Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback: Burbank to Graceland

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Elvis during the '68 special. (Photo: Courtesy of Graceland)

Elvis during the ’68 special. (Photo: Courtesy of Graceland)

At 9:00 p.m. on December 3, 1968, the televisions of millions of American homes were tuned to NBC, where they were greeted with this welcoming line: “If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.” After an eight-year hiatus, Elvis Presley was back on TV. He was joined by guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, both of whom had been with Elvis on his historic TV appearances in 1956 and ’57.

Television had changed a lot in those years: Presley was in glorious color for the first time! And he filled much larger screens than the tiny black-and-white sets that had showed a grainy version of him with Frank Sinatra in 1960, the last time he’d sung to a national audience.

And it was only the beginning: For the next 60 minutes, viewers saw and heard some of the rawest, hardest rock and roll music of their lives. And it worked: Elvis was the top-ranked show of the week, beating out the hugely popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The reviews that followed were generous, and the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, would later be given a Peabody Award for this special.

Tell me why can’t my dreams come true
But it was the response of the people that mattered: In the wake of the television broadcast, the single from the show, “If I Can Dream”—a heartfelt appeal for universal brotherhood and acceptance—peaked at #9 on the Cash Box Top 100 survey. It was Presley’s first Top 10 single in three years, selling close to a million copies in the U.S. (It reached #12 in Billboard.)

The soundtrack album, Elvis, reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s LP chart, also the first time that had happened in three years. These two records were hits around the world, the first time that Presley had enjoyed such global success since “Crying in the Chapel” in 1965.

In hindsight, all of this looks almost inevitable: How could such determination, such ambition, such genius not be appreciated on a massive scale? But that was anything but predictable when the show aired that December, for on that late 1968 day, Elvis had fallen from the pinnacle of success. He had made too many movies and the numbers at the box office and for their soundtracks had taken a noticeable hit. Whereas the soundtracks from his seven films from 1957’s Loving You through 1963’s Fun in Acapulco never failed to reach the top 5 in sales, none of the six titles from 1966 through spring 1968 even reached the top 10.

Elvis during the '68 special. (Photo: Courtesy of Graceland)

Elvis during the ’68 special. (Photo: Courtesy of Graceland)

In the 1950s, Elvis had been the personification of rock and roll; it often seemed that he had singlehandedly established the genre as the most popular music in the world. By 1968, though, rock and roll had moved from the British Invasion through folk-rock into psychedelia and progressive rock—and all of that in just the past four years! By 1968, Elvis Presley recognized that he needed a return to relevance.

Singer Presents Elvis
With the special in essentially uncharted territory, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker found a “safe” sponsor: the Singer Sewing Machine Company. While the correct title of the show broadcast on NBC-TV was simply Elvis, because of their backing and their promotion, the show is often referred to as “Singer Presents Elvis.” It is also known as the “NBC-TV Special” and “the ’68 Comeback.”

And it was a comeback: On December 4, 1968, the day after the special, it was suddenly OK, almost cool, to like all things Elvis again.

Watch Elvis Presley sing his Sun Records classic “That’s All Right” on the ’68 special

We’re caught in a trap
This cool period was carried forward by the records Elvis made with producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studio in Memphis in early 1969. “In the Ghetto,” written by Mac Davis, found a white Southern man addressing the problems of black northern inner cities. In the hands of most singers, this song would have sounded contrived, forced, perhaps even pandering. Elvis made it sound like a gentle call-to-arms to the very brothers he had reached out to with his previous single, “If I Can Dream.”

The album was titled From Elvis in Memphis and was a heady mixture of rock, country and something new for Elvis, Southern soul music. This album showed the world that he could make a solid album from first track to last. It cemented his new stature as a potent force in the rock market.

Then came the next single, “Suspicious Minds,” written by Mark James. This was so masterful a record that a single hearing could leave a listener thinking he had just heard the greatest moment in Presley’s career.

And just as important as the music was the response: The records sold millions of copies all over the world. In 1969 and ’70, Presley received more RIAA Gold Record Awards that he had received at any time in his career.

In July of ’69, Elvis returned to live performing on the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas, boosting his visibility and name recognition.

Pilgrims with families are going to Graceland
By the final days of the decade, Elvis was arguably as famous as he had been in the ’50s. Due to the staggering growth in communication media—especially globally—and the growing interest in celebrities’ private lives, many aspects of Presley’s life became household words.

