If I Can Dream

The '68 Elvis Comeback Special

The opening shot of the comeback special. flickr.com

It's no secret that Elvis Presley was not particularly well served by the machinations of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was in 1968, however, that Elvis broke free from his spell, if only for a short while, defying Parker's vision of Elvis' adult years and, in the process, engineering rock music's most stunning (and satisfying) comeback.

NBC and sponsor Singer (of the sewing machines) had long wanted to present an Elvis Christmas special, and the King had no problem delivering some of his big Xmas hits, particularly "Blue Christmas." With the assistance of director Steve Binder, however, Presley began to envision the hour-long TV special as a way to reclaim his rightful place atop pop music's throne, one he'd largely forfeited after his return from the Army in 1960.

Years of mediocre-to-horrible films, their equally suspect soundtracks, and the ongoing progress of popular music had left Elvis in the dust, both creatively and commercially.

The special changed all that immediately, re-establishing the King as a fine interpretive singer, a sexual presence (that black leather suit has practically become an icon all its own), a performer par excellence, and a real musician to boot. That last was especially borne out by the intimate jam session filmed for the special; some still believe it to be the finest set of music he ever played. Taken along with the special that surrounds it, it stands as one of the most amazing career resurrections in entertainment history.

1968 Timeline: Elvis '68 Comeback Special

January 12: NBC publicly announces Elvis' upcoming Christmas TV special, for which he will be paid $250,000. A unnamed film as part of the package will net the singer $850,000.

May 14: At a private meeting with NBC executive Bob Finkel, Elvis declares that he'd like to use the upcoming special to prove himself once again to his audience, saying "I want everyone to know what I can really do."
May 17: Steve Binder is hired as director for the TV special. His credits include the legendary 1964 all-star rock broadcast The T.A.M.I. Show, the weekly rock revue Hullabaloo, and the infamous 1968 Petula Clark TV special Petula, which featured the white Clark touching the arm of the black Harry Belafonte, to the outrage of Chrysler, the show's sponsor.

June 6: Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK, is assassinated in Los Angeles. Elvis' sadness over this death and that of Martin Luther King affect Steve Binder to the effect that he begins thinking about composing a "socially conscious" song for the King to sing on his special.
June 11: NBC costume designer Bill Belew suggests the white "preacher" suit and skin-tight black leather suit Elvis will wear in the special. He also suggests Elvis wear the famous gold lame suit designed by Nudie Cohen and seen on the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, but Presley, conscious of shedding his Hollywood image, agrees only to the jacket.
June 17: Elvis begins dance, vocal, and dialogue rehearsals for the TV special.
June 19: Having watched Elvis and his longtime band rehearse in their dressing rooms all week, Steve Binder decides to insert a similarly informal jam into the TV show. At first he decides to film the dressing room rehearsals themselves, then thinks better of it and decides to hold them in front of an audience, on the same stage Presley will be using for his more traditional "stand-up show."
June 20: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "Nothingville," "Let Yourself Go," "Guitar Man," and "Big Boss Man." He will use these and the following few days' recordings as guides for his live performance in the TV special.

June 21: At Hollywood's Western Recorders, Elvis records the songs "It Hurts Me," "Little Egypt," "Trouble," "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," and "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?"
June 21: Binder asks musical director Bones Howe to write that "socially conscious" song for Elvis' big closing number, which had been slated as the standard "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Howe writes the replacement song, "If I Can Dream," that afternoon; after hearing it a half-dozen times, Elvis agrees to end with it.
June 22: Elvis records the songs "Up Above My Head," "I Found That Light," "Saved," and the "Trouble / Guitar Man" medley with which he will open the special.
June 23: Elvis records his last two guide tracks for the special, "If I Can Dream" and "Memories."

