MUSIC’S BIGGEST STARS HONOR “THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL” IN ‘ELVIS ALL-STAR TRIBUTE’
AIRING SUNDAY, FEB. 17 ON NBC; Elvis Presley ’68 NBC-TV Comeback Special Celebrated with Definitive 50th Anniversary Box Set Release Deluxe 5CD, 2 Blu-ray Disc Set
By Harvey Kubernik © 2019
Elvis Presley’s landmark ’68 Comeback Special, initially aired on NBC-TV in December 1968, was recently celebrated with the retail release
of a deluxe box set by RCA/Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, on Friday, November 30.
Elvis Presley-’69 Comeback Special (50th Anniversary Edition) is the definitive chronicle of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll performances ever televised: Elvis Presley at the peak of his powers. 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 west coast members of the Wrecking Crew.
This 5CD, 2 Blu-ray disc deluxe package also includes an 80-page book featuring rare photographs and ephemera and a new oral history on the special, crafted from interviews conducted for Thom Zimny’s 2018 documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher.
The anniversary of this electrifying moment in rock n’ roll history further continues into 2019 when NBC-TV and Ken Ehrlich Productions team up for a 2-hour primetime television tribute to the original special which airs Sunday, February 17th from 9-11 p.m. (ET/PT) on NBC-TV.
The 50th Anniversary of the Elvis Comeback Special will feature an all-star group of music superstars recreating the spectacle – even the staging – of that legendary night of song. In addition to the musical performances, the production will include rare Elvis footage, outtakes and interviews from those involved in the original ’68 Comeback Special.
The two-hour program will be hosted by Blake Shelton and pay tribute to Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, recreating the iconic night with musical performances, a showcase of rare footage and interviews with Priscilla Presley and Steve Binder, the director of the original special, plus a special appearance from Lisa Marie Presley.
Some music industry’s stars, including Yolanda Adams, Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Alessia Cara, Mac Davis, John Fogerty, Josh Groban, Adam Lambert, John Legend, Little Big Town, Jennifer Lopez, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, Pistol Annies, Darius Rucker, Ed Sheeran, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban took the stage for NBC’s Elvis All-Star Tribute.
To accompany the telecast, Sony Music Entertainment will release The Best of the ’68 Comeback Special, featuring original Elvis performances, and “If I Can Dream” by Elvis with new vocal performances from Carrie Underwood, Shawn Mendes, Post Malone, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton.
The ’68 Comeback Special (at the time titled Singer Presents…ELVIS) originally aired on December 3, 1968 and was a pivotal broadcast event that upped-the-ante on Elvis’ career, the evolution of pop culture and the history of television.
By 1968, prior to the broadcast, Elvis was no longer seen by the mainstream as the atomic-powered rock and roll pioneer. Since his discharge from the United States Army in 1960, Elvis’ career path careened through a string of low-budget (though often successful) formulaic films while the rock music scene was exploding with innovation, experimentation, and an urgency to complement the turbulent era. Elvis hadn’t performed in public since 1961 and hadn’t appeared on television since 1960.
The special, recorded over several sessions in June 1968, presented Elvis in a variety of settings, from spectacular production numbers (“Nothingville,” “Saved,” “Guitar Man,” “Little Egypt,” “Big Boss Man,” “Let Yourself Go”) to the intimate “sit-down” performances of classic Elvis hits, reuniting the artist with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, the guitarist and drummer who’d played alongside Elvis on his earliest records and shows. The black leather “sit-down” and “stand-up” sequences provided a retrospective of Elvis’ career to that point, highlighted with the new song “Memories,” written by Mac Davis specifically for the show. The special’s transcendent closing number was Presley’s now-classic, emotionally fueled performance of “If I Can Dream,” an anthemic new song penned especially for Elvis and the special by W. Earl Brown.
The special was the most-viewed television program in America the week it aired and firmly reestablished Elvis as a major musical and cultural force. “I think the ’68 Special gave him the confidence to get on the road again, knowing that people accepted him,” said Priscilla Presley. “That show was so successful that he just knew this is what he wanted to do, go back and be with an audience.”
The success of the ’68 Special reignited Presley’s career in a major way. Shortly after the special aired, Elvis entered American Sound Studio in Memphis for the sessions that generated “Suspicious Minds,” one of his most enduring #1 hits and his country-soul masterpiece From Elvis In Memphis (which included the chart-topping “In The Ghetto”). 1969 saw Elvis return to live performance with a record-breaking engagement at The International Hotel in Las Vegas, kick starting a regular run of live shows that lasted for the rest of his career.
For an in-depth behind the scenes look at the making of the ’68 Comeback Special, Director/Producer Steve Binder has written the new book, Comeback ’68 / Elvis: The Story Of The Elvis Special. Now available at ShopElvis.com.
According to Binder, “The only time in network history, I think, that in prime time a variety special for a star like Elvis had no guest stars. He was the star, period.”
“I never saw Elvis perform,” said Priscilla Presley. “I only I only saw him for the first time in the ’68 Special. And I could not believe what I saw. It was like, oh my gosh, I get it. I get it. To actually see him on stage, walk out there, and own that stage. I’d never seen anyone control an audience like that in my life, with his magnetism, his energy, his look. It was like he rehearsed that show all his life.”
