Elvis blazes through an unforgettable Comeback Special
This month marks the 45th anniversary of the first airing of Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special on NBC. Mixing lavish choreographed production numbers with an often stunning in-the-round live segment, the show was the year’s highest rated television special and was unique in featuring its star sans any support from special guests. The focus was totally on Elvis, who was widely regarded as culturally irrelevant in the wake of the Beatles’ arrival and the emergence in the rock world of serious singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, while the man crowned the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was languishing in formulaic, unchallenging movies and confining his recording activities to the unremarkable songs penned for those movies. This was not exactly fair to Elvis, who had made two fine movies during the decade, Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Double Trouble (1967), both of which boasted excellent soundtracks (“Viva Las Vegas” and “Double Trouble” were written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, one of his favorite songwriting teams, who also contributed to Viva Las Vegas a touching blues-tinged ballad that brought out the best in Elvis’s interpretive artistry, “I Need Somebody to Lean On”). However, remarkable studio recordings continued to show up buried on the soundtracks in order to flesh them out to a dozen tunes for album release—the Double Trouble soundtrack, for example, included a steamy saloon song, “City by Night” (from the team of Bill Giant-Bernie Baum-Florence Kaye, whose “Devil in Disguise” was one of Elvis’s biggest hit singles), that inspired a deeply textured, sophisticated reading from Elvis quite unlike anything he had delivered before; and two beautiful non-soundtrack love songs, “Never Ending” (from Buddy Kaye and Phil Springer) and “What Now, What Next, Where To” (from Hal Blair and the exceptional Don Robertson)—the former a heartfelt, straight-ahead vow of commitment, the latter a piercing heartbreaker sung from the vantagepoint of a man shattered following a breakup and pleading for divine guidance “to tell me what to do.” The Double Trouble soundtrack was doomed to obscurity for several reasons (the film wasn’t taken seriously, and more attention was paid to Elvis being reduced to singing “Old MacDonald”—he had actually stormed out of the recording session in frustration over having to do the number—than to the quality cuts), not least of which was it being released on the same day as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Double, even triple, trouble greeted this one.
Elvis sings ‘Blue Christmas’ in one of the live in-the-round segments on his ’68 Comeback Special, aired on December 3, 1968. When the Special was rebroadcast the following summer, a ferocious performance of ‘Tiger Man’ supplanted the seasonal classic.
In the round, Elvis performs ‘Tiger Man’ and, from his second RCA album, Elvis, ‘When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again’ (written by Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan in 1940 and first recorded by the duo a year later) before he moves to the edge of the stage for the debut performance of his beautiful ‘Memories’
Elvis wasn’t unaware of where he stood, or to where he had fallen, in the cultural pantheon when the TV special was proposed. Early on in discussions about its format he told executive producer Bob Finkel, “I want everyone to know what I can really do.” During rehearsals at Western Recorders, producer-director Steve Binder took note of Elvis’s habit of unwinding by sitting around and jamming with his musicians on anything that came to mind—blues, gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, pop—his musical vocabulary was staggering and his ability to sing it all credibly astonishing. It was a eureka moment for Binder, who pitched the idea to Elvis of him doing a seemingly spontaneous in-the-round live segment comprised of the big hits that had defined his career. Apprehensive at first—it had been seven years, after all, since his last live appearance—Elvis eventually bought into it and taped four one-hour live segments at NBC’s Burbank studios. His manager, Col. Tom Parker, made sure the circular stage was ringed by enthusiastic young women, lest anyone dare think Elvis had lost his sex appeal. Backed by his stalwart guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana (whose “kit” in this instance was a guitar case), who had been with him almost from the start of his career, along with his friends Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault (whose ill-fated solo career once found him singing “It’s not my fault/my name’s Lance LeGault”), Elvis delivered a powerful, emotionally riveting performance that was fully appreciated by critics at the time and even more so in 1984 when all of the live sessions were released uncut and unedited on video and record as Elvis—One Night With You (a 2004 three-disc DVD of the TV special includes every bit of video footage extant at the time, even incomplete performances and foul-ups).
Two versions of the TV special were aired: the original Dec. 3, 1968 show included the seasonal classic “Blue Christmas”; when the special was rebroadcast in the summer of ’69, “Blue Christmas” was supplanted by a ferocious performance of “Tiger Man,” as featured here.