NEXT: The timeline continues, singles, soundtracks, and more

June 27: At 6 pm, Elvis and his band tape the informal jam session on center stage at NBC's Studio 4, a performance many consider his best of all time. However, the Colonel, unhappy with the direction of the show, has withheld all tickets to the performance, forcing staffers to run into a nearby Bob's Big Boy restaurant (4211 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank) and plead with patrons to come see a real honest-to-goodness Elvis concert. (The King himself is extremely nervous at performing live for the first time in seven years, and is told by Binder that once he goes out there, he can just get up and leave if he can't take it. A close look at the performance shows that, once on stage, he pretends to do just that.) Two shows, an afternoon and an evening, are performed. This performance would later serve as the inspiration for MTV's Unplugged series.
The songs performed at the "Sitdown Show" are as follows: "That's All Right, Mama," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me," "Baby What You Want Me To Do," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again," "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," "Blue Christmas," "Tiger Man," "Trying To Get To You," "One Night," and "Memories."
June 28: Elvis tapes the "gospel medley" portion of the show as well as a controversial "bordello" scene that was never broadcast: NBC censors had no objections, but the sponsor, Singer Sewing Machines, didn't want to upset viewers.
June 29: Elvis performs the show's intro as well as the two "stand-up" musical sets, this time in front of a packed house. The songs performed are as follows: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "One Night," "All Shook Up," "Can't Help Falling In Love," "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Love Me Tender," the "Trouble / Guitar Man" intro, and a first pass at "If I Can Dream."
June 30: The finale of the TV show, "If I Can Dream," is perfected by Presley in five takes.
August 20: Having just seen a rough cut of the TV special, the Colonel is outraged, and in a two-page memorandum to the producers outlines several grievances, most notably a complete lack of Christmas songs. If at least one Christmas song isn't featured, threatens Parker, the network will be forced to do an entire Christmas special with Elvis to honor its contract. The dispute is resolved easily enough when a version of "Blue Christmas" from the "sit-down" show is edited back in.
December 3: The TV special, whose official title is simply Singer Presents Elvis, debuts on NBC at 9 pm EST and is a giant commercial and critical smash, taking in a full 42 percent of the nation's television viewing audience and cementing Elvis' "comeback" for all time.
December 10: Fresh off the success of the special, Colonel Tom Parker negotiates a performance deal with the William Morris Agency: eight shows a week in Vegas for one month. Price: half a million dollars.

Original Broadcast: Elvis '68 Comeback Special

Opening: "Trouble" / "Guitar Man" (medley)
Sitdown show:
"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"
Standup show:
"Heartbreak Hotel" / "Hound Dog" / "All Shook Up" (medley)
"Can't Help Falling In Love"
"Jailhouse Rock"
"Love Me Tender"
"Are You Lonesome To-night?"
Gospel production number:
"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" / "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?" / "Up Above My Head" / "Saved" (medley)
Sitdown show:
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise)
"Blue Christmas"
"One Night"
Performance:
"Memories"
Guitar Man production number:
"Nothingville" / "Guitar Man" / "Let Yourself Go" / "Big Boss Man" / "It Hurts Me" / "Little Egypt" / "Trouble" / "Guitar Man" (medley)
Closing number:
"If I Can Dream"

Sitdown show #1 (6 pm): Elvis '68 Comeback Special

"That's All Right"
"Heartbreak Hotel"
"Love Me"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"
"Blue Suede Shoes"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise)
"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"
"Are You Lonesome To-night?"
"When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again"
"Blue Christmas"
"Trying To Get To You"
"One Night"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise)
"One Night" (reprise)

Sitdown show #2 (8 pm): Elvis '68 Comeback Special

"Heartbreak Hotel"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do"
"That's All Right"
"Are You Lonesome To-night?"
"Baby, What You Want Me To Do" (reprise)
"Blue Suede Shoes"
"One Night"
"Love Me"
"Trying To Get To You"
"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"
"Santa Claus Is Back In Town"
"Blue Christmas"
"Tiger Man"
"When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again"

Official Singles: Elvis '68 Comeback Special

November 5, 1968: "If I Can Dream" b/w "Edge Of Reality" (RCA Victor 47-9670)
February 25, 1969: "Memories" b/w "Charro" (RCA Victor 47-9731)

Official Soundtrack Album: Elvis '68 Comeback Special

November 22, 1968:

Elvis NBC TV Special (RCA LPM 4088):
Side 1:
"Trouble / Guitar Man"
"Lawdy Miss Clawdy"
"Baby What You Want Me To Do"
"Dialogue"
"Medley: Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up" "Can't Help Falling In Love" "Jailhouse Rock" "Love Me Tender"
Side 2:
"Medley: Where Could I Go But To The Lord?

/ Up Above My Head / Saved"
"Dialogue"
"Blue Christmas"
"One Night"
"Memories"
"Nothingville"
"Dialogue"
"Medley: Big Boss Man / Guitar Man / Little Egypt / Trouble / Guitar Man"
"If I Can Dream"