For millions of fans, including a young Bruce Springsteen, the Elvis 68 Comeback Special was a life-changing event. “I remember I waited for weeks for the ’68 Special, Springsteen recollected recently.
“I knew it was coming. I can remember exactly where our TV was set up in the dining room, the exact place I was sitting. I mean, it’s one of those things that’s imprinted on my memory forever.”
After my family saw the ‘68 Comeback Special, my folks went to see one of his August 1969 shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and gave an enthusiastic review.
On November 14, 1970 I took three buses from West Hollywood to Inglewood to see Elvis Presley’s debut at the Forum, his first concert in Southern California in 13 years. In 1968 I saw the Doors at the Forum, The Rolling Stones twice in 1969 at the same venue and now Elvis. It was a devoted beehive hairdo crowd like a casting call from another era. Thousands of cameras clicked and flashed when Elvis emerged on stage. Presley’s voice sounded terrific as I sat in the colonnade section.
I would subsequently attend Elvis Presley shows five times until 1977.
Over the years I interviewed a handful of the musicians and producers/engineers who were on Presley recording sessions from Scotty Moore to Glen D Hardin. Former RCA publicist Grelun Landon, who headed Public Affairs for the label, once arranged for me to have a quick hello with Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker and tour the RCA studios in Hollywood between Presley recording sessions. I was interviewed in 2007 for the DVD deluxe edition of Viva Las Vegas, and in 2008 I penned the 5,000 word booklet liner notes to the Elvis The ’68 Comeback Special 5-CD box set issued by Sony/Legacy.
I sort of left the Elvis Presley fan club after his 1977 passing. I happily renewed my membership after viewing the terrific 1981 This Is Elvis documentary written and directed by the influential filmmakers Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo.
In spring 1967 Elvis wasn’t making any personal appearances but he did allow his guitar to be displayed at the Popular Music Exhibit in the special section of the US Pavilion, The American Spirit, at Expo 67, Montreal’s Universal Exhibition, which was a World’s Fair held during April 27-October 29, 1967. The guitar is the instrument Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” with and was played at the time of his national television debut. Hundreds of teenagers welcomed the instrument upon arrival in Canada at the Montreal Airport. Presley’s guitar shared the location with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Tiny Tim, the Tokens, the Supremes, Petula Clark, the Seekers, and Thelonious Monk.
I saw Elvis once in Dr. Morris Feldman’s Picwood dental office in West Los Angeles near the MGM studio in Culver City on a Saturday afternoon during the summer of 1967. Presley arrived in a Rolls Royce, flanked by two guys, walked into the waiting room and gave a smile to me and my mother. When it was my turn for the chair, Dr. Feldman told me Elvis broke a tooth during the filming of a movie called Speedway.
Elvis Presley entered 1968, that heartbreaking year, as barely a blip on the radar screen of a generation wallowing in a purple haze. Luxuriating high above Sunset Blvd. in Trousdale Estates, he gave little thought to the kandy-colored hordes marching up and down the neon Strip content to placate his remaining fans with star turns in such disposable drive-in fare as Clambake. Presley was still issuing movie soundtrack albums but garnering nowhere near the sales figures of a smash hit like Blue Hawaii.
It had been nearly six years since “Good Luck Charm” had topped the Billboard 100, an eternity for an increasingly impatient, impetuous and impertinent audience. The arrival of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and all that followed in their wake, further diminished the relevance of an artist who burned brightest when girls wore poodle skirts and boys donned coonskin caps. His most recent single, a carousing treatment of Jerry Reed’s hook-laden “Guitar Man” failed to enter the Top 40.
Presley himself, however, had not commandeered a stage since March 25, 1961, at the Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor Hawaii, a benefit on behalf of the Memorial Fund of the battleship U.S.S. Arizona.
But it would have been naïve and sentimental to view Presley as a spent force. If he felt no desperate need to embrace the next “new thing,” it was because his music drew from a deeper, more imperishable well, brimming with the twang of hill country blues, the wail of the Delta church, and the mediating rigor of pop song craft. It was time to reassert the primacy of these musical values.
Enter Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, a man for whom a pair of threes could do the heavy lifting of a full house.. .provided you had the moxie. He was all too aware that the “brand” needed refreshing and that television – that coolest of mediums – just might make The King a hot property again.
Elvis hadn’t been on the small screen since Frank Sinatra’s – Timex Special for ABC television, welcoming him back from the service in May, 1960. Parker shrewdly maneuvered a sweet deal from NBC-TV’s Tom Sarnoff. Ostensibly a boiler-plate Christmas special – Elvis bedecked in seasonal tinsel, Parker parlayed the network’s commitment to include financing for a feature film, which was becoming increasingly harder to secure. The show, sponsored by Singer Sewing Machines, was to be called, ELVIS.
