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45 Years Ago: Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special Airs

We’ve seen everything from Elvis Presley Christmas ornaments to commemorative Barbie dolls in the 36 years since the icon’s death. But in late 1968, Presley’s career was in decline after several years of corny movies and a slow drift from his rock ‘n’ roll roots.

Forty-five years ago, an explosive NBC TV special, titled simply ‘Elvis,’ resurrected the singer’s career. It’s become known as the ’68 Comeback Special because it served just that purpose, mounting a successful career resurgence for Presley in the face of increasing irrelevance.

As originally planned by manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the 1968 television program was to be a staid holiday-themed affair, featuring Presley’s take on traditional Christmas carols. Director Steve Binder (who, four years earlier, had helmed the seminal concert film ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’) pushed hard to create a special that would reignite the singer’s career.

From the show’s opening shot, a close-up of Presley snarling his way through the first few lines of the blues scorcher ‘Trouble,’ the ’68 Comeback Special demands attention. Presley is in rare form throughout, attacking his early rock hits with abandon and dialing back to heartthrob mode for ballads like ‘Love Me Tender’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’ A gospel sequence finds him in a red velvet suit and white shirt, praising the Lord while mini-skirted dancers shimmy at his side. He stars in a massive production number as the Guitar Man, making his way through a microcosm of his own career in less than 10 minutes.

But it’s the show’s live segments that remain seared in the memories of rock fans around the world. Clad in black leather from head to toe, Presley sits in the round with a group of musicians who helped define his early sound, including guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana. They perform spontaneous live versions of classics like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and ‘One Night,’ with Presley himself contributing rhythm guitar and ferocious vocals that remind you why he was considered a borderline sexual deviant when he first appeared in the prim-and-proper pop culture of the ’50s. (These segments were a precursor to the similar ‘Unplugged’ format popularized by MTV more than 20 years later.) Elsewhere, Presley prowls a 10-foot stage like a panther while a massive rock orchestra and backing singers (including Phil Spector muse Darlene Love) play off-camera.

Backed against the wall of irrelevance by years of bad movies and weak music, Presley managed to redefine his image and forever claim his spot in rock history with a single hour of television. It’s sad that the next 10 years would mark another slow decline into schlock and laziness leading up to his death in 1977. The 1968 ‘Elvis’ special finds the most significant figure in rock history shattering every expectation and staking his claim as one of the greatest performers of all time.

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