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Elvis Presley 1968 Comeback Special by Jeff Schrembs (part 2 of 2)

by Jeffrey Schrembs
(Washington DC area)

Elvis lost weight, vocally challenged himself, and prepared for this "live intimate live Concert" mentally, physically, and vocally. To add to Elvis' incredible physical condition (he was down to 148 pounds which was about 35 pounds lighter than he normally was) his designer (i.e. Bill Blew who would design costumes for Elvis up until the day Elvis died) took the "blue jean jacket/jean look" and made a custom made black leather outfit for Elvis to open the show with.

Elvis looked WONDERFUL with darkened black hair, sideburns, a slight tan, blinding white teeth, and his vocal/stylist/entertaining abilities were...phenomenal. He was a moving, singing, emotional, smart, sexy, 6 foot star dressed in black leather and he OWNED that stage ` his guitar ` and his vocal cords and sang/performed with all his heart. The result was that Elvis `connected` with his audience and they screamed, and demanded more, having been away from his live concerts for so long.

For the first time in years Elvis was EXCITED to perform and reviewed a variety of songs not only from his past hits but from more "current" numbers. During the rehearsals it was clear, after each day, that Elvis was "loosening up" and his magnetism was "visible" and it electrified the Producer and everyone who listened/saw it firsthand.

A lot of the credit for Elvis' great mood, and optimism, was that Bob Finkel had hired (in mid May of 1968) Steve Binder (who was only 23 years old) to produce the music. It was agreed that Binders' partner, Bones Howe, who had previously worked with Elvis in the studio and believed that Elvis and Steve Binder would "hit it off", would come as a "package production" deal.

Interestingly, Steve Binder had been a student at the University of California before falling "head over heels" into the music business. Binders' had directed the TV music series entitled "Hullabaloo which was a "must watch" for the youth of the late 1960's (i.e. think about the current MTV TRL series but with "live acts" and everyone dancing and you get the picture).
Binder had become "Los Angles" hottest producer after he produced the Petula Clark special.

During the last (2) two weeks of May 1968 Elvis took Priscilla, baby Lisa Marie, and many of his friends on vacation to Hawaii. Elvis wanted/needed to be relaxed, tanned, rested, and to share some quality "family time" before the actual taping of the "special".

The musical writers assigned to the "special" were Chris Beard (England born yet grew up in Australia) and Allan Blye. They wrote a script in which the trials of a young man was leaving home and searching for happiness along with a career. They wanted to show the obstacles the young man endured along with his eventual (successful) return home. They chose the song "Guitar Man" as the "theme" that linked the scenes together. The "special" was to end with Elvis singing a Christmas song (Colonel Parker had "agreed" that it would end that way) to end the "special".

On June 3, 1968, Elvis began working with Binder and Howe at their offices. During one of the "get to know conversations" Elvis had shared how "saddened" he was by the shooting of Robert Kennedy (which had taken place on June 6, 1968). Elvis had also commented on the struggles of African Americans and the movements/assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King. Steve Binder had taken notes that afterward went to songwriter Earl Brown, who was writing song arrangements for the "special", and asked him for a "modern inspirational closing song". This song would become, and much loved, the incredible (and emotionally moving) song entitled "If I Can Dream" (see video above).

Elvis was handed the words to `If I Can Dream` the night before the final taping. Earl Brown had recorded/sang his somber version of the song and had given Elvis the tape to listen to. The first three times Elvis listened to the song he had to stop it, and get some tissues, for he was crying. Elvis understood that this song captured the essence of Robert Kennedy, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr., Americans, and the hopes of parents/children around the World. Elvis practiced the song for a few hours and then went to bed. When you watch Elvis sing `If I Can Dream` you instantly understand that Elvis is singing it incredibly. Once you understand that Elvis sang this, on one take, after playing around with it a few hours earlier it shows part of the genius that was`Elvis Aron Presley.

The Director was Eugene "Gene" McAvoy and he was tasked with designing the sets that would showcase Elvis, and frame his shots visually, and adhere to the story line. The opening scene of Elvis with the 89 "guitar men" (who were in silhouette and looked like shadows) captured Elvis'...completely. From that shot until Elvis appearing in his white suit standing in front of "red lights" spelling out "ELVIS" was nothing short of...inspirational and genius.

