"Elvis was hardly ever nervous – but he was then," drummer D.J. Fontana tells Rolling Stone, reflecting on the 1968 television special that relaunched Presley's career. "We played a couple of songs, and it got loose after a while, and it turned out fine. He just had been out of the public eye for a long time."
If Presley was nervous at all, though, it didn't show. When he appeared onscreen, it was with a piercing stare and a curled lip. He was dressed head-to-toe in black leather, and best of all, his voice sounded powerful: He wailed "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and other hits like it was 1956. The hour-long broadcast, then dubbed Elvis and now known as the "'68 Comeback Special," proved that the then–33-year-old still had swagger. For years, he'd been exiled in Hollywood – making movies instead of touring, as the Beatles blew up and rock got bigger than ever – so the show was a long-overdue return to pure performing for the singer. It was a daring move, and it almost didn't happen.
When Presley's manager, the notoriously iron-willed Colonel Tom Parker, initially met with NBC in May 1968, he asked them to produce a special of Presley singing Christmas songs. It was a novel idea, since most TV specials then featured multiple artists and this one would focus solely on Presley, but it wasn't until onetime Hullabaloo director Steve Binder and his producer foil Bones Howe took creative control and told Presley it could be an opportunity to do what Binder called "something really important" – ditching the Christmas angle and instead re-announcing himself as a performer – that Presley was sold.
Binder and Howe decided the special should tell the story of Presley's life in music through the lyrics he sang, beginning with the chucka-chucka rhythms of Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man" (later paired with "Trouble") and showing how singing had delivered a sometime truck driver to stardom. They wanted it to end with Elvis singing a current hit, possibly "MacArthur Park," though Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker was still hoping for it to end with a Christmas song. It was an idea that they'd develop until almost the last minute. Meanwhile, the singer went on vacation and slimmed down.
When he'd returned, the creators had decided to include an "informal segment" – an off-the-cuff performance with a little scripted conversation. That, too, evolved as they watched Presley riff with the other musicians during rehearsals. "Elvis loved to improvise and talk about old times and play the songs and keep repeating them – he would get excited just by repetition," song arranger Billy Goldenberg said in Peter Guralnick's book Careless Love. "So that the intensity of the song seemed to grow as he kept playing it, almost to a climax."
At Presley's request, Binder flew in Presley's original sidemen – Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore – to make him feel more comfortable for the segment, and he suggested that Presley could talk about his infamous censored Ed Sullivan Show performance and other hijinks, such as a time in Florida when he had to stand still and move only his pinky to avoid an arrest for being too sexual in public. The director felt this would give the singer more edge.
They moved into the NBC studio on June 17th, rehearsing "Guitar Man," and they began recording the choreographed "story" section of the special three days later with a strong selection of L.A. sidemen, including guitarist Mike Deasy and drummer Hal Blaine. It was also then that Binder decided they needed another song to end the show, leading him to beseech vocal arranger Earl Brown to write what would become "If I Can Dream" – a vision of unity and racial harmony – overnight as a replacement for Parker's Christmas song.
Presley loved it. When he recorded the song, he did so in the dark. "He was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song," Binder told Guralnick. "And when he got done, he came in the control room, and we played it maybe 15 times. He just loved it so much."
By and large, though, Deasy remembers Presley as lighthearted during the recording sessions. "My wife was at the rehearsal, and Elvis came in and walked up behind her," he says. "I said, 'Kathie, I want you to meet Elvis.' And she turns around and elbows him right in the chest, and of course, he fell back and acted like it really hurt. We all got a good laugh. That's how cool he was."
Presley goofed around a lot at the rehearsals, too. He'd push recordings to just a few minutes before midnight – driving the music-union representatives crazy – only to finish perfectly on time. And when the band recorded "Guitar Man," he came out of the vocal booth to dance to the music. "He was in such good shape," Deasy says. "He was into karate, and he was physically very cool. He's taller than you thought, but he was out there doing this dance while we were playing and it was a super connection. It became bigger than the music itself."
Presley's easygoing manner didn't stop his entourage from losing their cool trying to impress him, though. "From the moment he walked in the studio, it was almost like all the guys there were bowing down to him, but he didn't care whatsoever," Blaine recalls. "Once in a while, he'd say something like, 'I'm a little bit thirsty,' and 15 guys would run at him with Coke bottles. And because he was studying karate, all those guys were doing the same thing. Elvis would come into the studio and one guy would leap out at him, like he was going to kill him, and Elvis would go into his stance. It was really hysterical.
"The demagoguery was just unbelievable, but Elvis was truly a gentleman and a sweetheart of a guy," he continues. "He just acted the way a country boy would act."
At a press conference a few days before the taping, Presley was humble. "We figured it was about time," he said of why he wanted to do the special. "Besides, I figured I'd better do it before I got too old."
On June 27th, Presley spent the early part of the day rehearsing a planned gospel medley and shooting the show's amusement-park production number. Parker had been in charge of distributing the tickets for the informal "sit-down" segment, but he'd failed to deliver (reportedly giving most of them to an NBC security guard). So Binder and his team ran to a Bob's Big Boy and begged people to come watch Presley. After the singer got over initial stage fright, they began at 6 p.m.
