My parents weren’t very musical. They didn’t even own a stereo until we moved to Kansas City when I was five. I don’t know why they even bought a stereo, they only owned a handful of albums. I never actually remember the stereo being turned on, other than once a year for Christmas music. Later, when I started collecting vinyl my father once asked me why I had so many different albums. Uh, there are different bands with different music on each record, dad. I don’t know what had happened to my father. When my dad was a kid, he collected a bunch of 45s that my brother, who was turned onto rock and roll long before I was, snatched up and probably still owns. There’s some cash in that little singles rack. But during my youth there was no evidence of my father’s early interest in music… sports had supplanted everything. My dad was one of those set-up-three-tv’s on New Years Day to watch every college Bowl game simultaneously kinda guy. Dad didn’t want to spring for cable.
My parents were very much a product of the 50s. My uncle who was three years younger and my aunt who was seven years younger than my father (I think), were very much a product of the 60s. Think of it this way: my parents were very Eisenhower, my aunt/uncle were very JFK. My parents are only moderately into music even now, despite having two music addicts as kids. Every once in a while they’ll add a Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison greatest hits album to their Christmas list. I shudder when I think about them dropping Roy in the CD player and attempting to dance and shuffle around in the basement on wobbly knees and bad ankles. At least no hospital has called me yet…”Sir, your parents have fallen victim to boogie fever.”
Of those handful of albums my parents owned (for their dusty and unused turntable), one of course, was Elvis. The thing that was mind boggling about it was that the lone Elvis album they had was Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, which, lets face it, isn’t Elvis’ greatest album. I mean, it was a live album. Don’t get me wrong, I still remember being huddled around the TV in 1973 to watch Elvis perform via satellite (which was unheard of technology back then) from Hawaii and being mesmerized…but an obscure live record for the King of Rock and Roll? No greatest hits album? They at least had the blue Beatles greatest hits album, entitled 1967 to 1970. I always preferred the red one, 1962 to 1966.
All that said, it’s clear my exposure to Elvis was fairly limited. It wasn’t until that fateful day in August of 1977 – when I was in the backseat of Coach Taylor’s car, on the way to football practice with two other guys on the team, when we heard Elvis had died – that I realized his impact. I remember Coach Taylor turning to us and saying, “He’s my age…” with tears in his eyes. NBC re-aired the original 1968 special, which had been dubbed “the Comeback” special and that’s when I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that the special broadcast was hosted by Ann Margaret. It was then that I circled back to my brother’s room and started listening to some of those early singles. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and of course, my favorite, “Jailhouse Rock.” It was during that sad summer of ’77 that I realized we may all disagree on who the President should be, but we could at least all agree there is but one King. Elvis brought us together in our grief. What a tale his was…
Elvis’ life was an epic story, worthy of being written by a Greek tragedian like Sophocles or Euripides or perhaps by Shakespeare. There was our Hero, who rose from the Mississippi Delta town of Memphis, Tennessee, the walking embodiment of all the music that had come before him: rhythm and blues, soul, country and of course gospel. And of course every tragedy has to have a villain, in this case it was Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis’ career began at the famous Sun Studios after being discovered by producer Sam Phillips. Phillips sold his contract to RCA and Col Parker, a two-bit concert promoter who stepped forward to take Elvis as his only client. From then on it was Elvis the artist controlled by the Colonel (our Iago in this story) who was driven by nothing more than commerce.
Presley was becoming a phenomenon in the south when his contract was sold to RCA… it was then that he broke nationally. The world had never seen success like Elvis’. From 1956 to 1958 he absolutely dominated the new American art form known as rock and roll. No one sounded like Elvis. Strip away the image and just sit and listen to those early records… what a voice… the voice of the Delta with a dash of gospel. And when he performed live, nobody moved like Elvis. Of course that caused some backlash from the prudes and puritans of the era. Then, inexplicably, (although it was probably to control him), Elvis was drafted into the Army. Colonel Parker, rather than have Elvis record a bunch of material to keep him in the public eye, released music only sporadically during the two years Elvis was in the Army ’58-60… It was John Lennon who said, “that was the end of Elvis, when he went into the Army.”
When he finally got back in early 1961, he apparently surrendered all control of his career to the Colonel. After the smash success of his first studio album, Elvis Is Back! the Colonel turned his eye to Hollywood. Why every rock star wants to be a movie star and vice versa is a mystery I’ll never unravel. Elvis even stopped doing live shows after 1961. From ’61 to ’68 Elvis was seemingly trapped in formulaic, crappy rom-com musicals. Each movie had the inevitable soundtrack. The movie drove people to buy the soundtrack and the soundtrack drove ticket sales for the flick… rinse and repeat. Eventually what had been a very profitable enterprise fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. When you think about ’61 to ’68, a lot of things happened in music. The Beatles and the British Invasion changed everything. Motown and soul had become very prominent. It appeared that the music scene had completely passed Elvis by. He was a has-been, marginalized. The King, it seems, had been dethroned.