What Colonel Parker hadn’t anticipated, though, was appearance of a joker in the deck, in the form of television director, Steve Binder, who, with his partner, engineer/music producer Bones Howe, set Elvis off on a personal journey that bordered on a career resurrection. Bob Finkel of NBC had recruited Binder to direct their weekly pop music series, Hullabaloo. TV specials featuring Leslie Uggams and Petula Clark solidified his credentials for bringing projects in on time, on budget and with the glint of danger. Elvis Presley was now in the capable hands of a talent to match his own. Finkel, Colonel Parker and Binder all agreed that it would be a one-man show, no guest stars, and RCA Records would have a soundtrack album for retail outlets.
Steve Binder was the right man at the right moment. Precocious to a fault, the Los Angeles native left the University of Southern California just before graduating to apprentice under Steve Allen, who’s pioneering variety show broadcast was a hothouse of innovation. Binder, barely in his twenties, then took on Jazz Scene USA, bringing live performances by musical masters to a network audience. Viewed today, it is clear that he understood the unique requirements of lighting and blocking that showcased musicians in an optimal setting.
In October, 1964, Binder was handed the helm of The T.A.M.I. Show, a groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll circus, that triumphed under his whip and chair direction. Starring James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Leslie Gore, The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye, amongst many others, this ninety-minute feature culled from two days of production insanity, has rightfully earned legendary status, a template for every subsequent rock concert film.
“Elvis and I hit it off,” recalled Binder in a 2008 interview I conducted. “I didn’t feel like the awe-struck audience to a super star – just another guy my age. He’d come to the office I shared with Bones on Sunset Blvd. every day. Everyone on the team was treated equally, and Elvis joined us in that spirit. He did not play star one day on the entire shoot. We all got to pick the music. My TV special before with Petula and Harry Belafonte was done at the same location at NBC. I used John Freschi and Bill Cole who were on staff there as lighting director and head of audio. By the time we got to Elvis we had a family that also included set designer Gene McAvoy, costume designer Bill Belew and choreographers Jaime Rogers and Claude Thompson.
“Gene MacAvoy was the art director on Hullabaloo and brought him along for all my specials. The set direction, the boxing ring set up Elvis to perform. The raised platforms aided the production numbers and delivery.
“We did things for Elvis that made him comfortable and supported the music. It was the only time a hand-held camera was used in variety television. I had to beg the sports department to get permission to use it. I think good direction is when you don’t notice direction. The whole thing was an incredible amount of talent coming from so many places. The songwriters melded together with the family.
“I told Elvis in no uncertain terms ‘I was not going to do 20 Christmas songs.’ Elvis told me he was scared to death of television and was only comfortable makin’ records. He had been away from the public and was concerned they didn’t want him back. I told him ‘then why don’t you make a record album and I’ll put pictures to it.’”
While Col. Parker continued to lobby for a traditional “Christmas” show, Presley bonded with Binder and Howe, who he had worked with in Hollywood years earlier.
Dayton “Bones” Howe, a soft-spoken, jazz-loving, Southern gentleman, came to Los Angeles from Georgia in 1956. He quickly settled his rail-thin frame (hence, the nickname) behind the mixing console at Radio Recorders Studio, serving under principal engineer Thorne Nogar on some the young Presley’s breakthrough hits.
Over the next decade, Howe became one of the most celebrated engineers in the music industry, working on albums by Ornette Coleman, Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce as well as recording a parade of Top Ten singles from Timi Yuro, The Mamas & Papas, and Johnny Rivers. Howe then produced The Association, The Turtles, The Monkees, and The 5th Dimension. The West Coast sound was as much a product of his panoramic vision as it was the worship of cars, girls and warm summer breezes. In this collaboration with Binder, Bones Howe was poised to take on his greatest challenge.
“The first time I saw him was at the Florida Theater in Sarasota, Florida when I was in high school. He was a young country singer. He performed between movies,” remembered Howe in a 2008 interview we did.
“I first did some work with Elvis in late 1956 and early ’57 in Hollywood at Radio Recorders. He drove out from Tennessee in a stretch Cadillac with DJ and Scotty with the gear in the back seat. They became out to record with Steve Sholes, the A&R guy who was responsible for signing them on to RCA Records. He brought them to Hollywood to record them. RCA was doing all their recording in those days at Radio Recorders. I did some session with Thorne Nogar. Thorny was very good to me and took me under his arm. I was a recordist and he asked me to do some sessions with Elvis. Elvis could never get his name right so he called him Stoney.
“In Hollywood I saw Elvis with his buddies. It was the first time anyone ever heard of block booking a studio for a month. We never had to tear it down. We could leave the studio at night. I worked on ‘All Shook Up.’ Elvis never stopped moving in the studio. He recorded everything live. In those days you didn’t separate people so everyone was in the same room. Direct to mono when we started. The two-track that we did on Elvis had his voice on one track and everybody else on the other track. When we started with Elvis there was no stereo. He could sing a ballad. He could imitate anybody. Mention a singer and he would imitate them. ‘Fats Domino.’ You would turn your back and you thought Fats was in the room. Elvis would come in with Hill & Range music publishers and Elvis would record only their songs.
“The Colonel never showed up or came to the studio. Maybe once to get some paper signed. Elvis ran the session and Steve Sholes ran the clock. ‘OK Elvis. That’s 2:14.’ ‘Sounded good in here. Want to listen?’
