40 years of the Elvis ’68 Television special
Forty years ago today, Dec 3, 1968, NBC aired the Elvis Presley Special sponsored by the Singer Sewing Company. It has since become known as the ’68 Comeback Special, or just the ’68 Special. It has stood the test of time as one of the most iconic performances of Elvis Presley’s career. It re-ignited his singing career and also started him touring and performing live concerts for the first time in seven years. This is how the televised special became known as the Comeback Special, Elvis was returning to touring and making rock-and-roll records.
As I said, the ’68 Special has become iconic, not just for Elvis fans, but for the man himself. One of the more famous images of him is decked out in his all-leather suit strumming his guitar.
This special marked the first time Elvis had “gone electric” during a musical performance. In all previous performances he only played acoustic guitar.
Another iconic image of Elvis is in his all-white suit, standing in front of the immortal red ELVIS letters singing “If I Can Dream”
Although it aired on Dec 3 1968, the special was actually filmed in July 1968. Elvis had just returned from his honeymoon with Priscilla. While the Special was wildly successful, many people don’t realize that the original concept of the show was completely different.
Originally, the Special was conceived as a straight up Christmas special with Elvis singing nothing but Christmas carols. Director Steve Binder, however, saw the special as an opportunity to rescue Presley’s career from mediocre movies and soundtrack albums. Elvis was very open to this program change, but his manager kept complaining about the lack of Christmas songs. Even after the concept change, the special was going to be fully scripted and recorded without a live audience. But during rehearsals, the director enjoyed how Elvis would “loosen up” by goofing around and singing with his friends. The director asked Elvis if he would consider doing a live performance portion of the show. At first Elvis was concerned because he hadn’t performed live since 1961, seven years prior. However, after the director agreed to let his friends sit in with him on stage (as well as original band mates Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana) Elvis felt comfortable enough to give it a try. The live performances were filmed in four 1 hour shows. Two of the shows were the sit down “informal” sessions and two of the shows featured Presley standing and playing guitar by himself. These four shows came to be known as the Burbank Sessions and are considered the precursor to the “unplugged” shows that would become popular on MTV many years later.
The live concert shows would be edited together with scripted song and dance performances including a medley of Presley’s gospel hits, a semi-autobiographical number featuring the song Guitar Man and the aforementioned “If I Can Dream” performance. Due to the last minute inclusion of the live performances, many scripted song numbers had to be removed for the Dec 3 broadcast. One deleted number took place in a bordello to the song Let Yourself Go (see picture below).
Another was a performance of the song A Little Less Conversation that was remixed and released as a single in 2002 as well as becoming the theme song to a popular NBC show, Las Vegas. NBC would subsequently air two versions of the Elvis special. One included a performance of Elvis singing Blue Christmas, the only seasonal song the director would approve, and another version that replaced Blue Christmas with a performance of Tiger Man. All of these missing performances were later collected and released on the ’68 Comeback Special 3-disc Deluxe Edition DVD. On this DVD you can watch the special as it originally aired in 1968, or you can watch each of the four 1 hour shows in their entirety as well as many of the rehearsals for the live action segments. To celebrate the release of the ’68 special DVD, several movie theaters had a special 1 hour showing of footage from the DVD. My wife and I found a theater in North Alabama that was showing it and we went. It was pretty awesome. Needless to say, I have this DVD set.
The special would become the highest rated TV special of the year and would succeed in revitalizing Elvis’ failing Billboard chart status. Elvis would go on to do sold out shows in Las Vegas and begin his touring Elvis Presley Show concerts that would win him fans throughout the ’70s until his death in 1977. RCA released the soundtrack for the show in 1968 including most (but not all) of the songs on the album NBC-TV Special.
Different configurations of the soundtrack performances would also be released over the years. Bootleg versions of the entire ’68 Special performances were available for years under the title “The Burbank Sessions”. A definitive CD collection of the Special’s performances has yet to be released. I personally bought Memories: The 68 Comeback Special because it has the best track list and audio mastering.
This is one of my favorite Elvis performances and it’s amazing to think that the special is 40 years old today.
Get a lot more info on the Special as well as pictures, videos and downloads at the official Elvis 68 Special website.