68 Comeback Special


Elvis Presley in his '68 Comeback Special
Produced by Steve Binder, Gary Hovey
Written by Chris Bearde, Allan Blye
Starring Elvis Presley
Distributed by RCA
Release date(s) December 3, 1968
Running time 76 min.
Language English

 Elvis, starring Elvis Presley, was the title of a 1968 United States television special. It was directed by Steve Binder and produced by Binder and Bones Howe. The executive producer was Bob Finkel, musical director Billy Goldenberg. Sponsored by The Singer Company, it aired on December 3, 1968 on the NBC television network. The special is commonly referred to as Elvis' 68 Comeback Special, because of subsequent developments in Presley's career, but the soundtrack album was released simply as NBC-TV Special.

Presley's informal jamming in front of a small audience in the '68 Comeback Special is regarded as a forerunner of the so-called 'Unplugged' concept, later popularized by MTV.


Original Concept

Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted the show, which was scheduled as a Christmas season broadcast, to be little more than Presley singing Christmas carols. He believed the special could simply be a TV-version of the Christmas radio show Presley had contributed to the year before. Binder argued that the special was an opportunity to re-establish the singer's reputation after years of formula movies and recordings of variable quality. He and Howe hired writers to script a show with specific themes: they envisaged large set designs, dance sequences and big productions of Presley's hits. However, Binder was open to any variations on this that would showcase the singer's talent, and Presley was apparently very happy to go along with this flexible approach.

The special eventually included an extravagant musical sequence featuring Gospel-style numbers, a semi-autobiographical "mini-movie" centered around the song "Guitar Man" and other re-recordings given lavish set designs. Network censors forced the removal of one segment set in a bordello which featured the song "Let Yourself Go". The special ends with Presley appealing for world peace with the song "If I Can Dream."

Studio recordings for these segments were made at Western Recorders in Hollywood, California between June 20 and 23 and featured an orchestra and the The Blossoms as background vocalists: Fanita James, Jean King and Darlene Love. Other musicians included drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Don Randi, guitarist Tommy Tedesco and harmonica player Tommy Morgan.


The Live Segments

It was after rehearsals at Western Recorders that Binder took special note of how Presley and the other musicians would spontaneously unwind by improvising old blues and rock 'n' roll numbers. Binder commented: "...and that's when I really got the idea: Wouldn't it be great if I had a camera in here and they didn't know I was here?"

Presley is said to have been very apprehensive about the idea of performing live. His last live concert had been at the Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on March 25, 1961. Binder offered a lot of support and reassurance to stop the singer from rejecting the idea of any live segments. He realized some songs already re-recorded or scheduled would need to be cut (The special was only an hour long). He quickly arranged for rehearsals to take place to capture the feel of Presley's informal studio jamming, drafting in the surviving members of Presley's original backing band - Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana (bassist Bill Black had passed away in 1965). He also brought in Presley's friends Alan Fortas, Lance LeGault and Charlie Hodge to encourage Presley and make him feel at ease. Two sessions took place, each about two hours in length; the first on June 24 and the second on the 25th. Both took place in the informal surroundings of the dressing room at NBC. They were recorded by Presley's friend Joe Esposito using the singer's own tape recorder. Many songs were tried, including "Danny Boy", "Blue Moon", "That's My Desire" and "I Got A Woman", before the final repertoire was decided for the actual TV recording.

Subsequently, at 6.00pm, June 27, Presley took to the stage for the first time in over seven years, resulting in four one-hour live shows being taped at NBC's Burbank studios. A black-clad Presley sat down and jammed with band mates for two shows, each show having a different audience. There was a one hour break between them (enough time for Presley to shower and have his outfit dry cleaned after performing under the hot studio lights.). In the second two, recorded at 8.00pm, June 29, he remained standing and sang live to a mix of live and pre-recorded backing, again in front of two different audiences. These four sessions are often referred to collectively as "The Burbank Sessions", the name coming from not just the venue, but the titles of two collectible bootleg LPs which feature them. The role of each musician at the two sit-down performances was:

Filmed in the round, only a small portion of these - and the stand-up sets - were included in the televised special. Presley and the others played and sang while interjecting personal stories of his music and early performances. Referring to music and his religious upbringing in a break between songs, Presley says: "Rock and roll is basically gospel (music), or rhythm & blues (is too). It sprang from that, people have been adding to it." He also makes reference to the new groups of the time, like The Byrds and The Beatles, and notes how things have improved and not just changed, like the standard of musicians and sound engineering. Presley is also prompted to speak about a Florida concert at which a judge had forbidden him to move and the police filmed the show.

Presley sings many of the songs he was famous for including: "That's All Right", "Heartbreak Hotel", "One Night", "Love Me" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?". He also reprises Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" on several occasions and includes the less well known songs, "Tryin' To Get To You" and "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again". As each session progresses, he can be observed playing and singing with such gusto that he occasionally feels the urge to rise up and sing off mike, even when he uses the electric guitar with no strap (during a reprise of "One Night").

