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At the beginning of 1968, Elvis’ career looked as if it was over. Yet, at 33, the King was determined to prove to the world he was just as vital and relevant as he’d been in his pelvis-thrusting heyday. The resulting TV special would prove the most explosive comeback in rock’n’roll history…


The ultimate comeback? A self-assured Elvis Presley at Burbank Studios, June 1968
Photos supplied by Strike Media

27 June, 1968. At NBC’s Burbank Studios, California, Elvis Presley has just finished filming a section of his TV special, planned for broadcast in December. The section is no small matter for the artist: it features Presley playing semi-acoustically with cherished excolleagues in front of a live audience seven years after he has given up concerts. Despite his nerves, he is clearly loving every second, charming the audience with his mesmerising presence, peerless vocal skills and self-deprecating humour.

The intention is for Presley, after a short break, to repeat the exercise for another audience. However, when the mini-concert closes, a wholly unforeseen problem arises. The show’s director and co-producer Steve Binder finds himself approached by costume designer Bill Belew, who is agitatedly holding the trousers of the distinctive leather outfit worn by Presley in the segment. Recalls Binder, “He said, ‘My God, what do we do? It’s all wet inside!’” Belew opens the trousers to show a caking stain of what is unmistakably semen. Hairdryers have to be quickly marshalled to prepare the garment for the next session.

The fact that Presley was so ecstatic was surely a sign that the star had realised the momentousness of what was happening. Namely, he was in the process of putting together a broadcast that would rescue him from the showbusiness boondocks in which he had been languishing for half a decade and haul himself back to the status of vital artist.

That he was right was somewhat ironic, for the special only came about as a mechanism to generate funds for another of the lightweight movies that had been so responsible for the degradation of his public standing. With proceeds from his pictures diminishing, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker had gone to NBC to seek financing for the film Change Of Habit. The American TV network had acquiesced on the proviso that Parker’s client tape a one-hour broadcast event for them.

“Tom Parker told me that it was going to be a Christmas special with 20 Christmas songs and no dialogue”

Though at 34 Binder was only a year older than Presley, he wasn’t overawed by being offered the director’s chair. “I was not an Elvis fan,” he admits. “I was a West Coast kid who was into The Beach Boys. I was amused by him.” Nor were he and co-producer Bones Howe impressed by Parker’s vision for the show. “He told me that it was going to be a Christmas special with 20 Christmas songs and no dialogue,” Binder reflects. “I had no intentions of doing that kind of a show.”

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