“The sound at Radio Recorders. It was the wonderful echo chamber in Studio B. A live chamber in those days. Not tape reverb. The same one I used on big band sessions in that room. It’s also the way we recorded at Radio Recorders. I watched Elvis become a huge star.”
Binder and Howe recruited writers Chris Beard and Allan Blye into developing the show’s script. Veterans of such whimsical assaults on middle-class mores as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, they recognized a unique opportunity to walk the razor’s edge with a network’s witting compliance. If the final draft swerved just shy of Dada, it was through no lack of collaborative ambition with a fully-engaged star.
‘“Guitar Man’ and ‘Trouble’ were the hooks for the whole show,” Beard explained to me in a 2008 interview. “We met with Elvis and the outline was trying to describe his entire life. We then figured we had to have something that had a guitar. Because Elvis was not just Elvis. He was Elvis and a guitar. So we decided to weave the whole thing around ‘Guitar Man.’ It was the first ‘Un-Plugged’ show ever, and it was a very dangerous thing; to put this guy in front of everyone without a bass. Elvis didn’t need anything more than that. He was wired. He was an electric man. When you saw Elvis in person everything became slow motion. He looked like this caged animal ready to eat up the scenery and eat up the music and do his thing. We had Arena, Road and Gospel medley segments.”
With production set to begin on June 20 at NBC’s Burbank facilities, Presley retreated to Hawaii for two different vacations to get tanned, rested, and ready. But from the moment Elvis arrived on the set, a less-confident, vulnerable side emerged, which inspired Binder to make a momentous decision.
“I was barred from coming into the dressing room with any kind of equipment. I started taking notes and brought my little tape recorder in and started recording what was going on. I kept it in my pocket so nobody knew what was going on. And then I started transferring the information I got onto paper. So I would remember what songs he sang and what he was talking about. I thought ‘this is like looking into a keyhole of something that only very few people get to see behind the scenes. I’ve got to get this on tape. I mean, this is better than what we are doing out there with all the dancers and singers, the production numbers. This is incredible; I am seeing the real Elvis now.’
“Finally, I pestered the Colonel so much and he finally said, ‘You can go on stage and re-create what you are seeing in here.’
“The June 27th ‘sit down’ concept was birthed at NBC. When we actually started videoing it at NBC we worked a pretty arduous schedule. Morning into late into the evening. Elvis made the decision he was going to move into NBC physically for the period we were in production. We cleaned out the Dean Martin dressing room off of stage 4. We literally brought a bed in there and made it home for him for the entire production time. When we finished rehearsals Elvis would start jamming with his friends around the baby grand piano and anybody who happened to be there or invited in started jamming with him. So they would just play acoustically, banging on chairs, piano tops, and Lance LeGault brought his tambourines in. It went on for hours and hours.
“When I told Elvis what we were gonna do he was jazzed,” continues Binder. “But he said, ‘If I’m gonna do it I wanna bring in (guitarist) Scotty (Moore) and (drummer) D.J. (Fontana).’ ‘Cause Scotty and DJ were never a part of the special.
“Elvis wanted the audience closest to him and Col. Parker picked what he thought were the most attractive women to be seated nearest. Then when it came time I handed Elvis the paper with my notes which he physically brought out to the stage and referred to in one of his takes. Right before he went out I got called into the dressing room. ‘I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this.’ ‘What do you mean you don’t want to do this?’ ‘My mind is blank. Steve, I don’t know what to sing and don’t know what to say.’ ‘Elvis, just go out. This is not optional. I haven’t asked you to do anything up to the point that you didn’t want to do. Now I am asking you to go out there. I don’t care if you just say hello or goodbye and come right back in five seconds. Just go out there.’
“On the first take his voice is totally dry and he needs to get some water before he begins. He even stops the first eight bars in. His voice is cracking. And then you see and hear him building his confidence. You can see it on his face. You can see it on his body posture. He gets to the point where he doesn’t want to leave.”
“Something happens when Elvis got to be in front of a live audience,” suggests longtime Presley insider/employee, Jerry Schilling, and author (with Chuck Crisafulli) of Me and a Guy Named Elvis. “When Elvis plugs in with Scotty and DJ. I think it’s fun. It’s what got him into music. It’s magical and not thought out. Steve put in Alan Fortas and Charlie Hodge. That just rounded out the whole thing. And Elvis added Lance (LeGault) to the show. He was a friend of ours.”
Lance LeGault was a singer and performer in his own right, a veteran of The Louisiana Hayride, who Presley saw perform in Van Nuys, Ca. at the Crossbow music club. LeGault would often stunt double for Elvis: Girls! Girls! Girls!, Kissin’ Cousins, Viva Las Vegas, and Roustabout. When Elvis directed Lance to grab a tambourine and join the “sit-down” band for their set, it was a tribute to a friendship nurtured over long-haul bike rides and countless backstage jams. Lance was like family.
“We were three minutes from doing it,” LeGault enthused to me in a 2008 interview. “That is how it happened. Look at the guys around him on stage. They all had burgundy or Levi jackets on. They all had uniforms on. I didn’t have a uniform on. My hair wasn’t even brushed. I had stepped off to the side when Elvis said ‘Come here.’ ‘What?’ ‘Get a tambourine and come in.’ How could I make this up? If I were supposed to be there I’d have the same clothes as them.