In both sit-down shows, Presley sits between two of the women sat at the edge of the stage to sing the final song, "Memories". Although this move was Binder's idea, Colonel Parker had originally been concerned that the audiences would contain older, more reserved adults and that this might give the impression that Presley had lost some of his appeal (The only time Presley had 'bombed' at a live gig was in front of a mature audience in Las Vegas in 1956). Parker had therefore arranged that young women should be seen nearest the stage during filming.

The stand-up shows feature Presley performing a similar energetic set by himself, mostly without guitar. He performs on the same small stage (no more than ten feet square) which is closely surrounded by the audience. Musical backing this time comes from an unseen live orchestra and the Blossoms. Presley also sings to a pre-recorded track on a few songs that were intended to be integrated into other parts of the show.



The edited broadcast of December 3 - combining the big, choreographed numbers, lavish sets and some of the informal live sessions - was an enormous success. The show was the highest-rated television special of the year. According to Binder, it was probably the first one-man TV special to appear on commercial American television. Previously, TV specials tended to be packed with guest stars, like Frank Sinatra's Timex Special of 1960, in which Presley himself appeared with other celebrities.

At the beginning of the '68 Special project, a nervous Presley had said to the executive producer Bob Finkel: "I want everyone to know what I can really do." Critics generally agree that the broadcast did show what Elvis Presley really could do - in addition to making profitable, if generally uninspired movies and soundtracks. The '68 Special is widely credited with revitalizing his career: chart statistics for the summer of 1968 suggest that Presley's recording career was becoming all but non-existent. After the special, he began his stint in Las Vegas and toured, achieving a string of record-breaking sell-out performances across America. Chart successes returned, including a U.S. number one in 1969 ("Suspicious Minds") and a U.K. number one ("The Wonder of You", (1970)) - his first since 1965.

The live segments of the '68 Comeback Special in particular gave the audience more than a glimpse of Presley's charismatic and emotionally charged performing style that won him his first fans in the 1950s. This is arguably even more evident in the later uncut versions of the special (see below). His career had been considered by many to be artistically fallow since his return from the Army (1960), the subsequent Beatles invasion and since the new and varied musical directions forged by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.


Additional Information

Two versions of the special were initially aired by NBC. The first included Presley singing "Blue Christmas" – the only seasonal song Binder agreed to use. When the special was rebroadcast the following summer, this was replaced with a performance of "Tiger Man".

In 1984, one of the sit down sessions was released uncut and unedited by Media Home Entertainment, Inc. on a video as Elvis - One Night With You. RCA Video Productions also made a shorter version for television and an album. The original special has also been made available for television and home video - the reissued version restores the censored musical numbers from the "Guitar Man" segment, and features both "Blue Christmas" and "Tiger Man".

In September 2004, RCA issued a deluxe 3-disc DVD release containing all the video footage still in existence, including bloopers and incomplete performances. It features a 24-page color booklet with text written by Greil Marcus.

A number of songs were shortlisted for recording but were rejected. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was cut in favor of "If I Can Dream". Undistinguished songs showcasing his movie career, like "Cotton Candy Land" and "How Would You Like To Be", were axed - as was "U.S. Male". A song that was partially re-recorded but did not make the final show was: "A Little Less Conversation", a track from Presley's then-current film release, Live a Little, Love a Little. In 2002, this version was used as the basis for a popular remixed version of the song, giving Presley his second posthumous no.1 hit in Britain (he has now had a record twenty-one no.1s in the British charts). The re mix reached no.1 in an additional 20 countries, and was added, at the last minute, to the 4X Platinum album "Elvis 30#1 hits".

The show's opening sequence, "Trouble/Guitar Man" was copied almost exactly (down to the same opening song with the same arrangement) in Robbie Williams' 2003 live DVD The Robbie Williams Show. The stage sets in Williams' show are also similar to the ones in Presley's.

Set List from Elvis: NBC-TV Special

Trouble/Guitar Man - Show Opener
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Baby, What You Want Me To Do
Something wrong with my lip. / He's gotta be crazy.
Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up
Can't Help Falling in Love
Jailhouse Rock
Can I borrow your little whatchacallit? / This leather suit is hot
Love Me Tender
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Rock & roll music is ...
Gospel Production Number:
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child / Where Could I go But To The Lord / Up Above My Head / Saved
Baby, What You Want Me To Do
Blue Christmas
One Night
Guitar Man Production Number:
Nothingville / Guitar Man / Let Yourself Go /Guitar Man / Big Boss Man /
It Hurts Me / Guitar Man / Little Egypt / Trouble / Guitar Man
If I Can Dream - Show Closer

Set List from Black Leather Sit-Down Show #1

Elvis takes the stage.
Elvis introduces band-mates.
That's All Right
Heartbreak Hotel
Love Me
Swapping axes. / Are we on television?
Baby. What You Want Me To Do
Touching body with hands. / Rock & roll music is ...
Blue Suede Shoes
Baby. What You Want Me To Do
Something wrong with my lip. / He's gotta be crazy.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Can You Buckle My Belt, Baby?
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
Blue Christmas
Trying To Get To You
One Night - Somebody pulled the plug, man.
Baby. What You Want Me To Do
Man, I just work here. / No strap.
One Night