Along with Moore and Fontana, guitarist Charlie Hodge and percussionists Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault joined Presley in what looked like an open boxing ring to play a loose, carefree set for a couple hundred fans. "This is supposed to be the informal section of the show, where we faint or do whatever we want to do, especially me," Presley said jokingly. "I first started out in 1912." And then they played fun, boyish versions of "That's All Right," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me" and a dozen other classics (including "Blue Christmas" for the Colonel), including a rendition of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" on which Presley howled. In the middle of "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," Presley stopped the music to show off that his lip could still twitch the way it used to. And after announcing that "One Night" would be his last song, he quelled the boos in the audience by slyly saying, "Man, I just work here!" with a twinkle in his eye. He also showed his tender side, singing the ballad "Memories" surrounded by two young women.
During the set, Fontana beat his drumsticks against a guitar case rather than a drum kit. "We'd done that from time to time," he recalls. "We didn't really rehearse. We'd just go out there and wing it and do the best we could. That's all me and Scotty and Elvis really needed. We picked the songs right off the top of the head. It was just about how we did it in the early days."
At one point, Presley proclaimed that "rock & roll music is basically gospel or rhythm and blues," which, in the final broadcast, segued to a medley of gospel songs he especially enjoyed. "Elvis knew the old, old hymns of the church," recalls Darlene Love, who sang backup on the NBC special with the Blossoms. "Whenever we had a break, he would go, 'Darlene! Do you know this one?' He'd go get his guitar, and I'd say, 'Yeah. Come on, let's sing it,' and we'd go off in the corner to sing it."
The gospel sequence, filmed the day after the sit-down set along with the special's infamous "bordello" sequence that was cut from the initial broadcast for time, also fulfilled another mission for Binder: "I wanted to let the world know that here was a guy who was not prejudiced, who was raised in the heart of prejudice, but who was really above all that," the director told Guralnick.
"The choir was originally all white," Love recalls. "So they took the Blossoms with three black girls and put them in with the mix to make it sound more gospel. We thought that was going to be the end of it, but at the sessions, Elvis and the Blossoms got to talking – me mainly, because I had a big gospel background. Eventually he decided the Blossoms should be in the 1968 special."
Love remembers Presley as being "a little shy, very introverted" during the rehearsals. "He was very nervous because he hadn't performed in years," says the singer, who was so excited about working with Presley that she snuck into the audience to watch during the tapings. "When you talked gospel with him, though, he was just like a friend sitting down talking. But he was very nervous because he had become a movie star and hoped the performance would be all right. He was very concerned about, 'How do I look? Do I look all right?' He was just like a normal person, but he was Elvis Presley. So how could you be normal?"
Two days after the sit-down set, they did filmed the "stand-up show," in which a particularly sweaty Presley sang modernized versions of his hits for shrieking fans with the band Binder put together with Blaine and Deasy. He'd clearly gotten over his nerves by this point, as he joked with the audience – "You have made my life a wreck, nah incomplete," he sang with a laugh during "Love Me Tender." Over the course of two sets, Presley performed "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," "Trouble" and "Guitar Man," and he lip-synced "If I Can Dream" in front of now-iconic red lettering that spelled out "E-L-V-I-S" – a look later mimicked in videos by the bands Danzig and Texas and parodied on The Simpsons. The set even exists as a cookie jar, a copy of which Blaine keeps in his trophy case. (Producer Bob Finkel later claimed to have had the lighted letters set up with a generator on Parker's front lawn.)
Although Presley began work on his next movie, a Western called Charro, a week after shooting, the special transformed his career. When it aired on December 3rd, it was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the number-one show of the season. Moreover, the show's soundtrack album made it into the Top 10 and was later certified platinum, and the single, "If I Can Dream," made it up to Number 12 and went gold; both were his highest-charting releases since 1965.
"It was a lot for him," recalls Love, who would work with Presley later on the 1969 film Change of Habit. "He'd say, 'How can this be a comeback, when you think about it. Come back? I'm here. I haven't been anywhere.'"
By July 1969, though, he kickstarted the third act of his career with a residency at Las Vegas' International Hotel. He'd release a succession of hits, including "Suspicious Minds" and "The Wonder of You" in the years that followed. Despite the success, his personal life got the better of him. In the Seventies, he divorced his wife, put on weight and began using tranquilizers, barbiturates and amphetamines. He died of heart disease less than nine years after the comeback special aired. He was 42 . Nevertheless, when Presley's fans, friends and collaborators think of him now, it's the indelible image of the King, decked out in black leather in 1968, ruling his kingdom like the self-proclaimed tiger man he was.
"It just fired him up to be in front of people again," Deasy says of the comeback special. "He had a charisma where he and the audience became one thing. Not just the little girls, but also women and everybody got caught up in it."
"Everybody there was on cloud nine," Blaine remembers. "It was an amazing time, because the electricity just floated through the air."
Watch below: Looking back on the rock n' roll icon, 40 years after his death.