“Elvis and I played a lot of music over the years. He sang all the time. We didn’t go to lunch breaks; we went to dressing rooms and jammed. Now, Elvis was very insecure when we started and I think that’s why he called me up. Because Elvis had a charming insecurity. But then he warmed up and relaxed, which didn’t take long. Look at the opening of that sit down part – he had an acoustic guitar. And then he traded with Scotty and took the electric. And then it all became electric.”
It is a delicious irony that the most packaged, pre-meditated image in pop culture could reclaim his most authentic self in such a spontaneous fashion. Clearly scared to death, he retreated to his strengths, surrounded by musicians who understood and relished the same impulse to simply sing and play. Elemental in its ferocity, the “sit-down” section is a time-capsule that students of music, let alone Elvis fans, will long cherish.
“Elvis was in the makeup chair,” Bones Howe reflected, “and said, ‘you know, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in front of a live audience. When I went out there I didn’t know if they were gonna laugh at me. I really didn’t know.’ He was frightened. He starts singing and he has them all in his hand.
“When we started the ’68 Special, you got to remember Elvis was on his ass. We didn’t know how it was gonna turn out. We didn’t know if it would work or not. We had a lot of confidence in Elvis. He came to every dance rehearsal.”
If the “sit-down” segment is viewed as nothing short of biblical by Presley acolytes, it should not diminish the vitality of the remainder of the show. Elvis dug deep into his repertoire, choosing songs that warranted fresh treatments: tunes from the movies King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, hits penned by the famed songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; “Trouble,” “Jailhouse Rock”, “Hound Dog,” “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” “Love Me,” “Saved” a chart entry for LaVern Baker and a Coasters’ song “Little Egypt,” exposed by Elvis in his motion picture Roustabout.
“We didn’t serve people like Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra because we were writing rhythm & blues, torch ballads and they didn’t do those things, you see. The thing is, that was what we were writing, and that’s what Presley sang better than anybody,” stressed Jerry Leiber in a 2003 interview we did. “I thought Presley was the greatest ballad singer since Bing Crosby.”
“We were all there late one night in early June in our production office in Hollywood and watched the Robert Kennedy assassination on the TV set— that was cathartic to all of us,” reinforced Chris Bearde. “We all sat around until 5:00 am and Elvis told us his entire life story while playing the guitar and picked, not strummed, talkin’ about ‘Tiger Man,’ and how guys would throw punches at him so they could say they hit Elvis. He just rambled on and we listened for all those hours. Part of the conversation went to his background in Gospel singing and how he really was one of those white guys from the south who really understood not just his own rockabilly background but the music of the church.”
“We were in our office on Sunset Boulevard rehearsing one evening and the television was on in Bones’ office and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated,” added Binder. “And we stopped rehearsal and spent the entire night about both the JFK and Robert Kennedy assassination, and Martin Luther King Jr. before in April. Those are the kind of things that bond people.”
Binder replaced original music director Billy Strange with William (Billy) Goldenberg, when Strange was delinquent on delivering the orchestral arrangements just weeks before formal production began.
“Billy Goldenberg the musical director I met when I was directing Hullabaloo. He was working with Peter Matz, who was the musical director on Hullabaloo and Billy was the dance arranger. Then I brought Billy along to do Leslie Uggums and Harry and Petula, and then to do Elvis. And the fact that there is this Jewish New York Broadway kid who basically re-shaped Elvis’ entire musical career, the two of them hit it off so well. It really says something important about opposites attract.”
Goldenberg, a graduate of Columbia University and a protégé of the Broadway Legend, composer Frank Loesser
(Guys and Dolls), brought a rich harmonic sensibility to his work that ill-suited the caterwauling punch of fifties rock ‘n’ roll. It was only after Binder’s fervent pleading that Goldenberg agreed to meet with Elvis, let alone compose a raft of charts under a mind-bending deadline.
“From the very first meeting I liked him,” expressed Goldenberg in a conversation we had in 2008. “We had a great rapport. He always looked after me and was supportive. The most interesting thing to me once we started was the concept that developed. There was a movie soundtrack by Quincy Jones, In Cold Blood, probably the most interesting score I had ever heard at that point. It was a fusion of that kind of country redneck sound but at the same time something very classical underneath it all. Evil, sexual, and spooky. Elvis personified all of those things. And the music had to as well.”
“So, the first thing I did was a big medley around ‘Guitar Man.’ That was the test, actually. I went with that whole concept sequence trying to make it as dirty and black and provocative and still being Elvis, we had the presence of those guitars that were very dark. His voice invited you into the arrangements. I wanted it all to be seductive. Because Elvis was the ultimate seducer. A starting point was definitely the work of the bass guitar. Once I had that kind of bass thing going and it there were certain kind of mambo riffs with it. It also touched on some of The Beatles’ stuff. The darker Beatles’ stuff.”
Goldenberg was given free reign to assemble an all-star orchestra, drawing from both the NBC Stable as well as distinguished free-lancers. But his real coup was to reel in the soon-to-be called fabled Wrecking Crew, a pick-up team’s worth of studio hotshots who routinely delivered the goods on countless hit recordings.
