Director Steve Binder Recalls How Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special Came to Be

Director Steve Binder Recalls How Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special Came to Be

On Friday, a special 50th anniversary box set commemorating one of the biggest moments in the career of Elvis Presley, the ’68 Comeback Special, was released — click here for more information and here to buy a copy of the set. The timing of the release comes nearly 50 years to the day of the special, which aired on NBC on Dec. 3, 1968. 

By 1968, Elvis Presley’s career was on a downward spiral. He was clearly frustrated by his movie career, a career which found him hamstrung by his contractual requirements to appear in a mind-numbing succession of films not worthy of his talent, and which were also earning less and less at the box office. This, coupled with a cold streak on the record charts, showed Elvis that he needed a major wake-up call to reignite his career.

Signing on to appear in his own one-hour NBC-TV show, Elvis aired in December of 1968 and received rapturous reviews from fans and critics alike. Now better known as the ’68 Comeback Special, the show signaled a creative rebirth for Elvis and firmly planted the seeds for his triumphant return to the stage. The film’s 50th anniversary will be celebrated with a limited global theater run featuring a new mini-documentary featuring director Steve Binder and Elvis’ former wife, Priscilla Presley returning to the sound stage at NBC Studios in Burbank, California reminiscing about the special.

In addition, Binder has penned Comeback ’68: The Story Of The Elvis Special, a lavish new book filed with rare photos and insightful text chronicling the behind the scenes story about the making of that historic TV special.

Enjoy a chat with Binder below.

Rock Cellar: Steve, run us though how the TV special came together.

Steve Binder: Colonel Parker was at a special party that Tom Sarnoff, the chairman of NBC, attended. The two of them got into a conversation. The Colonel was interested in making a movie, and the way they resolved it was Elvis would do a Christmas television special for NBC and then NBC would finance the movie, which became Change of Habit. Everything was done without Elvis’s knowledge.

When Elvis was approached by the Colonel and told what had happened there was a problem, which was explained to me by Bob Finkel, the executive producer on the special. Bob said that even though there was a deal struck between The Colonel and Sarnoff Elvis wasn’t responding. He didn’t want to do the television special.

Rock Cellar: I understand that you weren’t interested when the Elvis TV special was first broached to you.

Steve Binder: Yes, that’s true. I initially turned it down when Bob called me. At the time there was a very famous and legendary film producer named Walter Wanger. He had approached me about working on a movie with him. I was thinking seriously at the time of not doing television anymore and doing into the movie business.

My partner, Bones Howe, convinced me to do the Elvis special. Bones overheard the conversation and he said, “Steve, I had engineered an album for Elvis and I think you guys would hit it off great. You’re crazy if you turn this thing down.” He said, “Why don’t you meet with Bob Finkel and Elvis and see if guys are  compatible? I think you’re making a big mistake if you don’t do it.”

So I called Bob Finkel and Bones and I went out to NBC to meet with him. This was without The Colonel or Elvis. Finkel’s company was under contract at the time to NBC. What I learned later was when Sarnoff was very young he worked for Bob Finkel’s company, so as a result they had a bonding friendship for years and years. That’s why Finkel was sort of embedded at NBC with his company. At the time I got the phone call Finkel was producing the Jerry Lewis series for NBC and the Phyllis Diller series.

So Finkel arranged the first meeting for us with Colonel Parker at the MGM studios where he had his office and would hold court. We had out first meeting with The Colonel and in turn he set up the meeting with Elvis. Elvis would come to the Binder/Howe offices on Sunset Boulevard next to Tower Records. I still wasn’t convinced I should do the special, not because I wasn’t doing specials at the time. It was a case of where I was more oriented to West Coast music, The Beach Boys, the Fifth Dimension, Laura Nyro, and the Association. I was totally amused by Elvis on television. I’d seen him on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was sort of following the hype and the PR about him but never really was into “Hound Dog” or “Blue Suede Shoes” or any of those songs. They just weren’t the kind of records I was listening to in that time frame.