It was then that NBC approached Elvis about doing a TV special. The Colonel wanted it to be a Christmas special. He wanted Elvis to do a Christmas album. Elvis steadfastly refused. TV producer Bob Finkel suggested to Elvis that the network would be willing to do whatever Elvis wanted to creatively… Suddenly, like in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf frees the King of Rohan from the evil machinations of Wormtongue, Elvis was freed from the Colonel, if only momentarily. He took complete control of the special, including the music. He did concede to the Colonel’s wishes to perform one Christmas song, “Blue Christmas,” which is one of the few Christmas songs I can actually listen to without screaming. The special was conceived as Elvis on a sound stage performing songs. While they were rehearsing and filming, the music producer on the special, Steve Binder went to Elvis’ dressing room where Elvis was sitting around with the musicians, goofing around and loosely jamming on some of his old stuff. It was so powerful and natural Binder realized, that a concert had to be a part of the show.
Immediately they decided to intersperse live concert footage of Elvis on a small, square stage surrounded by a small crowd in the special. The Colonel, who really was a fuckstain, was supposed to send out tickets to fans across the country but didn’t do so. There was a pretty small crowd lined up for the actual show, so the producers went across the street to a local diner and convinced some people to come over and watch Elvis perform. The Colonel was unhappy about it, but Elvis chose to wear fantastic, tight, black leather from head to toe. The Colonel always tried to down play Elvis’ powerful sexual charisma. To make sure Elvis felt completely confident they brought back some of his early band, Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana on drums. The thought was to have Elvis come out and talk about the old days while he played in a real loose setting.
There was only one problem. Elvis wouldn’t come out of the dressing room. He wanted to cancel the concert scenes. He hadn’t been on a stage since 1961… his confidence was gone. The King had surrendered his throne. Binder insisted… Imagine being Elvis in that dressing room in that moment. He hadn’t performed live in 7 years, his confidence had been shaken. His last few records had flopped. The Beatles ruled the world now. He’d been hiding away in a Hollywood bubble… the self-doubt, the fear of failing. I wonder to this day what went through his mind. Finally, with a nod, Elvis agreed to Binder’s pleading and walked out on the stage… and something magical took place.
It’s a common trope in movies, especially bio pics, to have the hero rise, then fall and then rise again. This is that one uncommon case where it actually happened that way in real life. Elvis relaxed immediately upon taking the stage. He was sexy, he was powerful, he was self-deprecating (about his past, the Elvis the Pelvis stuff, about his movies) and it just worked. In one powerful performance, we as a nation witnessed not just rock and roll history, we witnessed a King retaking his throne. John, Paul, George and who? This was Elvis, baby, as big as America, as big as the fucking world.
The show was originally broadcast on NBC on December 3rd, 1968, exactly fifty years from tomorrow. While the concert footage is my favorite and the most powerful part of the show, the producers and writers had written a song specifically for Elvis to reflect how he felt about the world. America in 1968 was a tumultuous place… RFK and MLK had been assassinated. Elvis was particularly disturbed by MLK’s murder as it happened in his hometown of Memphis. Elvis was that rare breed of southerner who was completely color blind. He’d grown up listening to black musicians his whole life, including black church gospel. For me, the center-point of the special, beyond the concert stuff is the great, great track “If I Can Dream.” It’s a song meant to unify and bring people together and I believe it to be one of Elvis’ most towering achievements.
I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the “Comeback Special,” as it has come to be known. He said the whole family was looking forward to watching it, but he confessed to being nervous. Could Elvis pull it off? Did he still have “it?” The answer, of course, is yes.
Now, on it’s 50th anniversary they’ve released The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition. It’s pretty spectacular. It’s everything. The original sound track is here. They even include the raw concert recordings. They even have the recordings of the rehearsals here. Everyone out there should own a copy of the Comeback Special in some format. It’s a really important chapter in the life of the King and in the story that is rock and roll.
After the success of the special, riding high, Elvis told the Colonel he wanted to get back on the road. He also decided to return to Memphis, his home to record there. The sessions from Memphis produced two landmark albums, From Elvis In Memphis and later Back In Memphis. It also produced the smash single, “Suspicious Minds.” You can easily find all the Memphis sessions combined on 1 or 2 CDs. I’ve always recommended The Memphis Record as the definitive one. After the special, the success of “Suspicious Minds,” and the album From Elvis In Memphis, the King had returned.
This new box set is likely the definitive version of the Comeback Special. I highly recommend it and the Memphis stuff recorded right after… I said earlier that we could all agree that Elvis was the undisputed King of rock and roll. When he was asked by a reporter at a press conference about being the King of Rock N Roll, Elvis shook his head and said, “I’m not the King, he is…” and pointed to Fats Domino who happened to be there. So I guess I can’t really say he was the undisputed King…
Long Live the King!
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