“Around this time I’m on sessions with Neil Young and Jack Nitzsche during Buffalo Springfield, on dates with Love on Forever Changes and on the Monkees’ Head soundtrack,” keyboardist Don Randi told me in a 2006 interview.
“In 1968 this Presley call comes in from Billy Goldenberg. I never felt Elvis was a man out of time. What you have to understand is that his music never died. You know, at the time, a lot of people were saying ‘he didn’t have a hit record for a couple of years. His career is over.’ I never thought that at all. It never would enter my mind. Because I know, from the first time I saw him on Ed Sullivan to the days I got to work with him, that this guy could go on forever. The only guy who will stop this guy from going on is himself.
“I guess we were all taking Elvis into a different world. It was a completely different thing for him from the A band, or the Memphis band. Just having the Blossoms on the sessions. Elvis loved the Blossoms. He knew Darlene from her work with Ray Charles.
“Half the people on the sessions were Wrecking Crew people. He was playing with some musicians he never met face to face.
“But the fact was that we could do the music instantly and it made it easier for everybody else. Because if they didn’t know what to do our parts were the same. Unless they asked us to change it. We stayed constant so that they got used to dealing with a constant rhythm section. A band that plays together and listens to each other. Because we had the ability to do that we didn’t have to do 20 takes, especially on that.
“On the NBC Special they didn’t have the time to spend 16 hours on getting a drum track or something like that. You had to move along. And we had the facility to move along guitarist Mike Deasy, Neal Levang, Frank De Vito, but Hal Blaine was the studio drummer. So, we had done so many dates together that when we were working with Billy and Elvis, it wasn’t completely new. Larry Knechtel. Bass and keyboards who also plays harmonica. Gary Coleman and Hal Blaine are both on ‘A Little Less Conversation.’ A drummer and percussionist. Frank DeVito played bongos and the percussionists were John Cyr and Elliot Franks. Chuck Berghoffer, bass. Tommy Morgan is on harmonica. He composed music for a The Twilight Zone episode and was on Pet Sounds.
“As a matter of fact Elvis sat down at the Steinway piano with me a few times for me to straighten out the part he had to sing on ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ He had a musicality to him. And, when he worked with us he was relaxed. He wasn’t gonna let anything get in the way. If he was nervous we sure as hell didn‘t know it.”
Berghoffer had formerly gigged with the great jazz drummer, Shelley Manne, and was booked at the time in Hollywood with pianist Pete Jolly.
“I got a call from Billy Goldenberg. Billy wrote some of the arrangements around the bass. On the Presley sessions, a lot of the bass was doubled on an electric bass by Larry Knechtel. So you were locked into a bass line that was written out. Or if it wasn’t written out you’d just play the roots. Larry also played piano on these dates. We played the same notes but we’d put a big bottom on it. You hear a bigger bass sound because of the recording techniques in those days.”
Drummer Hal Blaine had already recorded with Presley years earlier in Southern California on “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” “Return To Sender,” and “You’re The Devil In Disguise.”
In a couple of interviews with Blaine, Hal reflected, “I loved it. It was one of those great times. It was at NBC, and we were all familiar with NBC working off and on again on different projects. And it was a great time. Elvis was terrific and loved us all because a lot of us had worked with him before. I was on the soundtrack of Blue Hawaii. Girls, Girls, Girls! was really a big one, too. ‘Hello. How are you doing?’ He was relaxed but sweated a lot.
“I had to hand him a Kleenex when he was wearing that leather suit. Elvis was Elvis and he was a phenomena. And that’s all there is to it. There was a song that we did and he wanted to show that he had an operatic type voice. Just a big voice. To me he was Elvis. That’s all there is to it. He was a one of. People who generally become famous are one of. He was also very handsome and all the ladies were crazy about him. He was a decent guy. I didn’t see anything unbelievable about Elvis. He was his own Sinatra. Sinatra was Sinatra and Elvis was Elvis.
“We were doing a job. We used to say: TTMAR. Take the money and run. Nobody knew how long it would last. Elvis came to Las Vegas and came backstage when I was there with Nancy Sinatra at Caesar’s. ‘Hey Hal. You gonna come and work across the street with me?’ He expected me to join him for his debut and be part of that band but it was impossible.
“The Wrecking Crew could lock in with anybody. But with Elvis you’re gonna sit up a little straighter, maybe. I don’t know. When we finished we had to go out and do another session. I might have had two other gigs that day. I love DJ Fontana. I hung with him a lot on the set. We were inducted into the Nashville Hall of Fame. Our job was making hit records and we loved it.”
“Elvis walked into Western Recorders and was alarmed by the amount of musicians and singers booked for the recording sessions,” admits Binder. “He came in with his dark sunglasses and I was in the control room with Bones. Someone came in, probably Joe Esposito and said, ‘Elvis wants to see you.’
“I went out, he had a very serious look on his face…Something is not right. He said, ‘Come on outside with me.’ We went on to Sunset Blvd. ‘Steve, I’ve never sung with anything bigger than a rhythm section in my life. I never sang with an orchestra in a recording studio. You gotta promise me if I don’t like what’s playing here you’re gonna send everybody home and just keep the rhythm section or I’m not going in there to sing.’
