Just 12 years after he emerged as the ultimate embodiment of modern America’s desires, Elvis had fallen from grace until the 1968 TV special reaffirmed his status as The King.
The legendary Elvis Presley is the undisputed ‘King of Rock and Roll’. One of the most iconic public figures of the 20th century, Elvis left a unique and indelible mark on the American music landscape that endures to this day. From rock and roll, pop, country, and rockabilly, to gospel, blues, and R&B, the singer did it all during his 20+ years of making music, as nobody else before him or since.
1956 was a whirlwind year for Elvis and for his fans. He delivered a string of hits including ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Hound Dog’, ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ became his first single to sell over a million copies. He appeared on prime-time television 11 times.
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Following a screen test for producer Hal Wallis at Paramount Pictures, he signed a one-picture deal with options for six more. Paramount didn’t have a script ready, so Elvis was loaned to Twentieth Century Fox to make Love Me Tender, a film that grossed over nine million dollars. At the same time, security staff of 100 National Guardsmen and police were required when he performed a special ‘homecoming’ concert in his hometown of Tupelo for thousands of frenzied fans.
In the two years that followed, he built on his success with more hit films – Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) – and singles including ‘All Shook Up’ (1957). He was on a hot streak. Elvis was even drafted for the United States Army Service in 1957 and was repositioned as a safe and more serious talent, returning stateside more famous than ever in 1960.
Despite the profound influence of Elvis on music, design, art, and pop culture that’s become ingrained into our lives today, in 1968, just 12 years after he emerged as the ultimate embodiment of modern America’s desires, Elvis had fallen from grace.
For most of the 1960s following his stint in the Army, Elvis’s career was all about Hollywood. He became devoted to performing in films and recording their soundtracks. While his output here was prolific, starring in more than 20 feature films and recording several LP and EP soundtrack records, the quality of the films and the music itself were anything but. Unlike the ‘50s classic of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, his acting credits were centred on candy-coloured works with the same fast and cheap formula of songs, exotic locations and romance, rinsed and repeated time after time.
The King was all but dead; his rebel edge departed.
With his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, continuing to point the ultra-manicured Elvis towards relentless filming schedules rather than touring and the rough edges smoothed away, his future as a rockstar was hanging in the balance. Heartbreakingly, Elvis felt depressed and alienated as the quality of his films deteriorated. Privately and in some interviews, he expressed dismay at the music he was contracted to record for movie soundtracks.
At the same time, the rest of the world was experiencing a social and political revolution shaped by anti-establishment ideas, political protest, and sexual liberation. The cultural impact of the ‘British Invasion’, led by bands like the Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones, was also giving rise to a significantly different era. A new wave of avant-garde musicians with loud guitars and original songwriting were taking over the world with their music devoted to social change, all while Elvis watched from the Hollywood shadows.
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Mentally struggling, Elvis had lost touch with his passion for music and had not performed live for years – his last public performance was in 1961 when he played a concert in Hawaii to benefit the construction of the USS Arizona Memorial. Although he continued to earn unparalleled fees and his films were commercial successes for the studios, Elvis was increasingly embarrassed, frustrated, and creatively bereft.
Elvis needed a musical comeback.
He got that in 1968 in the form of a 60-minute television special that revived his career and changed concert films forever.
The television special ‘Singer Presents … Elvis’ (these days better known as the ‘the ’68 Comeback Special’) was envisaged by Elvis’s manager as a wholesome evening of classic Christmas songs – a concept that truly uninspired the King of Rock and Roll.
NBC Producer Bob Finkel saw the potential for something more interesting and appointed a young new director, Steve Binder, to devise the show. Binder hired a fresh production crew and inducted one of the most important people in the history of Elvis’s image: costume designer Bill Belew who would become his costume and personal wardrobe designed from 1968 until his death in 1977.
For Elvis, this was a make-or-break-him moment.
In the special, which aired by NBC on December 3 1968, 33-year-old Elvis delivered an electrifying one-hour performance, playing the songs that mattered most to him in his first live performance since 1961.
Confidently jamming with his original band in a full suit of jet-black leather, Elvis instantly returned to form, performing renditions of songs including ‘That’s All Right’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, ‘One Night’ and ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy’, among many others. He looked good, and he sounded even better. Audiences were reminded of the Elvis they hadn’t seen for years.
Almost instantly erasing the past eight years and his polished performances of Hollywood screens, the King reclaimed his swagger and his crown.
His impassioned performance in the closing number, ‘If I Can Dream’, paid tribute to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The song was unusual in its declaration of Elvis’s social values, but he had been profoundly affected by the assassination of King in Memphis earlier that year. In a longline crisp three-piece white suit, Elvis performed a song that captured everything the country was feeling, featuring quotes from King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, invoking the glowing onstage presence of a pastor inspiring his congregation. With bright red ELVIS letters behind him, a big crescendo and arms stretched wide, this iconic moment undoubtedly confirmed the feeling that Elvis was back on top of his game.
This event was a turning point in Presley’s career, reignited Elvis’s love for performance and cementing his enduring place in rock music history that we know today.
Just as the whirlwind successes of 1956 had kickstarted a frenetic chapter of touring and gruelling contractual commitments in Hollywood, the dazzling high of 1968 began a new era of extraordinary creative output, paving the way for a new round of hits, and an exhausting schedule that would exact a dreadful toll.
This unforgettable ’68 Special performance will be explored in the major new biographical exhibition, ‘Elvis: Direct From Graceland’.
Curated by Bendigo Art Gallery in collaboration with the Graceland archives, the exclusive exhibition never-before-seen-in Australia celebrates the extraordinary life and style of Elvis Presley, exploring his profound influence on music, design, art, and pop culture.
Featuring 300 authentic artefacts owned by Elvis Presley – including two costumes from the ‘68 Comeback Special – it is currently showing exclusively at Bendigo Art Gallery until July 17 2022. You can purchase tickets here.