Rock Cellar: Recount your first meeting with Elvis.

Steve Binder: What happened is Elvis came over to our offices. He came with his entourage, but he left them out in the lobby while he came into my office. I think Bones and possibly Allan Blye and Chris Beard, our writers on the special, were there. When he walked in he said, “Hi Steve” and I said, “Hi Elvis.” I never put Elvis on a pedestal. Fortunately, I had a few credits behind me. I had worked with pretty major stars over the time frame thanks to my Steve Allen experiences, The T.A.M.I. Show and Hullabaloo. Having done the two specials, I’d really formulated what I wanted to do and the people that I worked with, those specials were the birth of our little family, the Billy Goldenberg’s, the Earl Brown’s and the Bill Belew’s. I accumulated all of these people going back to Hullabaloo, which I directed.

Rock Cellar: What did the conversation center upon?

Steve Binder: We didn’t talk about the special. We just kind of talked about life more than that. He did ask me what I thought of his career and I said, “Aside from all the publicity I think your career’s in the toilet” and he laughed. He said, “Why did you say that?” And I said, “Well, I haven’t seen any of your records on the music charts.”

Since Bones and I were really mainstream in the music business at the time I was following Billboard and Cashbox and Record World pretty closely every week. Elvis’s career was on a downturn. At that point the movie studios had burnt out on his movies. They weren’t paying him a million dollars to do these movies. So at the time Elvis’s career was at a critical stage. And I think the Colonel recognized that. That’s why he wanted to get another movie going and that’s why he made the deal with NBC and Sarnoff.

Rock Cellar: Can you characterize the bond you forged with Elvis?

Steve Binder: I think Elvis appreciated my candor and honesty. I think that was the real strength of our relationship. The Colonel thought that everybody had a price tag. You could get anybody to do anything as long as you paid ‘em. But the truth of the matter is there wasn’t anything I wanted, I loved directing and producing and the family of people that I worked with but it wasn’t anything I had to have or had to do.

Rock Cellar: Elvis was extremely nervous about doing the show, right?

Steve Binder: Elvis said to me early in one of our discussions that he was terrified of television because he hadn’t performed in front of a live audience to almost ten years. And he wasn’t sure they would accept him anymore. I told him that what he did know how to do was make records and he could forget about television and pictures. I said, “You make an album and I’ll make a television show.”

After we were in production and he was really feeling good and comfortable, he said to me, ‘You may not be aware of it, Steve, but when you told me the first time we met that I didn’t have to worry about making a television show I totally relaxed and trusted you.” But in that meeting with Elvis he expressed his fear of television. Before Sullivan he appeared on The Steve Allen Show where he had to sing to a hound dog while dressed in a tuxedo. He was treated on televisions as if he were a novelty act. So there was a reluctance for him to do a television show to begin with.

Rock Cellar: Tell us about the scope of the production itself.

Steve Binder: We planned a big production show. There was the whole boardwalk and “Guitar Man” sequence where he goes from being a dirt poor country boy playing a guitar to a superstar and then on the way to fame and fortune finds out there’s no place like home. He discovers the happiest he ever was was when he returned to his roots. There was a gospel section, which was a huge production segment with dancers and he worked with The Blossoms. And he planned on doing a medley of his hits with the full band.

That whole segment where he’s in the boxing ring and wearing the black leather and he’s singing the Billy Goldenberg medley of his hits was done live with the orchestra. That was the show we were doing.

When I watch the show, the first time he sang with the orchestra, he’d lost his voice and had to have some water. That’s typical of anyone who is so excited and their adrenaline is pumping so hard. If you’re playing football they say the kickoff is where everyone is nervous but then after that you settle in and enjoy playing the game and forget about your nerves. That’s the way Elvis was. I’m always leery of artists who are so self confident you don’t sense that nervousness and excitement when they begin something. I think the fear of failing is a positive sign when an artist performs. That gives him the edge.

