’68 at 50: Elvis’ Iconic Special Turns 50

In 50 minutes – from “Trouble” to “If I Can Dream” – Elvis Presley reaffirmed his title as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Elvis’ iconic, game-changing special debuted on NBC 50 years ago, on December 3, 1968 at 9:00 pm ET. It was immediately a smashing success, garnering about 42% of the viewing audience, and 50 years later, it’s still one of Elvis’ most defining moments in a career full of iconic performances, movies and music.

See Elvis' "If I Can Dream" suit at Graceland.

See Elvis’ “If I Can Dream” suit at Graceland.

Elvis spent much of the 1960s making movies, and he was growing weary of it. He wanted to return to his music career, so in 1967, his manager, Col. Tom Parker, began negotiations to produce a television special with NBC. The show would mark Elvis’ first television appearance and live performances in more than eight years. In 1968, Elvis was 33. He and Priscilla had married in 1967, and they became parents in February 1968 when Lisa Marie was born.

The special, now known as the ’68 Special, was named simply “Elvis,” and it was now time to find the perfect creative team to create the special.

Bob Finkel, who had produced the successful “Andy Williams Show” (for which he had won Emmy Awards), signed on to be the special’s executive producer. Col. Parker wanted the special to have a Christmas theme, as it was airing in December, but Finkel talked Parker out of that idea. Instead, Finkel and other executives wanted to celebrate Elvis’ natural charisma and talent, and to tell a story loosely based on Elvis’ life. The Singer Company, known for its sewing machines, became the special’s only sponsor, and Singer executive Alfred D. Scipio liked the semi-documentary feel of the special, which would showcase Elvis as an innovator in music. The concept, he felt, complemented Singer products.

The Singer Corporation was the sole sponsor for the '68 Special. The corporation has been in existence since 1851.

The Singer Corporation was the sole sponsor for the ’68 Special. The corporation has been in existence since 1851.

Steve Binder, then 36, was hired as the special’s director. He had planned to go into medicine, but after meeting with members of the music industry, he turned his focus to music and directing musical productions. He had a natural talent for it and he directed many successful projects, like the TV shows “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig.” He also directed the 1965 documentary “TAMI Show,” which featured artists such as The Beach Boys, The Supremes, James Brown, Lesley Gore, The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry. Elvis had enjoyed that production, and, after Binder produced a new Petula Clark special, his reputation was on the rise as a hot new young producer. A Binder-Presley partnership made perfect sense.

Elvis and Steve Binder share a laugh on set.

Elvis and Steve Binder share a laugh on set.

 

Eighty-nine men starred as Elvis look-alikes in the '68 Special. Here the guys rehearse for the show.

Eighty-nine men starred as Elvis look-alikes in the ’68 Special. Here the guys rehearse for the show.

Another important member of the creative team was Dayton “Bones” Howe, the show’s musical producer. Elvis and Bones had worked together previously at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles.

Allan Blye and Chris Bearde wrote the special, telling the story of a young man who left home to find a career, faced several obstacles along the way, and returned home. They decided “Guitar Man” served as the perfect theme song to link scenes. Allan Blye had written for many shows and won two Emmy Awards for his work on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Van Dyke and Company.” Chris Bearde won an Emmy Award for his work on “Laugh In,” and he produced shows such as “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” and “The Gong Show.”

For the gospel segment, Elvis was joined by The Blossoms.

For the gospel segment, Elvis was joined by The Blossoms.

Claude Thompson pulled double duty for the ’68 Special – he was both choreographer and make-up artist. His make-up artistry can be seen in “Around the World in Eighty Days” and “Little House on the Prairie,” while he choreographed movies like “The Color Purple” and the 1976 version of “King Kong.”

Elvis sang so many classic hits in the ’68 Special, from his early hits like “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up” to soundtrack favorites like “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Composers Billy Strange and Mac Davis worked with Elvis for the movie “Live a Little, Love a Little” (you have them to thank for “A Little Less Conversation”), and they worked on songs for the special, too. “Memories” and “Nothingville” are two of their compositions used in the special. A Christmas tune was added to the set list, too, to appease the Colonel.

"Guitar Man" serves as the theme throughout the '68 Special.

“Guitar Man” serves as the theme throughout the ’68 Special.

Billy Goldenberg served as the show’s musical director, and he’s worked on more than 160 shows, specials and mini-series. He also worked with Elvis on “Change of Habit,” the king’s final feature film.

Elvis began working on the special in June 1968. The June 6 assassination of Robert Kennedy – followed so soon after the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – affected Elvis deeply, something he spoke with Howe and Binder about. Those conversations inspired the creation of “If I Can Dream,” the special’s closing segment. Learn more about “If I Can Dream.”

The red guitar Elvis uses in the opening number belonged to guitarist Al Casey. Bones Howe saw the guitar and thought the red guitar with gold hardware would look great on screen.

The red guitar Elvis uses in the opening number belonged to guitarist Al Casey. Bones Howe saw the guitar and thought the red guitar with gold hardware would look great on screen.

On June 11, Elvis met costume designer Bill Belew, who created all the iconic looks for the special. Belew designed costumes and stagewear for theatrical productions like ballets and operas, and he’d previously worked with Binder on the Petula Clark special. Belew and Elvis got along famously – so much so that Belew continued to design for Elvis for the rest of his life. Learn more about Elvis and Bill Belew.

