INNOCENT WORDS BLOG SERIES: 12 Moments Which Shaped Music – Elvis Comeback Special

ElvisPresleyI will be honest here. The future of music scares me. With the digital revolution consuming music and music listeners, the art of music, its artists, and the history of music seems to be gone with a click of the mouse on the delete button.

As a music writer and music fan (music nerd, if you will), I don’t want the musical past to be erased with the click of a mouse. I love more than anything the history of music. If it wasn’t for the past, we, as music fans, wouldn’t be enjoying what we have today.

With this 2016 Innocent Words Blog Series, we are going to take a look at 12 events which shaped, even changed, the face of music. Events which not only influenced me as a music fan, but influenced the world of music as a whole.

It’s hard to imagine someone would need to have a “comeback special” when they were already pulling down a million dollars per movie they made, but that is what Col. Tom Parker and his cash cow Elvis Presley did in 1968.

The times, as they say, were a changin,’ and Elvis was no longer cool. With the likes of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and a host of other British Invasion bands gaining in popularity, Elvis was put out to pasture. He had been making a series of movies with bad acting and even worse songs. His movies were steadily declining in popularity and he hadn’t had a hit single in six years. Elvis hadn’t even played a live concert since the Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on March 25, 1961.

To get Elvis back on top, The Colonel went to the heads at NBC and worked his magic to get Elvis a television special and a film called “Change of Habit” (1969). The Colonel wanted to pull out all the stops to make the show an extravaganza, but they couldn‘t decide if it should be a Christmas special with Elvis singing carols or a variety show with dancers and skits.

The decision was made that the Elvis special would have a little bit of everything instead of the tried and true Christmas Special. They filmed a mini movie for the special based around the song “Guitar Man.” They had a series of elaborate sets for the songs and Elvis added the gospel covers he got his start with.

While recording the special in June of that year, Presley and his band would break into old blues and rock & roll standards in between takes just for fun. When the producers noticed how much fun they were having and how relaxed Elvis was, they came up with the idea of an intimate live performance instead of the prerecorded material. Elvis was apprehensive at the idea since he hadn’t been on stage in nearly eight years, but after some convincing, Elvis decided to do a live show.

On June 27, Presley took the stage for the first time in over seven years. Decked out in all black leather, Elvis had a free flowing jam session with his band members—Scotty Moore, guitar; D. J. Fontana, drums; Alan Fortas, guitar;
Charlie Hodge, acoustic guitar; and Lance LeGault, guitar. They played two shows in the round on the small stage (no more than 10 feet square) with two audiences and had enough material for four one-hour shows (referred to collectively as “The Burbank Sessions”). In between the live tapings, Elvis would hustle off backstage, shower, and have his leather outfit dry cleaned so he could wear it again.

During the two shows, Elvis ran through his standard hits: “That’s All Right;” “Heartbreak Hotel;” “A Little Less Conversation,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” While performing “Love Me Tender,” Elvis sang to his wife, Priscilla, who was in the audience. During the first verse, he replaced the line “You have made my life complete” with “You have made my life a wreck…err, complete” as a brief, lighthearted joke. Elvis also dug deep into his catalog and played the lesser known songs “Tryin’ To Get To You,” “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again,” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”

Col. Tom Parker’s plans of a comeback came to fruition on December 3, when NBC aired “Elvis,” which has since been commonly referred to as the “’68 Comeback Special.”

The large and lavish choreographed numbers, mixed with Elvis’ stripped down intimate performances, became the highest-rated television special of that year. The special led to Elvis getting back on the road and touring, which included his lengthy performances in Las Vegas. He was back on the charts again as well, hitting number one with “Suspicious Minds” in 1969.

Although the ‘68 comeback special took place decades before, it could be argued that Elvis’ intimate, in the round performance was the precursor to shows like MTV’s highly successful “Unplugged” series.

Whether he was appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or in his own comeback special, Elvis Presley utilized television to further his music career. It is something we take for granted now since it is so common to see a band on a talk show, but back then, Elvis, along with Col. Tom Parker, paved the way for music promotion via television.