There was quite a bit more than just 12 years and a few extra pounds separating the Elvis Presley of 1968 from the Elvis that set the world on fire in 1956. With a nearly decade-long string of forgettable movies and inconsistent recordings behind him, Elvis had drifted so far from his glorious, youthful incarnation that he’d turned himself into a historical artifact without any help from the Beatles, Bob Dylan or the Stones. And then something amazing happened: A television special for NBC that Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker envisioned as an Andy Williams-like sequence of Christmas carol performances instead became a thrilling turning point in Elvis’s legendary career. Elvis began taping his legendary “Comeback Special” on this day in 1968.
Much of the credit for the Comeback Special goes to the young director NBC turned to on the project. Only 26 years old but with a strong background in televised music, Steve Binder had the skills and creativity to put together a more interesting program than the one originally planned, but he’d also had the youthful confidence to tell Elvis that a successful show was an absolute necessity if he wanted to regain his relevance. “Basically, I told him I thought his career was in the toilet,” Binder recalled in an interview almost four decades later. From the beginning, Elvis embraced almost every suggestion Binder made, including what would turn out to be the best one, which came after Binder watched Elvis jamming with his friends and fellow musicians in his dressing room one night after rehearsals. “Wait a minute, this is history,” Binder recalls thinking. “I want to film this.” Binder sold Elvis on the idea that would become the most memorable segment of the show: an informal, “unplugged” session before a live audience.
Elvis went to Hawaii with his wife, Priscilla, and their infant daughter, Lisa Marie, in the weeks leading up to the taping, and when he returned, he was tanned, rested and thinner than he’d been at any time since leaving the Army. “He was totally keyed up now, on edge in a way he had rarely been since abandoning live performing a decade before,” writes Peter Guralnick in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the second volume of his Elvis biography. “His professionalism continued to be noted by the entire crew…but there was something else now, too. For the first time in a long time he didn’t bother to hide the fact that he really cared.”
When Elvis took to the stage on this night in 1968 to record the “jam session” portion of the Comeback Special, he did so only after Binder talked him out of a last-minute case of stage fright. After a nervous start, Elvis Presley gave the legendary performance that would reinvigorate his flagging career.