Elvis had a lot riding on his December 1968 NBC-TV special. Once the brightest star in the galaxy – and one whose every freeing move caused ripples in American society – he was no longer at the top of the charts. A string of lightweight movie musicals had rendered the once-“dangerous” entertainer as wholesome as apple pie. At the time of the broadcast, Elvis’ most recent single (“Guitar Man”) had failed to crack the top 40 and he hadn’t had a chart-topper since “Good Luck Charm” in 1962. He hadn’t appeared live onstage since a benefit concert in March 1961, and hadn’t appeared on television since sharing the studio with Frank Sinatra in 1960. Sinatra, who had questioned the longevity of rock-and-roll, was riding high from his own string of chart successes. Sponsored by the sewing machine company, Singer Presents…Elvis would come to be known instead as “The Comeback Special.” 50 years on, it still remains, simply, the comeback. So, it’s altogether appropriate that, for its golden anniversary, The Comeback Special is back in a hefty new edition from RCA and Legacy Recordings. ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary is a deluxe, slipcased, LP-sized package bringing together audio and video from the special for the first time on 5 CDs and 2 Blu-rays.
Singer Presents…Elvis, from director-producer Steve Binder and co-producer/music producer Bones Howe, was the top program on American television the week of its airing. It re-established the superstar as a force with which to be reckoned, presenting him a variety of settings which had been taped over several dates. Many moments from the special became truly indelible, beginning with the opening shot of the superstar in tight close-up (“If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place,” Elvis declared) which then revealed the Jailhouse Rock-esque silhouettes behind him and finally, through the magic of television, those famous, towering letters spelling out ELVIS.
At the heart of the hourlong special are the thrillingly personal “sit-down” and “stand-up” concerts with the handsome, trim 33-year old clad in black leather performing live on a boxing ring-style stage surrounded by an enrapt audience. His old bandmates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana joined him onstage for the sit-down shows, echoing the program’s theme of telling Elvis’ life in song. During the sit-down segments featuring such oldies as “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Blue Christmas,” and “One Night,” Presley was sweaty and intense, with his charisma, musicianship, and humor all coming through with deep authenticity. In contrast to the powerfully intimate sit-down shows, the stand-up performances in the same tiny ring inspired his primal ferocity. Performing to brassy, horn-driven arrangements by Billy Goldenberg leading “The NBC Orchestra,” Elvis became larger-than-life: pulling out all of his moves, thrusting his pelvis and throwing himself to the floor for the clearly-enrapt, screaming audience. The glimmer in his eye and feeling of freedom as he cut loose on the likes of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “All Shook Up” were in evidence throughout – a feeling that proved electrifying to the television audience.
More traditional “variety show” segments were also interspersed through the show, finding Elvis flanked by singers and dancers, performing to tracks pre-recorded with the group of Los Angeles musicians known colloquially as the Wrecking Crew. The expansive “Guitar Man” number took advantage of Binder’s TV wizardry as Elvis moved from a neon road to a nightclub, disco, supper club, and amusement pier for songs including not only that Jerry Reed-penned tune but “Nothingville,” “Let Yourself Go,” “It Hurts Me,” “Big Boss Man.” “Little Egypt,” and “Trouble.” Two new songs written especially for Elvis were introduced. Mac Davis’ wistful “Memories” and W. Earl Brown’s impassioned “If I Can Dream” were both recorded with the Wrecking Crew, becoming instant classics and hit singles. Soon after, Elvis was back at the top.
The original special aired on December 3, 1968, after the soundtrack had already been released on November 22. It distilled the program down to just seven tracks, including dialogue and lengthy medleys from the sit-down and stand-up shows as well as the production numbers. The presentation on CD 1 of the box set has the original LP plus four bonus tracks: the cut songs “Let Yourself Go” and “It Hurts Me” plus new stereo mixes of “Memories” and “If I Can Dream” (ascribed to the 2016 reissue of the soundtrack from the mail-order/Internet Elvis-only Follow That Dream label). The 2008 Complete ’68 Comeback Special box set contents are mirrored for CDs 2 (the first and second sit-down shows), 3 (the first and second stand-up shows) and 4 (the first and second rehearsals). The stand-up and sit-down shows (by necessity, heavily edited for the broadcast) still make for fascinating listening; the rehearsals are a bit rougher going because of the low-fidelity audio quality never intended for commercial usage or release. (“A Little Less Conversation,” included on the 2008 box, has been dropped as it was found to not actually be from the Comeback Special sessions.)