“And I had to promise him, which I did. There was great trust to begin with. First of all, he had never heard anything Billy Goldenberg had done. So I promised him if he didn’t like it I would send everybody home, the brass section and everybody and keep the rhythm section. We walked inside and Billy has a conductor’s little stand, and he invited Elvis to come up and Billy gave the downbeat to the opening song ‘Guitar Man’ and it was total love at that point. Elvis couldn’t get enough.”
“I loved that was Elvis growing into his future,” volunteered Goldenberg. “Elvis was finally in transition which was something that had to happen. We did ‘Guitar Man’ and there was this strange sound he had never heard and he walked out into the studio, walked around to the musicians. He always called me ‘Billy, my boy, what’s this?’ I said, ‘That’s a French horn.’ And he said, ‘Do you think I can sing with that?’ I said, of course. You wanna try?” ‘Yea, I really want to try.’ We didn’t do anything but ‘Guitar Man’ for three or four hours because he was getting so excited by all of it. I knew by the end of the evening we had it. We were on our way to something. The ‘Road Medley,’ ‘Guitar Man’ was the force behind all of it.
“On the sessions I had The Blossoms, and BJ Baker, the vocal contractor with her background singers. Incredible. ‘A Little Less Conversation.’ We had percussion. Also when I was a kid playing in the Catskill Mountains I used to go over to the President Hotel and fill in for the piano player with Tito Puente.
“Bones Howe suggested Hal Blaine. He was very big on him. I really didn’t know Hal. I trusted Bones. This was like a film and had to be scored. The Leiber and Stoller songs in the’68 Special. I think they were writing a script for Elvis. Those were not just songs. Conceptually they are not just cinematic songs, but Mike is a dramatic writer. I love their stuff.
“Billy Strange and Mac Davis wrote two things. ‘Memories’ and ‘A Little Less Conversation.’ Those arrangements I wrote in the dead of night. In 1968 I was renting a house up near Beachwood Dr. And the Steve and Bones’ office was on Sunset Blvd. Or at NBC. After all this tough stuff, we got to ‘Memories.’ And I thought it was a beautiful song. I didn’t want Elvis to do it like he had done ‘Love Me Tender’ and all of those things.
“I wanted to bring something in. I wanted to make it rich. I felt it was a very a sad song and I wanted to illicit the most sadness that I could from it actually. And I knew Elvis would get it because he was really a receiver. He already heard something where he had to go. He had innate musical powers. I wanted to write one little motif all through the song. That goes all the way through the song and is the inner subconscious level of the entire thing. Of all of the themes in the show that one moves me the most.
“‘Memories’ was brought to me by Bones. I just got a lead sheet and hadn’t heard it before and thought it was a beautiful song. I rehearsed it with Elvis. We worked on it a lot. It was very nice. It was the one thing where there was no stress (laughs). Elvis was relaxed to do the vocal. And if you listen to it, very interesting, the way he echoes the orchestral melody. That little motif I wrote, I didn’t say anything to him, but when he heard it, at the end of the song he sings ‘Memories…’ It resonated with him which was very exciting for me.”
“There was a big discussion about the closing song,” confessed Binder, about his bold decision to have ‘If I Can Dream’ as the finale. One of the songs Elvis wanted to close the show with was a Frankie Laine number, ‘Because.’ Col. Parker wanted ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas.’”
Binder and Howe demanded something topical and penetrating. 1968 had suddenly erupted in political and social conflict. And the musicians were not immune to the ramifications.
“I felt strongly that Elvis would be a great deliverer of a peace and love message,” Binder reiterated. ‘If I Can Dream’ captured that sentiment perfectly. We used two Elvis vocal tracks of the song. One was for a single, and the other cut later in the week at the soundstage was inserted in the show. Earl Brown was a choral director on The Carol Burnett Show and was in the music group, the Skylarks on RCA. And I think this was a song that, like a lot of people who write just one great novel. I don’t think Earle realized what he wrote, and having Elvis Presley perform it was the miracle of all miracles.
“I felt strongly by Elvis singing ‘peace and love’ after all these 1968 assassinations it just seemed like the perfect song to say these words, And I think Elvis was a great deliverer of that message. Billy did the arrangement overnight and Elvis did five takes on the vocal. Colonel Parker did subsequently publish ‘If I Can Dream’ from the program.”
“On ‘If I Can Dream,’ I had worked with Earle before and had written some songs with him,” confirmed Goldenberg. “He was more of the lyricist and me the composer, but Earle of course was very musical. Given the fact that he was choral director and did all of those beautiful choral arrangements. Very sweet guy. Not a bad bone in him. I miss him a lot. He just left us a while ago. Steve said, ‘I want you guys to write a number for Elvis.’
“I thought I could really bring Elvis into 1968. Through some kind of arrangement like it was ‘Jimmy Webb.’ It was ‘60s, no question. And again, it had the little motif in it which is in the beginning of the arrangement. They loved it. And Elvis got into it. Earle did all the backgrounds on the vocals. It was a wonderful collaboration. Because he was Earle. I’ve always felt it was the right decision to give Earle full credit for that song. In other words to convince him that the song was that good but also I could see the enjoyment he had in writing those beautiful vocal arrangements for the song. It was the best kind of collaboration. I saw the 68 Special on TV and was thrilled. I still am.”