Rock Cellar: While working on the special, Elvis became so committed that he stayed overnight at NBC.

Steve Binder: Yes. From the start, when we did the special Elvis would live at NBC. So we cleared out Dean Martin’s dressing room and we literally made living quarters with a bed for him to spend all his time day and night at NBC while we were in production. What I noticed is that starting on the first day when we actually either would finish rehearsal or we got into production and started taping he would go into his dressing room and the key members of his entourage, the Charlie Hodges and so forth, would just jam for hours.

I’ve always felt if you could only record what goes on behind the door, and through the keyhole, it would be great. I thought what he was doing in the dressing room was incredible and said, “We’ve got to get this on tape!” I went to Colonel Parker and told him I wanted to bring a camera into the dressing room and he said “Over my dead body.” There was no way he was gonna allow that to happen.

So I’d go in there and had a little Sony tape recorder and I just started recording it and listening to the guys jam for hours. Allan Blye would go in there and Lance Legault would go in there. Whoever happened to be around would go in there and participate in singing along with the guys. Elvis would lead the way strumming his guitar. What he was doing in his dressing room was more exciting than what we were doing on the show. That was where he was sweating and his hair was messed up. He was just having a great time.

This was something you’d never seen of Elvis, this raw power. I was bound and determined to capture that in the dressing room. That was my real intent. It wasn’t until I hounded The Colonel and got on his nerves every single day that finally out of frustration he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what to do. Recreate it out onstage if you want to but you’re not getting into the dressing room with your cameras.”  So that’s what I did.

When I told Elvis we were gonna recreate the improv on the stage he said, “If we’re gonna do that I want you to bring in Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.” They weren’t involved in the show at that point until we did the improv and we flew them in. They did it for Elvis, they didn’t do it for the Colonel because the Colonel is what broke them up.

Rock Cellar: What was Elvis’ reaction seeing the special for the first time?

Steve Binder: Well, after the show was finished, I showed him the master tape and we sat and watched it with his entourage. Then the second time he asked that just he and I sit in the room and watch it again.  He said, “I’m never gonna sing a song that I don’t believe in again” and he also said “I’m never gonna do a movie I don’t believe in.” There was a lot of conversation between us. I said to him and it was just my gut reaction, “I hear you and I know you mean it Elvis but I’m not sure you’re strong enough to do that.” It turned out, unfortunately, to be very profound because I really don’t think Elvis ever stood up to The Colonel, for whatever reason.

The last time I saw Elvis was when we’d gone to Bill Belew’s apartment. We were gonna have pizza and beer and it was a momentous decision for Elvis to say he wanted to come and be a part of it. So we drove into Hollywood and got to Bill’s apartment. Unfortunately, Bill and Earl (Brown) and Jena McEvoy, the set designer, were out getting the pizza and beer and as a result nobody was home when we got there. So we waited around a little bit and Elvis said, “Well, I better take off,” and we said goodbye and he crushed a piece of paper in my hand. I said, “What’s this?” and he whispered to me and said, “That’s’ the number you can reach me at.”  It was his phone number. I called the next day and somebody answered and said I wasn’t allowed to get to Elvis. The only time I communicated to Elvis was through Billy Goldenberg who did the music on Change of Habit Billy would relay messages from Elvis to me.

After the special there was that window of opportunity that he didn’t take advantage of and he ended up being a saloon singer in Las Vegas because The Colonel loved to gamble and that’s where they ended up.

I think Elvis really wanted to go out there and take advantage of the comeback and test some new waters. The ’68 special proved to Elvis that he wasn’t a has-been. I think until the ’68 special happened he had so much self-doubt and questions about his own talent and ability.

He rediscovered himself on the ’68 special. The ’68 Comeback Special made Elvis come out of his shell and do what he loved doing, which was performing for live audiences. That directly inspired him to get back on the stage.

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