Set List from Black Leather Sit-Down Show #2

Audience warm-up / Mr. Elvis Presley.
Elvis talks.
Heartbreak Hotel
Baby. What You Want Me To Do
Elvis refers to script. / Introduces band-mates That's All Right
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Baby. What You Want Me To Do
Can't even touch myself. / you gonna get arrested, boy.
Blue Suede Shoes
We don't have a strap? / Lines from MacArthur Park.
One Night
Love Me
Hanky flies about. / The new music. / My style came from ... '
Trying To Get To You
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Girl saves Elvis tissue lint. / Never ceases to amaze me. baby.
Santa Claus Is Back In Town
Blue Christmas
Tiger Man
Another tissue girl. / MacArthur Park lines.
When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again

Soundtrack releases

The first song from the special to be released to the public was "If I Can Dream", which was released as a single by RCA Victor (47-9670) in October 1968. In November 1968, the live performance of "Tiger Man" appeared on the RCA Camden compilation album Elvis Sings Flaming Star (PRS-279), which was first released through Singer Sewing Machine stores and given wide release in April 1969 (CAS 2304).

The NBC-TV Special soundtrack itself was released in November 1968 as well (LPM 4088). As originally issued, it contained most (but not all) of the music from the original broadcast; a new edition with additional tracks was released on CD in 1991.

In March 1969, RCA released "Memories" as a single (47-9730).

Over the following decades, additional performances from the TV Special were released in piecemeal form, particularly in RCA's A Legendary Performer compilation series, as well as in the 1985 box set A Golden Celebration, although bootleg albums featuring unissued material circulated informally for years. In the 1990s and 2000s, RCA issued more-complete soundtrack recordings. In 1998, it issued Memories, a 30th anniversary release that was an expansion of the original NBC-TV Special album. That same year RCA released Tiger Man which consisted of the complete sit-down performances. Finally, in 2006, RCA released Let Yourself Go: The Making of Elvis the Comeback Special, which consisted of outtakes and rehearsal recordings from the special.

As noted above, the version of "A Little Less Conversation" originally recorded for (but not used in) the special was later remixed and became a hit single in 2002. The original recording was released (officially) for the first time in the 1998 Memories CD collection.

On August 5, 2008, Legacy will release a 4-CD compilation of the complete recording sessions for the special. The tracklisting is here:

Disc One:

  1. Medley: Trouble/Guitar Man
  2. Medley: Lawdy, Miss Clawdy/Baby, What You Want Me To Do/Heartbreak Hotel/Hound Dog/All Shook Up/C...
  3. Medley: Where Could I Go But To the Lord/Up Above My Head/Saved
  4. Medley: Blue Christmas/One Night
  5. Memories
  6. Medley: Nothingville/Big Boss Man/Guitar Man/Little Egypt/Trouble/Guitar Man
  7. If I Can Dream
  8. It Hurts Me
  9. Let Yourself Go
  10. Little Less Conversation, A
  11. Memories
  12. If I Can Dream

Disc Two:

  1. Introductions
  2. That's All Right
  3. Heartbreak Hotel
  4. Love Me
  5. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  6. Blue Suede Shoes
  7. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  8. Lawdy Miss Clawdy
  9. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
  10. When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
  11. Blue Christmas
  12. Trying To Get To You
  13. One Night
  14. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  15. One Night
  16. Memories
  17. Heartbreak Hotel
  18. Hound Dog
  19. All Shook Up
  20. Can't Help Falling In Love
  21. Jailhouse Rock
  22. Don't Be Cruel
  23. Blue Suede Shoes
  24. Love Me Tender
  25. Trouble
  26. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  27. If I Can Dream

Disc Three:

  1. Heartbreak Hotel
  2. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  3. Introductions
  4. That's All Right
  5. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
  6. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  7. Blue Suede Shoes
  8. One Night
  9. Love Me
  10. Trying To Get To You
  11. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
  12. Santa Claus is Back In Town
  13. Blue Christmas
  14. Tiger Man
  15. When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
  16. Memories
  17. Heartbreak Hotel
  18. Hound Dog
  19. All Shook Up
  20. Can't Help Falling In Love
  21. Jailhouse Rock
  22. Don't Be Cruel
  23. Blue Suede Shoes
  24. Love Me Tender
  25. Medley: Trouble/Guitar Man
  26. Medley: Trouble/Guitar Man
  27. If I Can Dream

Disc Four:

  1. I Got a Woman
  2. Medley: Blue Moon/Young Love/Oh, Happy Day
  3. When It Rains It Really Pours
  4. Blue Christmas
  5. Medley: Are You Lonesome Tonight?/That's My Desire
  6. That's When Your Heartaches Begin
  7. Peter Gunn Theme
  8. Love Me
  9. When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
  10. Medley: Blue Christmas/Santa Claus is Back In Town
  11. Danny Boy
  12. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  13. Love Me
  14. Tiger Man
  15. Santa Claus is Back In Town
  16. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
  17. One Night
  18. Blue Christmas
  19. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
  20. When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again
  21. Blue Moon of Kentucky 

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