A LOOK AT THE '68 SPECIAL
Elvis's manager Colonel Parker began negotiations with NBC in October of 1967 to produce an Elvis movie and a Christmas TV special slated for the 1968 Christmas season. The agreement was announced by NBC vice-president Tom Sarnoff on January 12, 1968. Elvis's first television appearance in more than eight years would be a Christmas special for which NBC would pay $250,000 and they would pay $850,000 to produce an Elvis movie and an additional $25,000 for the film's music. The movie "Change of Habit" was a product of this agreement as well as the TV special "Elvis", also known as the "'68 Comeback Special."
Bob Finkel was the executive producer of the special. He had produced the successful variety series "The Andy Williams Show" for which he had Emmy nominated three years in a row. He won two - one in 1966 and one in 1967.
By mid-May Finkel hired 23-year-old Steve Binder to direct and his partner Bones Howe to produce the music. Before the love of music took over Steve Binder's life, he was a medical student at the University of Southern California. After meeting some members of the music industry he became interested iand found he had a natural talent for directing musical productions. He directed the TV series "Hullabaloo" which, along with the show "Shindig," were "must see TV" for most all teenagers at that time. He had also directed the 1965 T.A.M.I. show which stands for "Teenage Music International," a foundation devoted to providing music scholarships to teens. The two-hour documentary featured an array of musical talent that included The Supremes, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and James Brown. (Elvis had seen this show and was impressed with it and especially the performance by James Brown.) Binder had just finished producing and directing a Petula Clark special and was fast becoming the hottest young director/producer of musical specials in Los Angles. He went on after Elvis's special to be nominated six times for Emmy Awards and received one for his work on the 1977 "The Barry Manilow Special." In recent years he has produced and directed numerous Disney on Ice specials.
Dayton "Bones" Howe was the musical producer, an area he specializes in. Having been a recording engineer at Radio Recorders in Los Angles, Mr. Howe had worked with Elvis before. When he first found out that NBC wanted Steve Binder to direct the project, it was Howe who told him he would hit it off well with Elvis. Bones Howe has since worked on such projects as "Back To the Future", "National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation" and "A Walk On the Moon" among many others.
None of the principals involved except Colonel Parker wanted to make a typical (stale) Christmas show. They wanted to use Elvis's innate charisma and energy to tell a story. By early May 1968, Bob Finkel finally persuaded the Colonel to allow them to change the concept of the show. NBC had acquired the Singer Company as the special's sole sponsor of the show. Issac Merritt Singer invented his version of the sewing machine in 1850 and by 1851 began his company. Over the years the name Singer would become synonymous with sewing and innovations in that industry. By 1968 they had also branched out into other small appliances. Singer executive Alfred D. Scipio was all for the new concept of a semi-documentary featuring Elvis as an "innovator" in music. A concept that complimented his product.
The last two weeks of May, Elvis and his family and friends vacationed in Hawaii. While he was away writers Chris Beard and Allan Blye wrote the script which concerned a young man leaving home, searching for happiness and a career, the obstacles encountered and the eventual journey back home. The song "Guitar Man" was decided upon as the theme link between scenes. The show would end with Elvis singing a Christmas song to appease Colonel Parker as the show would air during the Christmas season.
On June 3, 1968 Elvis began working with Binder and Howe at their offices. As they got to know Elvis better and saw how deeply he was affected by the June 6th death of Robert Kennedy, Steve Binder was inspired to ask songwriter Earl Brown, who was writing arrangements for the show, to write an inspirational song for the finale. That song would become the much loved "If I Can Dream." ("...if I can dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand....").
On June 11th, Elvis met costume designer Bill Belew. Mr. Belew graduated from New York's The Parson's School of Design. He served in the military in Korea and began designing for salons in Japan. He worked in retail until he got involved in designing for TV in the 1960s and would also eventually design for a number of theatrical productions as well including operas and ballets. He had worked previously with Steve Binder on the Petula Clark special. When Mr. Binder asked him to design for Elvis, it was the beginning a relationship that would last for the rest of Elvis's life. Belew designed Elvis's famous jumpsuits of the 1970s as well as much of his personal wardrobe. It was Bill Belew who envisioned Elvis in black leather with the high Napoleonic collar. As chronicled in Peter Guralnick's book "Careless Love": "Elvis listened, nodded, and agreed to virtually every suggestion that Belew made. The designer was dumbfounded. He had never encountered such a lack of ego in a big star before. The one subject about which they had any disagreement was the gold suit that Belew designed to symbolize success, in homage to the suit that Colonel (Parker) had had made up for Elvis in 1957. Elvis never explained his opposition but was clearly embarrassed by it, and in the end they worked out the same compromise solution that he had agreed to in the fifties: he would wear the gold jacket with a pair of black tuxedo pants."