Among those aspects of Presley’s life attaining their own international celebrity were his wife Priscilla Presley and Elvis’ Memphis home, Graceland. In fact, the two are conjoined: after establishing herself as a successful actress, Priscilla became the guiding force in establishing Graceland as one of this country’s most visited places. Under her eye and hand, the name “Graceland” began to take on cultural meaning—metaphorical if not almost spiritual meaning—beyond merely being the home of a star. The most famous use of Graceland as metaphor is Paul Simon’s brilliant album of the same name, Graceland (1986). According to Simon, the song “Graceland” is partly about a trip to Elvis’ home by a man with his 9-year-old son “trying to find some kind of solace from a loss of love” there.

Related: Presley’s new Graceland entertainment complex has opened

This theme was carried on more directly and more poignantly in David Winkler’s 1999 film Finding Graceland. Harvey Keitel, one of the least likely actors on the planet to “play” Elvis, is a lost soul who believes that he is, in fact, Elvis Presley, that he took a leave of absence from being “the king” to get away from the craziness and find some comfort with the people. His people. The movie deals with his need to return home, to Graceland, to find solace and closure to his life and to his journey. It is a lovely movie that does not require even liking Presley, but it does require the viewer know something about Graceland—which everyone does.

Those 60 minutes of music and passion and playfulness changed so many things on December 3, 1968. And Graceland has, over the ensuing years, become a metaphor with a life of its own. As Paul Simon sang, “I’m going to Graceland for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”

Watch Elvis sing “Trying to Get to You” from the 1968 special

Set list from the 1968 special
“Trouble”/”Guitar Man”
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
“Baby What You Want Me to Do”
“Heartbreak Hotel”/”Hound Dog”/”All Shook Up”
“Can’t Help Falling in Love”
“Jailhouse Rock”
“Love Me Tender”
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Gospel Production Number:
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”/”Where Could I Go But To The Lord”/”Up Above My Head”/Saved
“Baby, What You Want Me To Do”
“Blue Christmas”
“One Night”
“Memories”
Guitar Man Production Number:
“Nothingville”/”Guitar Man”/”Let Yourself Go”/”Guitar Man”/”Big Boss Man”/”It Hurts Me”/”Guitar Man”/”Little Egypt”/”Trouble”/”Guitar Man”
“If I Can Dream”

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Neal Umphred

Neal Umphred

Neal Umphred began collecting records in 1962, when he inherited his aunt’s collection of rock & roll 45s from the ’50s. His first loves were Elvis and Ricky, Fats and Chuck, Connie and Brenda, the Everlys and the Platters, etc.

In 1964, came came the British Invasion and he fell in love with all those fab gear English beat groups like the Beatles, Stones, Dave Clark 5, Animals, Hollies, Yardbirds, and especially the Kinks (God save 'em!).

In 1965, he heard the Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” and nothing was ever the same.

In 1978, he sold records as a dealer for the first time at a Rock of Ages show in New York City.

In 1980, he sold his first records through the mail via ads in Goldmine magazine.

In 1985, he was tapped for the position of writer and editor of the O’Sullivan Woodside line of record collectors price guides and nothing was ever the same, for him and for record collecting.

In 1989, he launched Goldmine's line of price guides for record collectors.

For the past three years, Neal Umphred has written extensively and often pugnaciously about popular music (mostly rock & roll) and record collecting for his own blogs, Rather Rare Records (ratherrarerecords.com) and Elvis – A Touch Of Gold (elvis-atouchofgold.com).
Neal Umphred

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  1. Sandy Gibson
    #1 Sandy Gibson 30 November, 2016, 01:53

    Bones Howe produced the music for the 1968 Special.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 30 November, 2016, 19:27

      Author Neal Umphred replies: Thank you for pointing that out: you are correct and I should have mentioned Mr. Howe. For the NBC Special, Bob Finkel was listed as the Executive Producer, while Steve Binder was the hands-on Producer/Director in charge of the television show. His previous work included directing the legendary “T.A.M.I. Show” in 1964, and the television musical series “Hullabaloo” in 1965-1966.

      Howe was credited as the Musical Supervisor for the special, meaning he was the Producer and the Director of the musical segments of the show. Howe was an established engineer, having worked the board at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles from 1956 to 1962. He does not get the credit he deserves for capturing the vitality of Elvis in the raw in June ’68.

      Reply this comment
  2. MaryAnn
    #2 MaryAnn 3 December, 2016, 00:50

    Enjoyed the article! Elvis will live forever in all our hearts!

    Reply this comment
  3. BLANE
    #3 BLANE 5 December, 2016, 13:18

    +Very good article. Quite informative.

    Reply this comment
  4. max
    #4 max 8 December, 2016, 19:13

    knowledge is power, & Umphred delivers!

    Reply this comment
  5. Victoria
    #5 Victoria 28 June, 2017, 09:26

    “Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do” is one of my all time favorite Elvis songs and performances. The 68′ Comeback Special kicks ass for so many reasons! Great Article!

    Reply this comment

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