“Elvis Presley returns with his caged-animal energy…his power to rock an audience is still there.” --The Associated Press, 1968
’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition is the definitive chronicle of one of rock’s greatest performances, as done by one of rock’s greatest performers.
In 1968, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having brought rock and roll to mainstream audiences in the 1950s, Elvis’ output in the 1960s was characterized by a grueling schedule of recording and filming a string of low-budget motion pictures, often characterized by their formulaic structure and slipshod quality. With the arrival of The Beatles in America and The British Invasion on the pop charts, it seemed Elvis’ best days were behind him; even he was unsure if he could get his career back on track.
Elvis was initially disgusted when his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, secured a deal for a Christmas-themed television special to air before in 1968. However, the special’s producer and director, Bob Finkel and Steve Binder (the latter had directed the acclaimed concert film T.A.M.I. Show in 1964), had other ideas: they believed this was an opportunity for Elvis to reclaim his audience and imprint upon a new generation, too—all under Presley’s creative control.
The special, recorded over several sessions in June 1968, featured Elvis in his element: there were “stand-up” performances of new material—featuring Elvis clad in an instantly-memorable black leather suit—and loose “sit-down” performances of Elvis’ greatest hits and favorites, performed by Presley alongside Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, the guitarist and drummer who’d played alongside Elvis on his earliest records and shows.
The show also featured a dash of theatrical flair, including a flashy gospel production and an action-packed medley featuring Jerry Reed’s rollicking “Guitar Man”; the closer was a moving new song, “If I Can Dream,” inspired by the recent deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and Elvis’ impassioned wishes for social betterment. (“I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in,” Elvis proclaimed when he first heard the tune.)
When it aired on December 3, 1968, the special was the week’s highest-viewed television program, re-establishing Elvis as a driving force in popular music. The following year, he released the country-soul masterpiece From Elvis In Memphis, anchored by the chart-topping “Suspicious Minds”; that same year, Presley returned to live performance with a record-breaking engagement at The International Hotel in Las Vegas, kickstarting a regular run of live shows that lasted for the rest of his career.