A few months ago, during their pledge drive, Arkansas PBS reran Elvis Presley's 1968 comeback TV special. They asked me to sit in the studio and comment on the show during the breaks and I had a great time talking with Arkansas PBS Foundation CEO Marge Betley about what the special meant to Presley's career and American pop culture.
About 45 minutes in, a production assistant brought me a message. Someone had called in to object to my characterization of Presley in early 1968 "as a clown." We had a little giggle about how protective some people still are of their image of "Elvis as King." And when I went back on the air I was careful not to say anything that could be construed as disrespectful.
I thought most of what we might call "the Elvis people" -- the most vociferous and loyal of his fans -- had gone on to their reward. In some parts of the American Heartland in the '70s and '80s it was not safe to joke -- or tell the truth -- about Elvis, and the crowds still gather at Graceland during his "death week" (he died Aug. 15, 1977), but I was surprised that anyone could still be upset that someone was goofing on Elvis in 2023.
I've gone back to the tape and determined that I did not say Presley was a clown in 1968; what I said that he was perceived as that in some circles. In 1968, Elvis was nearly a decade past being relevant as a creative force; the Promethean fire-bringer had morphed into a safe and corny family entertainer content to knock out a couple of bad movies a year. That Presley's career was waning in 1968 is a fact; in his first meeting with Steve Binder, who directed the resuscitating "Singer Presents ... Elvis," better known as the "'68 Comeback Special," the director told the singer his career was "in the toilet."
It was a calculated risk. Binder wasn't much of an Elvis fan; if he offended him they'd just get someone else to do the job. But Presley laughed. Someone was finally leveling with him.
This week, a new documentary, "Reinventing Elvis: The '68 Comeback," began streaming on Paramount+. Directed by John Scheinfeld, the doc is essentially Binder's version of how the '68 special came to be, and how he forged a bond with Presley that allowed the pair to circumvent Col. Tom Parker, Presley's Svengali-esque manager and gatekeeper, who imagined the project as a conventional Christmas-theme variety show.
At one point the documentary goes so far as to label Parker "The Villain," in opposition to Binder ("The Hero") and Presley ("The Star"). That's probably an accurate summation, for in addition to being a greedy and malignant presence in Presley's life, he was also a short-sighted manager who, for reasons of his own, kept Presley from touring outside the United States and relegated his client's music-making to a side hustle that was derivative of his Hollywood career.
Parker, as everyone must know, was one of the 20th century's signal creeps. Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands in 1909, he went on the lam in 1929 after the body of a 23-year-old woman, Anna van den Enden, was discovered beaten to death in her apartment behind a grocery store.
Alanna Nash, author of the 2003 book "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley," appears in the documentary to repeat her claims that Parker was a person of interest in that murder; she makes it clear that she believes Parker committed the crime.
Parker never legally changed his name and never became a U.S. citizen. He never allowed Presley to perform outside the country (in his first flush of fame Presley performed two shows in Canada in 1957, but though those shows were performed after Parker had become Presley's manager, they were booked by Presley's previous manager, Memphis radio personality Bob Neal).
Parker stage-managed Presley's induction into the Army as a way to temper his image as a teenage hooligan and to make him more acceptable to mainstream America and he pushed Presley away from the paradigm-altering hybrid of gospel, rhythm and blues and country music he was making toward silly songs that peppered inane movies.
While it's not fair to absolve Presley completely -- no one could know that rock 'n' roll was not just another short-lived fad, that it could be a viable career for a grown-up -- Parker effectively denatured and tamed one of the great cultural forces of the 20th century. He turned our Picasso into Bob Ross.
But Parker knew how to make money. Keep making those stupid movies, boy.
ELVIS THE ARTIST
As "Reinventing Elvis" points out, Presley was not oblivious to the cultural and artistic upheaval of the '60s. He was still a consumer of pop music -- he was familiar with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys and other artists.
There's a misconception, promulgated by some lazy critics, of Presley as an indifferent musician, as a pretty-boy singer who appropriated and exploited Black style. Even artists as intelligent and sophisticated as Public Enemy's Chuck D have bought into the myth of Presley as a cynical racist pirating and fetishising elements of blues and gospel. To them, Presley is closer to Pat Boone than Ray Charles.
What the "'68 Comeback Special" did -- and "Reinventing Elvis" reinforces -- is reveal the almost primordial power of Presley as a performer and artist. While Presley was not a songwriter in the sense of someone who marries lyrics to melody on the page, he is undoubtedly the author of these performances. He displays a remarkable, supple instinct for rhythm.
In "Reinventing Elvis" musician-actor Drake Milligan, a former Elvis impersonator who has portrayed the young Elvis in two separate TV projects, notes the instinctive, fluid time Presley keeps with his acoustic guitar as he leads the band during the famous "sit-down" jam session of the show.
That segment was conceived by Binder after he walked in on an impromptu after-hours jam session Presley was holding in the NBC dressing room he was using as an apartment during the taping of the special. (They were filming in Burbank; Presley owned a home in Beverly Hills but found the 40-minute commute untenable.) It took some cajoling to get Parker to agree to let Binder film the segment, with a live audience in attendance -- the first time Presley had performed in front of a crowd in the '60s.
Binder says he wasn't sure a nervous Presley was actually going to come out for the segment until he in fact appeared. (One of the young girls in the audience, an NBC intern who, along with her high school sophomore sister, flanked Presley when he sat down on the corner of the small stage to sing a ballad, remembers the singer as being very nervous, as well as "very sweaty" though that was "kind of great.")
This sit-down jam session, with karate-toned Presley in his iconic, skin-tight black leather jumpsuit (maybe the coolest outfit any male performer has ever worn), became iconic as Presley -- backed by old bandmates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontanta along with Memphis Mafia members Charlie Hodge (the old Army buddy who lived at Graceland for 17 years, serving as Presley's primary vocal coach) and Alan Fortas (the former Memphis football star who primarily worked as Presley's bodyguard) -- tears through incendiary versions of '50s hits such as "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," "One Night with You" and -- the single concession to Parker's demand that the show be Christmas-themed -- "Blue Christmas."
But while the jam session is the essential set piece in both the special and the documentary, the other, cinematic sections are, in context, similarly interesting.
They are stylized versions of Elvis movies, though the musical component is much better than the typical Elvis film. Here Elvis sings heartfelt gospel in a stylized church; here Elvis goes on a journey as a young guitar slinger. The best of these segments is the so-called "bordello scene," where Presley and actor Susan Henning (who wasn't really a dancer) threw off genuine sparks.
Henning, interviewed in the documentary, had met Presley once before; she had played a mermaid in his 1968 movie "Live a Little, Love a Little." She auditioned for the part, and when she saw Presley on the set she immediately began to flirt with him. (Binder remembers Presley telling him "this girl's too good" and that he was getting genuinely "excited." Several sources contend that Henning and Presley embarked on a brief affair after the special -- she's said they went on "a couple of trips" together.)
While the "bordello scene" -- Henning insists her character was a virginal innocent who happened to be part of the young guitar man's journey -- was initially deigned too racy for network broadcast, it became part of the special's canon when NBC re-aired the special in 1977 after Presley's death. Apparently someone at NBC pulled the 90-minute version of the special out of the archives instead of the 60-minute version that first aired.
CIVIL RIGHTS HERO
Binder is an undersung civil rights hero; he'd directed the 1964 concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show," which featured Black artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles and the Supremes alternating with acts like the Rolling Stones (Keith Richard later said that following Brown and the Famous Flames was the worst mistake of the Stones' career), the Beach Boys and Lesley Gore.
Earlier in 1968, he'd directed a Petula Clark special that generated a huge controversy when Clark touched her co-star Harry Belafonte on the arm as she sang a ballad, marking the first time a man and woman of different races made physical contact on American television.
These days, the racially diverse background dancers and singer who appear in the cinematic segments of the the special wouldn't raise any eyebrows, but in 1968 it was making a statement. And the final minimalist segment has a white-suited Presley singing "If I Can Dream," a ballad specifically written for the special as a response to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (the murder occurred when the special was in rehearsals), the Vietnam war and racial strife in America. Presley's performance is thrillingly emotional, a far cry from "Song of the Shrimp" or "Queenie Wahine's Papaya."
While Binder is a compelling natural storyteller, not all the talking heads who appear on camera have much to add. Nash is very good on Parker, and the various eyewitnesses -- who include a few of the dancers on the show as well as the aforementioned audience members -- have real insights, but New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh offers mainly boilerplate (though he does argue that Presley was a recombinative "fusion" artist, not a culture thief) and it seems Darius Rucker and Dominican recording artist Maffio are included because they're kind of fan boys. There are a few outtakes from the special that feel revelatory -- we glimpse a relaxed and vital Presley.
I would have liked to have seen more of that.
I was a little skeptical that "Reinventing Elvis" could justify its length -- at one hour and 26 minutes it's more than twice the running time of the original special -- but even those well-versed in Presley lore are likely to learn something. For instance, during the shooting of the special, Parker eschewed NBC's offer of Dean Martin's dressing room and set up his office in a broom closet, with agents from William Morris dressed as British Beefeaters standing guard. (The documentary offers photographic proof of this.)
And the special was a face-saving measure undertaken by Parker after he was unable to secure a million-dollar movie deal for Presley; he was able to get the deal only if he put Presley on TV.
Presley was rejuvenated by the special and its success. It marked his return to intentional music making in the studio and in live performance. As the documentary notes, some of his finest recorded work came in its immediate aftermath. Binder found a way to rekindle the spark in Presley.
But it didn't last.
Parker blacklisted Binder; his phone calls to Presley went unreturned. Soon he had Presley working in Las Vegas, ostensibly for huge sums. But most of the money went to cover Parker's gambling losses.
The story of Elvis Presley is, regardless of what some Elvis people might want to believe, a tragedy; a story of talent squandered and genius thwarted by myopic greed. Parker was a villain -- maybe a monster.
It's just a fact that Presley was regarded as a joke before the comeback special -- and that he was regarded as a joke when he died 46 years ago. But he was a victim of both systematic financial abuse (when he died, he had less than $1 million in the bank) and, worse, mismanagement of his singular genius.