stage. Try it.
With the special, Elvis had finally found a vehicle that claimed his place in the world … You could hear his assurance, over and over, repeated in the hottest version of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” ever recorded and in the way he mocked the lyrics of “Love Me Tender”. Most of all, you could hear it when he turned Col. Parker’s obligatory Christmas number into the bluest “Blue Christmas” in history and then followed it with a version of “One Night” that began as a joke and wound up as an act of defiance, inserting the lines – “The things we did and saw / Would make the earth stand still” – which had been denied him a decade earlier. And as he cut through that nasty blues on TV for the world to see and hear, everyone knew and believed. This was not a king regaining his throne; this was a king asserting his right to rule.
The special is made up of three separate types of performance environments. One is the more staged environments, not filmed before a live audience, like the gospel number “Saved” and “If I Can Dream”. Then there is Elvis, alone on a small stage, surrounded by an audience on all sides, playing an electric guitar. He is in his custom-designed skintight black leather suit. It’s just him, no band. The audience is so close they can touch him. At a couple of points they do. His movements are not too impulsive. They are more controlled, clenched even -digging him down into that deeply primal sexual thing he had going on. In the 68 special, it’s not the orgasm. It’s the buildup to the orgasm, unbearably intense. He is the living embodiment of intensity, yet with a looseness and freedom that again makes him seem unpredictable, a little bit frightening. He bites his lip, he looks around him, he grins, he looks like he’s having the time of his life. And finally, on a stage far too small for all of those people, Elvis’ old friends and bandmates join him for an “informal” session. Live audience there, yet again, although this time they are mostly in darkness. Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana are onstage with him, and drummer Fontana beats his drum sticks on a guitar case, the conception being that Binder wanted to capture the informal rowdy feeling of the sessions Elvis had with his friends after shows, before shows, between shows. Binder also wanted Presley to intersperse reminiscences from his life throughout the songs. He wrote up a list of things for Presley to talk about. Humorously, Presley really doesn’t reveal a damn thing. He even takes out the list and peruses it, reading out each line-item (“filmed from the waist up”, etc.) without saying a thing about any of them. He does tell the story of the show they almost closed down in Florida where they told him he couldn’t move, but other than that, Presley doesn’t share. Presley was a genius stealth operator. His gentle refusal (without saying a word) to reminisce is a powerful statement in and of itself. Who cares about THEN. Here I am now.
It doesn’t matter what Presley would have said about his own life. Presley talking about himself would be the least interesting thing about him. What is interesting, what is powerful, is the performance. The persona, ablaze with commitment and yet ease. He never seems to be reaching. The music. You don’t need to hear about Ed Sullivan filming him from the waist up when you see him perform in the 1968 comeback special. All you have to do is watch the guttural sexual moan of “One Night” or the raging wail of “Trying to Get to You” to see why he shocked the censors of the 1950s. He’s still too big for our culture. He’s still too wild. What are we to do with someone like this? The question still remains.
Presley did many of the same songs in all three of those environments I just described. So that there is a collage effect, at times, in the final product, giving an overall sense of Presley’s power to do whatever the hell he wanted to do. Stand onstage by myself and give you a crazy ballad? No problem. Do a big musical number with extras and tamborines and stairways? No problem, that’s me too. Sitting around with old friends, shooting the shit and playing old songs? No problem.
A deluxe DVD edition of the “comeback special” shows all of the outtakes, various alternate takes, and the completed versions of the songs (where we only saw them partially in the final version). It has 3 discs, so it is something else to watch all of this footage. Even between takes, you can feel Elvis’ intensity and focus. Not to mention his nerves. There’s one revealing moment where he’s standing on that small stage by himself, and the audience is all there, sitting quietly waiting for the cameras to be ready. But there Elvis is, in person, just standing there. He’s not entertaining them, because the cameras aren’t rolling yet. It’s a little bit awkward. Randomly, some woman up close in the front row, calls out into the silence, “Tell us about your daughter, Elvis!” A tiny bit nosy, but I certainly don’t blame her. In the context of the moment, in a funny way, her question comes as a welcome moment of small talk to get them all over the awkward hump of what was happening. Additionally, Elvis was a mysterious figure who never gave interviews, and there he was, in the flesh, 2 feet from her, waiting to start Take 3 or whatever. You can hear the coos of other women in the audience who want to hear about the baby, and Elvis holds up both hands to show Lisa’s size and says, “She’s very little.” That’s it. That’s all you’ll get out of him, but he doesn’t ignore the question and he says it kindly. He doesn’t pretend he didn’t hear, but he certainly doesn’t elaborate. “She’s about this little.” There are also alternate takes or longer takes of songs from the sit-down sessions (all of which have also been released on CD), which shows some interesting things about process.
One of the songs that shows up in the special is “Baby What You Want Me to Do”. There are three versions of the song available. One, he sings standing alone on the small stage, grinning around at the surrounding audience. Two, he sings it in the “informal” session. And three, he sings it again in the “informal” session. The fact that, in the middle of a live audience, the vibe between the musicians was indeed so relaxed (just as Binder had pictured) that they would loop back to re-visit the same song – and not only that, but dig deeper into it, tunnel themselves into the DNA code of the song and churn away at it – all in front of people, is still extraordinary. It is un-engineered. Artists don’t often want to let you into “process”. It seems to diminish the final product, it makes it seem less like magic. But the magic here is that Presley and his guys play the song once (it’s early on in filming, the whole second clip starts with Presley asking, “Are we on television?”), and they dig into it, you can tell, but then, once you hear the version in the final clip above, you realize that they had only scratched the surface the first time, and somehow, without saying a word, they knew it. So when they start up that song for the third time, they’ve warmed up, they’ve greased the wheels, they’re ready to tear it UP. And they do. From the first chord, you can hear the difference. The shared difference in each one of them. Presley is the leader, but in that moment they become one organism. “Okay, okay, we played this once, let’s do it again, let’s get closer to it, deeper, closer …”
Presley’s legs pound, he makes this guttural totally private sex sound at the 27 second mark which is so funny because it’s so blatant (watch the expression on his face there, his eyes kind of lolling about, lazy post-release), he grabs the guitar and shakes it like he either wants to throttle it or fuck it, or both, he is both alert and lost at the same time, an embodiment of desire and projection for the audience, but also deeply real to himself. He does not hide behind a myth or an image. He IS the myth and the image. He wears the mantle easily, gratefully. You can count on one hand the people who can do that.
And in that third version, they all start shouting at each other in excitement and urgency, pushing one another on. Those howls and whoops, not to mention the spontaneous screaming of the women in the audience, make that third version the masterpiece of live performance that it is.
Watching each version, one after the other, shows an important element of Presley’s process. He kept looping back to things. He never forgot a song. He loved songs in 1956 that he didn’t get around to recording until 1975. He was loyal to a song. He would play it around the piano at home. He would take out his guitar and play it again. Songs were not just puzzles to be pieced together, although that was true, too. They were doorways to release, a release he could count on.
One of the key elements of Elvis Presley, essential, is that he seemed to have more to release than other people. And he released all of our stuff FOR us. He was conscious of this from the get-go. A burden, maybe, but such an inextricable part of who he was that he accepted it very early on.
In the three versions of “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, you can watch Elvis craving that release. Dying for it, hungry for it, competitive for it. In that moment, he has no worries about competing with The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. They mean nothing. He’s Elvis freakin’ Presley. The only person he has to compete with is himself. But the work must go on, the process must continue, there is the little matter of the song before him, and what it demands of him. What he demands of it. He must have that release. He refuses to give up until he finds it.