Rehearsals began on June 17, and Elvis threw himself into making the special as, well, special as possible. He even moved into his NBC dressing room. One evening, Binder found Elvis and his pals jamming in his dressing room – singing old favorites, laughing and talking. This jam session inspired the sit-down shows featured in the ’68 Special. Joining Elvis on stage were his original band members, DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore, plus friends Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault. These ultra-cool, laid-back sessions were the forerunner to MTV’s successful show, “MTV Unplugged.”

Elvis loved all of Bill Belew's designs for the show - but he wasn't crazy about the gold suit, meant to symbolize success and to pay homage to Elvis' 1957 gold suit. Rather than wear the full gold suit, Elvis compromised with Belew and wore the suit jacket with black pants.

Elvis loved all of Bill Belew’s designs for the show – but he wasn’t in love with the gold suit, meant to symbolize success and to pay homage to Elvis’ 1957 gold suit. Rather than wear the full gold suit on the show, Elvis compromised with Belew and wore the suit jacket with black pants.

Elvis began recording sessions for the special on June 20 at Western Recorders. Many of the musicians used in these sessions were a part of the famous Wrecking Crew group of session players who played on countless hits.

Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy and Al Casey were on guitar, and it was actually Al’s guitar that Elvis used in the ’68 Special opening scenes. Charles Berghofer played bass as did Larry Knechtal, who also played the keyboards. Don Randi was on piano. Hal Blaine, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, played the drums. John Cyr and Elliot Franks provided percussion. Frank DeVito played bongos. Tommy Morgan was on the harmonica.

The Blossoms, made up of Darlene Love, Jean King and Fanita James, were the backup vocalists. Billy Goldenberg conducted the orchestra.

Many fans love the sit down jam session segments of the '68 Special.

Many fans love the sit down jam session segments of the ’68 Special.

Filming began on June 27 and wrapped on June 30. “If I Can Dream” was the last piece filmed for the show. Physically and emotionally drained, Elvis left for vacation in Palm Springs.

While sections of the show were cut for time – and the bordello scene was cut at Singer’s request – fans and critics were thrilled with the 50-minute special. It was the most-watched show of the season, and it reinvigorated Elvis’ career – in fact, the next year, he launched his famous Vegas residency and returned to touring.

Elvis followed up the '68 Special with another successful television special: "Aloha from Hawaii."

Elvis followed up the ’68 Special with another successful television special: “Aloha from Hawaii.”

Love the ’68 Special? If you do (and who doesn’t?), you must own a new collection: “Elvis Presley – ’68 Comeback Special (50th Anniversary Edition)” is the definitive chronicle of the special. For the first time ever, all previously-released audio and newly-restored video from the taping of the special will be available in one package – including unused performances and studio outtakes that spotlight the real Elvis. The package contains an entire disc showcasing the legendary sessions for the special recorded with Elvis and the Wrecking Crew.

Another new ’68 Special collection is the 2LP vinyl presentation of “The King In The Ring.” Originally released on vinyl for the first time earlier this year in a limited edition run for Record Store Day, this 2LP set showcases the standout, intimate “sit down” sets from the ’68 special.

Order both of these sets now at Shop Graceland.

The '68 Special was filmed during June 27-30, 1968.

The ’68 Special was filmed on June 27-30, 1968.

Graceland has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ’68 Special all year! It kicked off with Elvis’ ’68 Special-themed birthday cake during the Elvis Birthday Celebration in January and a number of special events during Elvis Week. Director Steve Binder, writer Allan Blye, musical director Billy Goldenberg, singer Darlene Love and belly dancer Tanya Lemani were all special guests who shared their memories of the show and of Elvis. Check out moments from their interviews, plus the incredible ’68 Special screening, in this Elvis Week recap.

We’ll continue celebrating the ’68 Special this month. Stay tuned for more ’68 Special fun on the blog and on Graceland.com.

In the meantime, continue your ’68 Special celebrations here at Graceland! There’s an entire section dedicated to the special in Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum, which features Elvis’ stagewear, props from the sets and more. Plan your visit now!


3 Comments

  1. Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    I was 17 years old, a senior in a private military academy with 500 cadets. On the night of December 3, 1968, only nine of us dared to stay after the lights went down to see Elvis. The black and white TV we had was tiny, and we set the volume very low, so that we would not get caught but when that face appeared, it lit half the entire barracks through the double ceiling above us all. Some approached our room and joined us, but little did we know, 15 of us at the most, that 50 millon americans were then seeing it, most of them in color, and with the volume way up. When I finally saw it, in color, I realized that Presley was color blind, in many ways, as it didnt matter whether he was shot in black and white or in color. At his peak, he simply delivered, either way and that magic deliverance of his shall remain, 50 years after…

  2. Haeseung Yi

    A Very Happy ’68 Special’s 50th Anniversary!! Fifty years ago, December 3th was very unforgettable historic day. The Comeback Special of Elvis,the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was so amazing!! His comeback performance was timeless and perfect. We’ll never forget his comeback of the day forever. I have to say this, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis!! your comeback has been giving us wonderful joy in the world beyond generations and nations. There was no other amazing comeback special like it. There is no other amazing comeback special like it. There will be no other amazing comeback special like it forever. Thank you to Elvis,the king of Rock’n’Roll and all those who involved in the ’68 Comeback Special. I love you always and forever, wonderful Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

  3. stephen stathis

    I was 20 years old when the show aired: sat in front of the TV and was blown away. I was a fan since 1956 at age 8 and to see him come back was thrilling. When EP was on no one could touch him. His talent was greater than who he was as a person—a talent greater than the down-to-earth man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *