34 ELVIS – NBC-TV SPECIAL
Released in the USA November 22 1968
Faith was important in 1968. Amidst the chaos and turmoil of the decade the conservatives prayed that somehow their honoured traditions would remain intact. The young believed that they would not only be able to challenge the powerful but that an egalitarian and liberated utopia was possible. For some young Americans their faith was more personal. They trusted that they would avoid the draft or at least walk away alive from the Vietnam war. My own faith was more pathetic. I had the strange notion that I would be able to sacrifice a university career, collect various injuries but still manage to have a future. Like many of my generation, I was too young to think about resurrection. But whatever faith was needed in that decade there were plenty of diversions. The young that had individual plans and long term ambitions kept their ideas to themselves.
The Elvis TV Special was recorded in the summer of 1968. For the previous half a dozen years a disillusioned and depressed Elvis had found contradictory compensations in both mindless diversions and an exploration of his religious faith. Elvis in 1968 was 33 years old and also a father. Colonel Parker, though, still referred to Elvis as ‘my boy’ and, although Elvis needed little encouragement, Parker had used lackeys to trap the singer in adolescence. Always the carny man that believed the same show could be taken to another town or the same town the next year Parker had his own faith. It was a creed that denied resurrection.
There had been little in the previous years to suggest Parker had any interest in Elvis appearing on television. From 1960 the Elvis movies rolled off the production line and Parker had kept his meal ticket away from the small screen. The Colonel had even boycotted the Academy Awards ceremonies and denied Elvis a Hollywood presence that would have invited opportunities. Parker preferred a cloistered Elvis. Money, though, always turned the head of Parker. The deal for the TV Special was worth $1,350,000. This consisted of $250,000 for the TV show, another $250,000 for the rights to the soundtrack and a whopping $850,000 for Elvis to appear in a TV movie. When asked to surrender creative control of the project the Colonel agreed without complaint. The Colonel found consolation in his bank account.
The confrontation between Parker and producer Steve Binder has been much exaggerated. Parker did ask for the show to end with a Christmas song but no more than that. The TV show was first aired on December 3 1968. Elvis agreed with Steve Binder that the show needed something more relevant to what was happening in the USA and said no to the Christmas finale. Although Elvis backed Binder regarding the climax of the show a tough and bluesy version of Blue Christmas appears in one of the sit down sessions. When the show was repeated on TV in the summer of 1969 the Colonel suggested that the Christmas song be replaced with the wild Tiger Man. This may not get Parker into heaven but it was one of his better decisions. Not so impressive was his failure to provide an audience for the performances by Elvis. Parker had insisted that the studio audience should consist of members of the Elvis fan clubs. The omnipotent Colonel would arrange their attendance. The idea was not unreasonable. The audience should have consisted of loyal fans. Unfortunately the Colonel forgot to send any invitations. Without an audience the producers had to recruit diners from the restaurant across the road from the TV studio. The mix up was beneficial. The audience was appreciative but restrained and not a distraction.
Steve Binder had been reluctant to accept the role of producer. The information about how and why he changed his mind is unreliable but the likelihood is that he was persuaded by being given creative control and a promise from Elvis that he would make more effort than he had in his recent movies. The money that was being invested by NBC would have also played a part. In 1968 the doubts of Binder were shared by the majority of Elvis fans. I had long lost my faith in Elvis and the possibility of his recovering. The day after the TV Special was aired in the States the London Evening Standard had half a column about the event. The article quoted an extract from an American review that described the performance of Elvis as nervous and unconvincing. I read the paper after an evening meal in the University refectory. Someone had left the newspaper on the table where I sat with three mates. I said nothing to my friends. What I read in the Evening Standard confirmed a view that I had both held and resisted. My gloom was private. After reading the article I folded the newspaper and left it for the next diner. I felt as if I was throwing stones on a coffin.
And that should have been it except in the University bar a week later I saw the same friends sitting at a small white table that was covered with the weekly music papers. The friends had grins and wide open eyes that were staring at photographs of an Elvis that had sideburns. He looked like he had just walked out of a fight. The reviews of the TV Special that were in the music papers were different from what I had read in the Evening Standard. These reports were ecstatic. Days later another friend bought the TV Special album in a London record shop that sold American imports. We followed this well-heeled friend to his study room, held our breath and listened. At one point Elvis says to the studio audience, ‘It’s been a long time, baby.’ And so it had, long enough for what was on the record to qualify as a resurrection. The album and performance by Elvis also felt like an article of faith in himself and his future. Elvis had at last remembered independent defiance. The protest song If I Can Dream was the climax of the album and TV show and, although the lyrics were designed to offend no one, the angry blues of Elvis ensured that his rebellious concern was extended to others. I was a young man that had a very complicated attitude to my peers but I was still affected by what was happening in that decade. I was part of my generation. Listening to the album, which I did often, it felt that Elvis had understood what was best about not just him but what was in the air in 1968. Whether we liked it or not sides had to be taken, and Elvis was now on our side. So it seemed.
The album cover caught some of what would later become iconic. It differed from previous Elvis album covers because instead of posing for a publicity photograph he was actually doing something, singing his heart out in the finale. Behind him the name Elvis was spelled out in bright red lights. The image has been borrowed numerous times for rock videos and stage backdrops. The sit down sessions in the Elvis TV Special were also adopted by various artists. The term unplugged was created by MTV.
The conventional wisdom that the original reviews of the Elvis TV Special were lukewarm is not true. They were mixed but not in the traditional sense. The newspaper reviews were either full of praise or offhand and condescending. There was no middle ground for the responses to Elvis, as there never had been. The reaction from the music press was different because amongst rock critics the acclaim was universal. The celluloid somnambulist had come alive. Fans also responded. The album reached number eight in the Billboard charts. His previous effort, the soundtrack from Speedway, had managed no more than 82.
The people who had grown up with Elvis remembered why he was great, forgave him for the past, bought the album and relished the triumph. The album ranges from great to irresistible and slams the listener into submission. There are moments when it feels like the impossible has been achieved, a gauntlet has been dropped by a creature not of this world. The final verse on Guitar Man, the gospel climax of Saved and the version of Heartbreak Hotel are examples. Even the soulful and powerful ballads throb. Elvis is aggressive to the extent of being reckless. The TV studio orchestra is not subtle but that contributes to the satisfying danger, the ultimate flirtation that rock and roll had promised.
Yet the young generation, the people Binder had hoped to reach, were not converted. Neither did the raw rock and roll of the TV Special appeal to African Americans. Unlike the white Elvis devotees of the 1950s the African American fans of early Elvis had moved on. Soul music, like rock and roll in the 1950s, had facilitated an explosion in creativity. It not only had appeal for record buyers but also provided a distinct identity for African Americans. Elvis in the TV Special belted out the numbers in a tough voice, and his growl echoed that of James Brown. But for all his efforts and the subsequent plaudits the American youth and African Americans remained out of the reach of the resurrected Elvis. The show was a success but Binder had failed in his grand ambition.
What Binder did was create an environment where Elvis was able to show the power that confirmed him as special. And those critics still loyal to their Elvis memories had felt as if they had received affirmation. The TV Special and the recordings that followed in the next two years proved that Elvis was capable of galvanising his career. There would be more surprises and much to welcome. The triumph of the past, though, was no longer available to the man that some still called the King of Rock and Roll. Neither was Elvis prepared to settle for using his voice to demonstrate nothing other than physical strength and force. His more complicated aspirations would be pursued by Elvis when he returned to Memphis to record a studio album. This happened not later but almost immediately.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.