Sunday, August 14, 2011

Elvis Week 2011, Part Five: Special Comeback

In previous segments of Elvis Week 2011, we've seen how Elvis Presley grew out of humble and shy beginnings to burst onto the scene in 1956 with an unforgettable debut year.  We've seen that Elvis used his charm, his good looks and his inimitable style to become not only a sex symbol but the greatest star the world had ever seen to that point.  Elvis was not only the biggest rock star; after the death of Buddy Holly, he essentially had the stage to himself.  

By 1963, Presley had racked up 68 hits, 32 Top 10 songs, 13 #1's, 22 Platinum records, eight Gold records, seven #1 albums and a string of successful movies.  But cracks were beginning to show in the gigantic financial empire that Elvis had built.    

Finally in 1968, after seven years away from the stage, Colonel Parker remembered the importance of live performances and Elvis starred in a much-publicized comeback television special.  There's an obvious response that I'm going to give to this move.  Duh.  The special on NBC-TV (called Elvis) aired December 3, 1968 and later became known as the '68 Comeback Special.  Elvis appeared in tight black leather, singing and playing in the style that originally made him famous.  He was energetic, alive, and enthused.  Parker had originally planned an hour of Christmas songs for the special, but director and co-producer Steve Binder was in charge of this show.  

The special drew 42% of the viewing audience on that night and was the highest-rated show of the year for NBC.  Jon Landau of Eye magazine said, "There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home.  He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect (of Elvis).  He moved his body with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy." (1)  Dave Marsh called the performance one of "emotional grandeur and historical resonance."  

Elvis was back in the forefront and was about to begin what would turn out to be the last phase of his career.  Thanks to the renewed attention, "If I Can Dream", a single written for the special, landed at #12 and the soundtrack album reached the Top 10.  These were hardly Elvis-like numbers but they were a significant improvement from the previous six years.  According to friend Jerry Schilling, the special made Presley realize what "he had not been able to do for years, being able to choose the people, being able to choose what songs he would sing and not being told what songs would be on the soundtrack album."  Binder said that Elvis told him, "Steve, it's the greatest thing I've ever done in my life.  I will never again sing a song I don't believe in.'  

Inspired by the success of the Comeback Special and the feel of the live performance once again, Presley threw himself into a prolific series of recording sessions at American Sound Studio.  One of the albums which resulted was the critically-acclaimed album From Elvis in Memphis, released in January, 1969.  The album represented his first secular, non-soundtrack album in eight years. Music critic Dave Marsh called it, "A masterpiece in which Presley immediately catches up with pop music trends that had seemed to pass him by during the movie years. He sings country songs, soul songs and rockers with real conviction, a stunning achievement."  The gem on the album was "In the Ghetto", a heartfelt and realistic portrayal of life in the inner city.  The #3 smash was Elvis' first big hit since "Bossa Nova Baby" in 1963.   

.Elvis chalked up three more Top 10 songs ("Suspicious Minds", his first #1 song in seven years), "Don't Cry Daddy" and "Burning Love" as well as the highly underrated "Kentucky Rain") from the American Sound sessions.

Elvis Las Vegas

Afterwards, an extended residency in Las Vegas and several profitable tours reminded people what a great live performer he was.  After all, it was the wild, crazed reactions of his fans at Overton Park in Memphis that launched his career  in the first place.  Offers came in from around the world.  The London Palladium offered Parker $28,000 for a one-week engagement at their hotel.  ""That's fine for me," Parker said, "Now how much can you get for Elvis?" (2)  By this time, Parker had contracts with Presley that called for Parker to get 50% of the singer's earnings on recordings, films and merchandise.  He would soon get half of the profit from his live appearances as well.  


The International Hotel was the newest and grandest in Las Vegas, and in May, the Hotel announced that it had signed Presley.  Elvis would perform 57 shows over a four-week period.  But Moore, Fontana and the Jordanaires did not go along for fear they would lose the lucrative work they had in Nashville as session musicians.  This speaks volumes about Parker's management ability, style and people skills.  The engagement did, however, represent tremendous exposure, and Elvis was able to get guitarist James Burton and two gospel groups, the Imperials and Sweet Inspirations, to accompany him in Las Vegas.  

