This coming Sunday at 9 PM, NBC will air the 2-hour Elvis All-Star Tribute featuring performances by Yolanda Adams, Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Alessia Cara, Mac Davis, John Fogerty, Josh Groban, Adam Lambert, John Legend, Little Big Town, Jennifer Lopez, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, Pistol Annies, Darius Rucker, Ed Sheeran, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban. These primarily present-day music stars will be commemorating Presley’s famous 1968 television special which also aired on NBC on December 3, 1968. To tie-in with this new special, Sony’s Legacy Recordings has issued a 1-CD distillation of their recent ’68 Comeback Special (50th Anniversary Edition) 5-CD/2-Blu-ray box set titled The Best of The ’68 Comeback Special featuring 15 tracks from the original special sessions, three bonus singles, and a track from the new tribute special.
The history of Elvis’ 1968 special has been well covered here at The Second Disc and in numerous other places. That year saw Presley at a low point in his career. He had retreated from touring to focus on his movie career and recording tie-in soundtrack albums for each of the films. However, there were diminishing returns on each successive film and album; the soundtrack to Speedway earlier in 1968 had been a commercial failure and ended his soundtrack phase. A deal was signed with NBC for what was originally to be a Christmas special. But it would go through many changes before it finally hit the airwaves on December 3 as Singer Presents…Elvis. Produced by Steve Binder and Bones Howe and directed by Binder, the program presented Elvis’ life story through various segments including a “stand-up” concert, a “sit-down” show reuniting him with original bandmates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, and more traditional variety-show production numbers. The RCA soundtrack to the show (simply titled Elvis) was released on November 22, before the special aired, and “If I Can Dream” was released as a single. The hopeful anthem would quickly become one of Elvis’ signature songs. Singer Presents…Elvis then became a ratings success and Presley would soon return to touring and recording original albums (starting with the acclaimed From Elvis in Memphis in 1969). And the stature of the television special, soon to be known as “The Comeback Special,” would only grow with Elvis fans over the years.
To say that RCA, Sony, Legacy and the boutique label Follow That Dream have revisited this material over the years would be an understatement. There was a wealth of audio recorded for the special including two performances each of the “stand-up” and “sit-down” shows. Unreleased material began to trickle out on compilations, on reissues of the original album, and then on reissues devoted solely to the unheard audio – finally culminating in a 40th anniversary box set and last year’s 50th anniversary box.
So what makes this new single disc compilation different? As a tie-in to the new NBC tribute special, the songs chosen reflect what is being performed on that show. You will hear four tracks from the first “stand-up” show, four tracks from the second one, a single track from the first “sit-down” show, four tracks from the second, and two tracks from the variety show segments (including Mac Davis’ “Memories,” the other original song introduced on the 1968 special). Even though the intimate “sit-down” performances have become most acclaimed over the years, Presley sang many of his largest hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” during the “stand-up” concerts. It’s no wonder, then, that modern artists would choose to cover more of this material. And while fans may quibble over which performances from which shows were chosen, the power of the performances is undeniable – even as presented in a sequence not originally intended. It does remind the listener of why “The Comeback Special” has become so beloved over the years.
This new set is topped off with four bonus tracks. The first three are Presley’s singles of “A Little Less Conversation,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love.” All three are classic tracks but aren’t connected to the original special and are only included here because they appear in the new tribute special. (“A Little Less Conversation” was actually long thought to have had a recording made during the 1968 Comeback Special sessions and was included on several reissues, but now that is no longer believed to be the case.) The final bonus track is the only music exclusive to this CD and comes from the tribute show: a version of “If I Can Dream” blending Elvis’ vocal with new contributions by Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood. The track itself is fine for what it is, but again doesn’t really belong with the other vintage material. If anything, it makes you want the original “If I Can Dream” included, or a full audio presentation of the Elvis All-Star Tribute. The remastering for the CD is credited to Battery Studios’ Vic Anesini, who also remastered the 50th Anniversary box.
So, in essence, The Best of The ’68 Comeback Special, is a bit of an odd release. If you own any of the more expansive presentations of this material, there is nothing new here other than the solitary track from the tribute special. It’s hard to recommend buying this release solely for that performance, unless you are a true Elvis completist. However, if you only own the original Elvis album or one of its later reissues, this would have material new to you. For those new to the King who just want to know what all of the acclaim is about for this concert, then this new compilation does make for a handy introduction. There is also a version exclusive to Wal-Mart which includes a DVD of the original 1968 special which might make this release more enticing to some who don’t own the recent box set or past video releases of the special. The Best of The ’68 Comeback Special adds one more wrinkle to the ongoing saga of the legendary 1968 broadcast.