The makeup artist, and one of the choreographers, was Claude Thompson. The other choreographer was Jaime Rogers. Billy Goldenberg was the musical director and worked with Elvis on "Change of Habit".

On June 17th Elvis "officially" began rehearsals and (literally) moved into his NBC dressing room on the NBC lot (which included Elvis sleeping there). Elvis loved to just "jam", with Charlie Hodge and his "Memphis Mafia", and did so while living at the NBC lot. During one of the jam sessions Steve Binder passed by and became "enamored" with Elvis' freewheeling style and comfort level and his vocal ranges. It was then that Steve Binder decided to include the "jam session" as part of the "special" (which included Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, Charlie Hodge, and (2) two other friends of Elvis Alan Fortas and Lance LeGualt).

On June 20th the recording sessions began at Western Recorders. It was imperative that Elvis was showcased with musicians who were "among the best in the World". Not only were the "best of the best" musicians chosen but many were a part of (legendary music producer/genius) Phil Specters' infamous "wrecking crew" that created that "wall of sound" creating "hit after hit" during the 1960's.

Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy and Al Casey were picked for guitars (note: Elvis opened up the "special" using Al Casey's beautiful red Hagsrom guitar after Bones Howe had spotted it in Casey's instrument trunk and thought that the bright red guitar with its gold hardware would be perfect. As a "footnote" Hagstrom's were made in Alvadalen, Sweden solely between 1958 and 1983 and were known for great quality).

On bass was Charles Berghofer and Larry Knechtal (who also played the keyboards) on piano was Don Randi, The "sideman" was Hal Blaine who played drums. John Cyr and Elliot Franks provided percussion. Frank DeVito played bongos. Tommy Morgan was on the harmonica.

The "Blossoms" provided the backup vocals (note: the Blossoms were Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King) but there were other "unnamed" vocalists as well. The Orchestra Conductor was Billy Goldenberg who conducted an orchestra of strings and horns, all of which added to the final product.

On June 26th. there was an on-set birthday party for Col. Tom Parker. During the birthday celebration the Colonel was given an autographed portrait of Executive Producer Bob Finkel dressed as Napoleon (note: this portrait is still a part of the Colonel's collection in the Graceland Archives). Elvis also sang for the Colonel's pleasure a parody of It Hurts Me written for the occasion by Chris Beard and Allan Blye. The new version of the song went: "It hurts me to see the budget climb up to the sky. It hurts me when Finkel gives me trouble, when I see all my money go just for one g---damned ol' TV show. It hurts me the way that Finkel spends my dough. The whole town is talkin' they're callin' me a fool for listenin' to Binder's same ol' lies. Finkel calls me, says I've got no choice then hangs up the phone in that damned Rolls Royce. It hurts me when my tears start to flow, they promised me sure if I would give in that I would-that I would never go wrong, but tell me the truth is it too much to ask for one lousy tired ol' Christmas song...?"

By June 27th, rehearsals were winding down and the taping of the production numbers had begun. Also that evening there were two sit-down jam session shows taped. On June 29th they shot the two stand-up shows. On Sunday, June 30th, Elvis completed taping the If I Can Dream finale. Physically and emotionally spent, Elvis then left for a week's rest in Palm Springs.

On September 11, 1968 'Variety' announced that the bordello scene had been cut from the TV special, citing it had been passed by the NBC censors but the sponsor Singer had requested that it be removed.

The Elvis special aired on December 3rd. at 9:00 EST and was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the number one show for the season and giving NBC its biggest ratings victory of the year. It received, from every corner of America, rave reviews from the critics. Elvis was BACK, ON TOP, and RELEVANT! Rock and Roll, and Elvis Presley, would never be the same.

Elvis, who was nervously watching the show along with Priscilla, received "countless" telephone calls immediately after the show had ended congratulating him for performing a "timeless classic" and "rocking out". Elvis Aron Presley was back and the fans LOVED HIM as they had since his first hit over a decade before (i.e. that`s All Right Little Mama").

As a family (Elvis, Priscilla, Lisa Marie) they had pulled off the greatest `Entertainer Comeback` in history and they did it in only 7 months. The mood at Graceland pulsated with happiness, opportunity, love, and possibilities.

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