Elvis' last performance in Las Vegas (in 1956) hadn't gone over well and he was nervous about the gig.  But one thing Parker was good at was promotion, and he convinced hotel owner Kirk Kerkorian

The album From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis On Stage included recordings from the International in 1970.  In February, Elvis performed six shows at the spacious Houston Astrodome that broke all attendance records.  By now, Elvis was performing in a jumpsuit, which would be his trademark attire for the remainder of his career.  RCA released the single "The Wonder of You" in April, which became Elvis' 37th Top 10 hit and was a #1 song on the Adult Contemporary chart and in Great Britain.

MGM filmed rehearsals and concerts at the International in August and produced the documentary Elvis:  That's the Way It Is.  The album That's the Way It Is, which accompanied the documentary marked a shift away from country, away from R&B, to pure rock.  Elvis went on subsequent tours of the South in September and the West Coast in November.  The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named Presley one of its annual Ten Most Outstanding Young Men of the Nation on January 16, 1971.  That same year, the City of Memphis named the stretch of Highway 51 South on which Graceland was located as Elvis Presley Boulevard.  Later in the year, Presley was given a Lifetime Achievement Award (then called the Bing Crosby award) at the Grammy Awards.  

MGM once again filmed Presley shows in April, 1972, this time for the special Elvis on Tour, which captured a Golden Globe award for Best Documentary.  Elvis won a second Grammy gospel award for Best Inspirational Performance for his album He Touched Me.  Another brief tour concluded with a record four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  The album that captured that experience, Elvis:  As Recorded at Madison Square Garden on July 10 became of the best-selling LP's of Presley's career.  The single "Burning Love", which was released August 14 and peaked at #2, became his 38th and last Top 10 song.  

Another famous television special, Aloha From Hawai'i, was the first concert ever to be broadcast on satellite January 14, 1973.  The broadcast was seen by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers.  The double album connected with the show became the last #1 album of his lifetime and went on to sell five million copies.  

At a concert the same month, four men rushed onto the stage in an apparent attack.  Security men rushed to protect Elvis, but the singer, skilled in karate, sent one of the men off the stage by himself.  Although the men were shown to be merely overexuberant fans, Presley became obsessed with the idea that someone was trying to kill him.  A physician was unable to calm him despite administering large doses of medication.  Finally, Presley realized that the idea was too wild.

By this time, however, Elvis and Priscilla had become distant and the Presleys separated on February 23.  Five months later, Presley's new girlfriend, Linda Thompson, moved in with him and Elvis and his wife divorced on August 18.  

Presley's music and performances were better than they had been in nearly a decade, but his life was falling apart.  Join us tomorrow on Inside the Rock Era as I present Part Six of the Elvis Week 2011 special--"Deterioration and Death".

1--Marcus, Greil. Elvis Presley:  The Ed Sullivan Shows.  DVD Booklet Image Entertainment
2--Gordon, Robert. The King on the Road. Bounty Books; 2005, page 205.


  1. Great story, well written. We all know how it ends, but it's still heart-breaking. Even now...after all this time. How could such a brautiful creature have suffered so deeply? I am al@ays amazed by how much of his life was preserved by his father and by Priscilla. Had Vernon not kept every scrap of paper, every photo and all of his personal belongings we would not know as much about Elvis as we do. If Priscilla hadn't handled his estate as proficiently as she has, all would have been lost forever. I was blessed to have been able to see one of Elvis's last concerts when I was just 14. And I visited Graceland just 2 years ago. I cannot describe the feeling there. Magical.

  2. Thanks Cook! You make very good comments about the estate. We are fortunate to be able to see and hear as much as we can about Elvis at Graceland.

    I didn't get to see Elvis, unfortunately, but just to be there in person to witness a legend must have been a life highlight.

    There are several lessons learned from Elvis' story, but two in particular that I want to write on to wrap up the feature. I'll put that on the blog Wednesday.


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