Elvis worked with composers Billy Strange and Mac Davis in the movie "Live A Little, Love A Little." Their song "A Little Less Conversation" had been used in that film and was for a time considered to be used in this TV special. It was the version recorded for this special that was used for the highly successful 2002 remix that has since been used in movies and as the theme song for the TV series "Las Vegas." Billy Strange and Mac Davis wrote "Nothingville" and "Memories", both of which were used in the 1968 TV special. Mr. Strange would go on to work with Elvis again in the movies "Charro!" and "The Trouble With Girls." They also shared another tie as Mr. Strange was at one time married to Joan O'Brien, Elvis's leading lady in "It Happened At The World's Fair."
Elvis began rehearsals on June 17th, becoming so immersed in the project that he literally moved into his NBC dressing room for the duration, even sleeping there. It was after rehearsals one night that Steve Binder came upon Elvis and his friends in his temporary home, doing what Elvis did naturally to relax - laughing and jamming. It was then that Mr. Binder had the idea to add a jam session to the actual special. His first thought was to film it in the dressing room but later changed the location to an informal gathering with an audience. This portion has since become known as the two sit-down shows. Joining him on stage were his original side men Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana, and his friends Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault.
Recording sessions at Western Recorders began on June 20th. The musicians used on this special were some of the best in the business, many were a part of Phil Spector's famous "wrecking crew".
On guitars were Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy and Al Casey. It was actually Al Casey's beautiful red Hagsrom guitar that Elvis used in the opening scenes. Bones Howe had spotted it in Mr. Casey's instrument trunk and thought that the bright red guitar with its gold hardware would be perfect for the scene. Hagstrom's were made in Alvadalen, Sweden between 1958 and 1983 and were known for their fine quality. This particular instrument is now owned by a casino corporation out of Illinois.
Charles Berghofer played bass as did Larry Knechtal, who also played the keyboards. Don Randi was on piano. Hal Blaine, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 as a sideman, played the drums. John Cyr and Elliot Franks provided percussion. Frank DeVito played bongos. Tommy Morgan was on the harmonica.
Backup vocals were by the Blossoms: Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King. It is Jean King that we hear sing "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" in the opening of the gospel production number.
Billy Goldenberg conducted an orchestra of strings and horns, all of which added to the final product.
On June 26th. there was an on-set birthday party for Col. Tom Parker. Colonel was given an autographed portrait of Executive Producer Bob Finkel dressed as Napoleon. The portrait is still a part of the Colonel's collection in the Graceland Archives. Elvis also sang for the Colonel's pleasure a parody of "It Hurts Me" written for the occasion by Chris Beard and Allan Blye. The new version of the song went:"It hurts me to see the budget climb up to the sky. It hurts me when Finkel gives me trouble, when I see all my money go just for one g---damned ol'TV show. It hurts me the way that Finkel spends my dough. The whole town is talkin' they're callin' me a fool for listenin' to Binder's same ol' lies. Finkel calls me, says I've got no choice then hangs up the phone in that damned Rolls Royce. It hurts me when my tears start to flow, they promised me sure if I would give in that I would-that I would never go wrong, but tell me the truth is it too much to ask for one lousy tired ol' Christmas song...?"
By June 27th, rehearsals were winding down and the taping of the production numbers had begun. Also that evening there were two sit-down jam session shows taped. On June 29th they shot the two stand-up shows. On Sunday, June 30th, Elvis completed taping the "If I Can Dream" finale. Physically and emotionally spent, Elvis then left for a week's rest in Palm Springs.
On September 11, 1968 "Variety" announced that the bordello scene had been cut from the TV special, citing it had been passed by the NBC censors but the sponsor Singer had requested that it be removed.
The "Elvis" special aired on December 3rd. at 9:00 EST and was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the number one show for the season and giving NBC its biggest ratings victory of the year. It received rave reviews from the critics and Elvis was indeed back on top!
The voice. The energy. The moves. The look. The charisma. The attitude. To many, this show represents Elvis Presley at his very best. After this triumph Elvis poured renewed creative vigor into his recording work, wrapped up his movie contract obligations and returned full-time to the concert stage, beginning a new and exciting era of his career.