“Steve and I went through five weeks of editing,” offered Bones Howe. “We had to figure out how to put all this stuff together. Because it ended up not being linear. Steve had this idea of using the ‘in the round’ as the narration for the thing and we plugged all the other stuff into that it would work. We cut an hour and a half special which NBC refused to air owing partially to the ‘bedroom’ or ‘Bordello’ scene.
“We then did a 60 minute version eventually. We edited it on Vine Street. You cut it like a home movie and then give that to the video tape editor. And in those days the video tape editor cuts the video tape. They peel the audio off onto a film track and then they cut that to match the thing and then they put it back on.
“Actually you are two generations down. We begged them to cut to video tape because of the sound quality, but they wouldn’t do it. There wasn’t anything lost because it was mono anyway. It lost some of the top end and some of the low end like you do. Bill Cole was a really good audio guy. He understood that we were gonna use the double system and that they were gonna shoot us down. He had done this before. And he got the sound on there and it survived the generation down and the generation back. In those days they all thought it all goes on a four inch speaker on the side of a TV set.”
“The ’68 Special inspired Elvis; reminding him what he had not been able to do for years,” underscored longtime Presley confident Jerry Schilling, ”being able to choose the people; being able to choose what songs and not being told what had to be on the soundtrack. What he had to wear. He was out of prison, man.”
“I played Elvis the 60 minute show,” Binder recounts, “and he told me in the screening room, ‘Steve, it’s was the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I give you my word I will never sing a song I don’t believe in.’”
In October of ’68 Singer distributed an exclusive LP of largely unreleased recordings by Presley hailing Singer Presents Elvis Presley Singing Flaming Star And Others.
Hal Humphrey in his Los Angeles Times December 1, 1968 “Behind The Scenes” column for the influential daily reported Presley’s answer at a press conference touting the event why Elvis was doing TV now. “I thought I’d better do one before I got too old.”
NBC-TV’s Bob Finkel, the executive producer of the show called Elvis “a true professional” who worked “full-out” all the time. “He’s also a director’s dream because he knows how to take direction, but at the same time he can express himself when he feels there’s something he can do.”
It was Finkel who cut the deal with Col. Parker, both agreeing on stipulations that it be a one-man show, and RCA Records would have a soundtrack album.
The ‘68 Special event was broadcast on December 3rd at 9:00 p.m. (nine o’clock) on Tuesday opposite the two other competing network entries from ABC who programmed It Takes A Thief and N.Y.P.D. CBS booked The Red Skelton Show and Doris Day in the same time slot.
On December 4th, when the ratings were released, NBC reported that Elvis captured 42 per cent of the total viewing audience. It was the network’s biggest rating victory for the entire year and the season’s number one rated show.
Presley’s “comeback” special was a process of self-inquiry, ritual drama that yielded hidden motivations and commercial success.
The Elvis ’68 Special stands as a succinct document of Elvis Presley’s interior world where he went from private to public exhibition. It was a career move away from the total commodity product that had up to this point had been synergistically up for sale.
Hal Humphrey in his The Los Angeles Times December 4th review proclaimed “Elvis still generates considerable heat with his singing.”
Robert Shelton in The New York Times began his perceptive review with a headline banner heralding “Rock Star’s Explosive Blues Have Vintage Quality.”
In the December ’68 issue of Variety Tele Review Vol. 144 by staff writer Esse wrote of the Singer Presents Elvis show, “He still can’t sing. The words still are unintelligible. But that was never important. He has aged only imperceptibly. Even his mild attempts at putting himself on failed to penetrate his hard rock core of opaque self-acceptance. He knows he has something, knows how to sell it, but seemingly has never really psyched it out. His first TV special, his return after eight years, made it seem he had never been away.”
In November, RCA had shipped the single version of, “If I Can Dream.” By the end of the month it was Top 40, reaching number 12 in January of 1969. The soundtrack album broke into the top ten.
(Harvey Kubernik is an award winning author of 15 books. His literary and music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection Vol. 1, was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik’s The Doors Summer’s Gone was published by Other World Cottage Industries in February 2018.
During November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published Kubernik’s The Story of The Band From Big Pink to the Last Waltz.
Harvey Kubernik’s 1995 interview, Berry Gordy: A Conversation With Mr. Motown, that initially was published in 1995 in Goldmine and HITS magazines has just been licensed for inclusion in The Pop, Rock & Soul Reader edited by David Brackett to be published in 2019 by Oxford University Press.
This century Harvey penned the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special, The Ramones’ End of the Century and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish.
Kubernik’s writings have been printed in several book anthologies, including The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats and Drinking with Bukowski. He is the project coordinator of the recording set The Jack Kerouac Collection.
In November 2006, Harvey Kubernik was a featured speaker discussing audiotape preservation and archiving at special hearings called by The Library of Congress and held in Hollywood, California. Visit Kubernik’s Korner displayed on www.otherworldcottageindustries.com.