The fifth CD, The Wrecking Crew Sessions, brings together takes from June 20-23 and 29 of Elvis and the band working through the material intended for the opening, closing, and production numbers. Producer Bones Howe had a special rapport with the Wrecking Crew, employing them on his smash hit productions for The Mamas and The Papas, The 5th Dimension, and others. They also had previously recorded with Elvis. These A-listers ended up playing on everything in the show other than the sit-down concerts.
On these sessions, Elvis is in top form, even on the false starts and alternate takes, buoyed by the top-flight musicians including drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Don Randi, bassist Chuck Berghofer, guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy, and Al Casey, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. The vocalists at these sessions recorded in Hollywood at United Western Studios also constitute a “Who’s Who,” including The Blossoms (Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King), B.J. Baker, Bill Lee, Gene Merlino, Thurl Ravenscroft, Sally Stevens, Jackie Ward, Ron Hicklin, and Tom Bahler.
All of these tracks have been previously released on various titles, and were collected on the 2016 Follow That Dream expanded edition of the original soundtrack album. Curiously, it seems that several takes have been dropped from the FTD presentation such as Take 1 of “Nothingville (Guitar Man’s Evil No. 1)” and Take 8 of “Little Egypt (After Karate No. 2),” to name two. Audio for all discs has been mastered by Vic Anesini, with Sebastian Jeansson also mixing and mastering the first and fifth discs with Anesini. Anesini’s work is, as always, top-notch.
Finally, two Blu-rays present over 7.5 hours of video content largely mirroring the 2004 DVD release. The first disc has the “Original Broadcast Version (Adapted)” of the original December 3, 1968 telecast. It’s adapted because while it contains “Let Yourself Go” (the “bordello” sequence famously censored by NBC), it lacks “It Hurts Me” (cut by the producers for time) from the same “Guitar Man” production number. Whereas the original special was an hour in length including Singer advertisements (excised here), this is the same 57-minute version included on the 2004 edition. A separate 1977 Director’s Cut aired on NBC also added the songs “Don’t Be Cruel” (from the stand-up show) and “Trying to Get to You” (from the sit-down show). The adapted version here is bolstered on the disc by the full stand-up and sit-down shows.
The second Blu-ray offers a plethora of bonus features including all takes and components of the heavily-edited production numbers; the Blu-ray Special Feature Recut, a.k.a. three songs from the sit-down shows re-cut by director Thom Zimny (“That’s All Right,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”); promos; multiple takes of the closing “If I Can Dream,” a 2004 music video for the anthemic song; and more. These Blu-rays are HD captures of standard definition video in the 4:3 aspect radio. Zimny (Elvis Presley: The Searcher) has, however, overseen the video restoration for this release, working on color accuracy among other factors to make the quality an improvement over the 2004 set (which has all the same content minus the three new song re-cuts). It’s unfortunate that Elvis Presley Enterprises couldn’t broker a deal between Sony and Fathom Events to include the all-new bonus features featuring Steve Binder and Priscilla Presley which were shown in front of the theatrical presentation of the Comeback Special earlier this year.
An 80-page squarebound, lavishly illustrated book is housed within the attractively-designed slipcase. Rather than a conventional narrative, it presents a 1968 timeline and Thom Zimny’s oral history from participants and observers alike sharing their reflections on the Comeback Special, including Steve Binder, Bones Howe, Billy Goldenberg, D.J. Fontana, Scotty Moore, Priscilla Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and others. Loaded with photographs, memorabilia, set design sketches, tape boxes, and more, this is a beautiful tribute to the program. The discs themselves are housed in slots within a folder.
Shockingly, Singer Presents…Elvis was not universally well-received upon its television debut. But the legend of the Comeback Special has only increased with each passing year – hence the panoply of reissues in every format released over the past decades. In essence, the 50th Anniversary Edition brings together the contents of the 2004 DVD collection and 2008 CD box plus most of the Wrecking Crew sessions previously anthologized by Follow That Dream. There are still some missed opportunities here, like not including the true original broadcast version of the special, and not restoring “It Hurts Me” to complete the “Guitar Man” production number within the version that is included. Seamless branching could have been employed on the Blu-rays to allow viewers to choose between which version of the oft-re-edited special they would like to watch. Those who already own all of the previous releases might not find the video quality upgrade to warrant a new purchase. But for those who haven’t owned the Comeback Special multiple times over the years, this set is the most lavish, shelf-worthy, and comprehensive presentation of its blazing material yet. 50 looks good on the ’68 Comeback Special.
’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition is available at Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada! A 2-LP set featuring the sit-down shows, The King in the Ring, is also available today from Legacy Recordings at Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada!