To celebrate the anniversary of Elvis' '68 Special this week, we're teaming with BestClassicBands.com to bring you this in-depth piece on the legendary special. Read an excerpt of their story below.
by Neal Umphred
At 9:00 p.m. on December 3, 1968, the televisions of millions of American homes were tuned to NBC, where they were greeted with this welcoming line: “If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.” After an eight-year hiatus, Elvis Presley was back on TV. He was joined by guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, both of whom had been with Elvis on his historic TV appearances in 1956 and ’57.
Television had changed a lot in those years: Presley was in glorious color for the first time! And he filled much larger screens than the tiny black-and-white sets that had showed a grainy version of him with Frank Sinatra in 1960, the last time he’d sung to a national audience.
And it was only the beginning: For the next 60 minutes, viewers saw and heard some of the rawest, hardest rock and roll music of their lives. And it worked: Elvis was the top-ranked show of the week, beating out the hugely popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The reviews that followed were generous, and the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, would later be given a Peabody Award for this special.
Tell me why can’t my dreams come true
But it was the response of the people that mattered: In the wake of the television broadcast, the single from the show, “If I Can Dream”—a heartfelt appeal for universal brotherhood and acceptance—peaked at #9 on the Cash Box Top 100 survey. It was Presley’s first Top 10 single in three years, selling close to a million copies in the U.S. (It reached #12 in Billboard.)
The soundtrack album, Elvis, reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s LP chart, also the first time that had happened in three years. These two records were hits around the world, the first time that Presley had enjoyed such global success since “Crying in the Chapel” in 1965.
In hindsight, all of this looks almost inevitable: How could such determination, such ambition, such genius not be appreciated on a massive scale? But that was anything but predictable when the show aired that December, for on that late 1968 day, Elvis had fallen from the pinnacle of success. He had made too many movies and the numbers at the box office and for their soundtracks had taken a noticeable hit. Whereas the soundtracks from his seven films from 1957’s Loving You through 1963’s Fun in Acapulco never failed to reach the top 5 in sales, none of the six titles from 1966 through spring 1968 even reached the top 10.
In the 1950s, Elvis had been the personification of rock and roll; it often seemed that he had singlehandedly established the genre as the most popular music in the world. By 1968, though, rock and roll had moved from the British Invasion through folk-rock into psychedelia and progressive rock—and all of that in just the past four years! By 1968, Elvis Presley recognized that he needed a return to relevance.
Singer Presents Elvis
With the special in essentially uncharted territory, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker found a “safe” sponsor: the Singer Sewing Machine Company. While the correct title of the show broadcast on NBC-TV was simply Elvis, because of their backing and their promotion, the show is often referred to as “Singer Presents Elvis.” It is also known as the “NBC-TV Special” and “the ’68 Comeback.”
And it was a comeback: On December 4, 1968, the day after the special, it was suddenly OK, almost cool, to like all things Elvis again.
We’re caught in a trap
This cool period was carried forward by the records Elvis made with producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studio in Memphis in early 1969. “In the Ghetto,” written by Mac Davis, found a white Southern man addressing the problems of black northern inner cities. In the hands of most singers, this song would have sounded contrived, forced, perhaps even pandering. Elvis made it sound like a gentle call-to-arms to the very brothers he had reached out to with his previous single, “If I Can Dream.”
The album was titled From Elvis in Memphis and was a heady mixture of rock, country and something new for Elvis, Southern soul music. This album showed the world that he could make a solid album from first track to last. It cemented his new stature as a potent force in the rock market.
Then came the next single, “Suspicious Minds,” written by Mark James. This was so masterful a record that a single hearing could leave a listener thinking he had just heard the greatest moment in Presley’s career.
And just as important as the music was the response: The records sold millions of copies all over the world. In 1969 and ’70, Presley received more RIAA Gold Record Awards that he had received at any time in his career.
In July of ’69, Elvis returned to live performing on the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas, boosting his visibility and name recognition.
Keep reading this article at BestClassicBands.com.