Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
As the ’60s rolled in, Elvis Presley was still The King, but there were chinks beginning to appear in his armor. His music was still topping the charts, but a lot of that music – most of it, actually – came from the soundtracks of the profitable, yet cheesy, Hollywood films he was churning out. That’s not to say that the music was lacking; some of his career-best songs came from that era, including “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (1961) and “Return to Sender” (1962). Also, three of his movie soundtrack albums climbed to #1 in the first half of the decade. By anyone’s standards, those are solid achievements.
But Elvis wasn’t just anyone.
Things were not as they used to be, and Elvis’ slide into commercial mediocrity, if not downright obscurity, seemed to happen almost as quickly as his meteoric rise to superstardom a decade earlier. It didn’t help that his core fan base was now a number of years older. They were getting married, having babies – growing up. Couple that with the overnight ascension of a certain mop-topped quartet from Liverpool, and just like that, the King of Rock and Roll was all but relegated to the “where are they now” file.
From 1964 through 1968, Elvis saw only one of his singles crack the top 10 – and that was the 1965’s “Crying in the Chapel,” which was actually recorded five years earlier. After the release of his ’62 album Pot Luck, Elvis didn’t put out another new studio album (not counting movie soundtracks) until 1967’s gospel album How Great Thou Art, which brought him his first Grammy (for Best Sacred Performance).
Elvis seemed to hit rock bottom with the release of his 1967 Clambake movie soundtrack, which resulted in record-low sales. As historians Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx noted, “Elvis was viewed as a joke by serious music lovers and a has-been to all but his most loyal fans.” Elvis’ films were moving in the wrong financial direction, too, and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was finding it increasingly difficult to secure his usual million-dollar per film fee.
So, Parker turned to NBC and struck a $1.25 million deal for both a movie (Change of Habit) and TV special. The initial concept for the TV special was for an extravagant show complete with multiple set and costume changes, dance sequences and huge productions built around Elvis’ biggest hits. The goal was to revitalize The King’s reputation after years of silly, insipid and formulaic films.
Four days of rehearsals and music recording took place in Hollywood, beginning on June 20. It was here where the unexpected happened. After a long rehearsal session, Elvis and the other musicians would wind down by playing old blues and rock songs. The show’s producer, Steve Binder, noticed how comfortable and real and undeniably talented Elvis was during these laid-back impromptu jam sessions. “That when I really got the idea: Wouldn’t it be great if I had a camera in here and they didn’t know I was here?” Binder said.
Elvis was apprehensive about performing live; it had been seven years since his last concert. Binder, however, reassured him it would go well. He even arranged for Elvis’ original backing band to take part, including Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana (bassist Bill Black had died three years earlier.) Also included were Elvis’ good friends Alan Fortas, Lance LeGault and Charlie Hodge. Two days of rehearsals for this new live and intimate performance started on June 24 in the informal and comfortable dressing room at NBC.
On this day in 1968, Elvis took the stage to perform in front of an audience for the first time since his last concert, which was at the Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on March 25, 1961. Four one-hour segments were taped, with an hour-long break built in between performances to let Elvis shower, rest and have his now iconic black-leather outfit dry cleaned. Two different audiences were used for the tapings.
On some songs Elvis played guitar while singing, and on others he just sang (he and Scotty Moore were using the same electric and acoustic guitars, so they just traded them back and forth.) In one particularly funny moment, while singing “Love Me Tender,” Elvis was singing to his wife, Priscilla, who was in the audience. He jokingly changed the lyrics from “…you have made my life complete” to “…you have made my life a wreck…er, complete.”
Only a small portion of this live performance was used in the televised special, but it proved to be an explosive television moment. It was the highest-rated television special of 1968 – and it proved to be the shot in the arm The King need to launch into Phase 3 of his remarkable career, which would include an enormously successful run in Las Vegas, record-shattering concert tours and more trips to the top of the singles charts.