In the USA tonight, NBC aired a special officially called “Singer Presents … Elvis.” That would be Elvis Presley, a/k/a the King, who had been largely absent from the music business in recent years. In the Sixties Elvis’s career was mainly in the movies, but by this point his star was in decline, with increasingly bad pictures doing increasingly poorly at the box office.

With the movie business going south, Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker — who did not hesitate to whore out his client at every opportunity — turned to TV, cutting a deal with NBC that included a Christmas special. Former badass Elvis was not enthused about being trotted out to warble Christmas carols to families gathered around the hearth, and he conspired with the show’s producer to go in a different direction — one of the few cases on record of Elvis standing up even a little to the Colonel.

In the end the show consisted of a few production numbers where Elvis sung live over prerecorded backing tracks, along with a series of informal “sit-down” sessions where he was accompanied by 1950s sidemen Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. This last is a real treasure: Elvis playing it fast and loose with his friends, surrounded by an adoring audience, looking and sounding as good as he ever did.

The material was filmed in June but broadcast today, December 3 — a Tuesday in 1968, which may indicate that NBC did not have excessively high expectations. But it ended up being the most-watched show of the season, and has come to be known as the “Comeback Special” because it sparked an all-too-brief Elvis renaissance that included the 1969 hit album From Elvis in Memphis  and “Suspicious Minds,” his last major chart single.

As British subjects, The Beatles didn’t get to watch on NBC, but I’m sure they saw it soon after; or maybe they even had early access through some music-business back channel, who knows. If they did, they would have heard themselves mentioned; apparently they were the only modern band whose name Elvis could remember. At one point he says, “I like all the new groups, the Beatles, the Beards [sic], whoever….”

If you haven’t seen the special, it’s well worth checking out. I think the whole thing is on YouTube, though only in bits and pieces. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Baby, What You Want Me to Do

Elvis seems to have been obsessed with this Jimmy Reed song, and returned to it numerous times throughout the sessions. For this version he borrows an electric guitar from a nervous-looking Scotty Moore and proceeds to attack it with extreme prejudice. Though Elvis was a great singer, he was not really a musician; but for a couple minutes here he channels something raw and primal that reminds you what rock’n’roll is all about.

If I Can Dream

This was the big closing number, written to order for the occasion by one Walter Earl Brown, about whom info was hard to find. A memorial website told me this:

Earl had a prolific and illustrious career in show business as a singer, composer, vocal arranger, and writer of special material. His work in television, films, revues, musical recordings and nightclubs began at an early age and continued until his passing [in 2008]. During the 40s and 50s Earl is remembered for having been the arranger and singer in the highly acclaimed vocal group the Skylarks.

Originally the special had been meant to end with a Christmas song and “a spoken statement by Presley” (says our friend Wikipedia) where he would “express his feelings about the current situation in the US,” including “the recent assassinations of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr,” which had “deeply touched Presley.” This idea was wisely nixed; Elvis was never the most eloquent of people, and probably would have ended up with foot in mouth.

Instead the show’s producers hatched an idea to have Elvis sing a custom-written song that would express his feelings, and Brown got the assignment. Legend has it that when “If I Can Dream” was unveiled, Colonel Tom Parker said it “ain’t Elvis’ kind of song,” but Elvis responded, “I’d like to try it, man.”

Wikipedia again:

When Elvis recorded the song, [Walter Earl] Brown saw tears rolling down the cheeks of the three backup singers. One of them whispered to him: “Elvis has never sung with so much emotion before. He means every word.”

Elvis himself was moved to proclaim, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.”

And so that is the context for what you’re about to see. There is a slight cheese factor here, as there always is with prerecorded backing tracks (even if the vocal itself is live). But I will tell you with absolutely no irony in mind that this is a magical performance by the King. The key words are “As long as a man has the strength to dream/He can redeem his soul and fly.” Elvis knows that he’s been lost in the wilderness, knows he’s been squandering his talents; but he really and truly wants to redeem himself, and for the moment anyway, he pulls it off.

Go ahead and be a dreamer, E. You’re not the only one.

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