In late 1967, Elvis Aaron Presley, was in deep trouble.
On January 12, 1968, after four somewhat difficult months of pushy negotiation with the ever-pugnacious and notoriously demanding cigar-puffing music manager, Colonel Tom Parker, NBC Vice President, Tom Sarnoff, announced in a press conference the details of an ambitious agreement that had the eyes of the entertainment industry fixed wide open: an hour-long Elvis PresleyChristmas special to be aired early December 1968.
The cavalcade of flashy blue-black Lincoln Continentals entered the lockup area of the run-down premises that accommodated the small production company next to Tower Records, of controversial young-gun variety producer, Steve Binder, on Sunset Boulevard, and drew to a grinding halt. Within minutes flamboyant and overweight 33-year-old Elvis Presley, flanked by an ever-present goofing entourage, was mockingly introducing himself, at the insistent behest of Parker, to the no-nonsense young man who would somewhat miraculously, by this juncture in time, save his now floundering career….
Steve Binder, who directed the highly regarded T.A.M.I. show, one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed snapshots of live popular music ever to be broadcast on American television, in 1964, presenting a host of names like James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Dianna Ross and the Supremes, Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Marvin Gaye, to name but some of the featured artists from the world of rock and soul, in an attempt to break down racial barriers and promote musical awareness, had been approached by veteran Bob Finkel, producer of the highly successful Andy Williams Show, whose TV production company, Teram, facilitated NBC-TV programs, in order to effectively showcase the talents of Elvis Presley for the first time on national television since his post national service appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1960, in a perhaps futile attempt to repair his fractured career and make him seem a little more of an attractive proposition to the hippy generation that, quite rightly so, viewed him as being a deeply embarrassing relic from a bygone era that had absolutely nothing to say to them anymore.
In late 1967, Elvis Aaron Presley, was in deep trouble. A succession of trashy, travelogue-type movies and barely tolerable soundtrack albums had all but reduced his once seemingly untouchable credibility to an embarrassing rock ‘n’ roll footnote to anybody below the age of thirty-something. Add to this the dramatically changing music trends with bands such as The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Grateful Dead snapping at his Cuban heels, his inability to stop depleting his ever-decreasing bank balance on hill-top houses, trucks, horses, jewellery, ranches, trailers, plus mind-blowing penchant for bestowing extravagant gifts onto virtual strangers, and the prospect of descent into bankrupt obscurity appeared a very frightening possibility to an increasingly alarmed Parker; who had repeatedly appealed to Presley’s equally flabbergasted father, Vernon, not for entirely unselfish reasons it may be deduced considering rumours of a gambling addiction, to intervene in some way to halt his seemingly oblivious son’s destructive spiral.
Man For The Job
Binder, a brilliant, incorruptible, idealistic and imaginative individual whom, despite his twenty-three-years, was no stranger to the machinations of show business and the inflated egos that inhabit it, not to mention his utterly refreshing, almost maverick approach to production technique that had seen him systematically flout the boundaries’ of perceived acceptability by previously allowing the wonderfully gifted black performer, Harry Belafonte, during a live show, to touch, yes touch, co-star Petula Clarke, the ultimate taboo in late Sixties, unknowingly racist, small-minded conservative America, received the guffawing Presley with characteristic nonchalance before banishing his mafia-styled companions, much to the astonishment of their bemused boss, from his cramped office so he and the fading legend could speak one-to-one about the plan of action. By the end of that first meeting Binder knew that he could work well with the privately distressed star.
The Singer Company, known internationally for the manufacture of reliable sewing machines since 1851 and more recently other household appliances, would be the sole sponsor of the proposed undertaking, to be called the Singer Special, on the strict understanding that it would carry their respected brand name. Elvis effectively couldn’t lose here and was to receive a payment of $250,000 for the initial showing and $125,000 for the repeat showing in December 1969. After that NBC had the option of replaying the show once a year until 1973, splitting the profits 50/50, by which time the Presley Organisation would be given the absolute right to purchase the production. As with any other contractual agreement undertaken regarding the Presley Organisation, no matter how unpalatable, there would be, it was reluctantly acknowledged by all concerned, a soundtrack and movie too–not optional–which would net Elvis a whopping $850,000, plus, astonishingly, a 100% slice of the initial $150,000 profits accrued.
The first televised broadcast, relayed across the United States, December 3, at 9:00 EST, 1968, into the homes of approximately 60-million people is a fabulously intoxicating amalgam of impassioned improvisation, some rousing gospel, eighty-nine hip-swivelling guitar players atop compartmentalised scaffolding, orchestral reworked Presley favourites, a set of enormous three-dimensional letters spelled out in red neon: ELVIS, and a glorified boxing ring with illuminated tiled flooring where the leather-clad King, Napoleonic collar high around finely chiselled features, black sideburns and immaculate quiff, slimmed-down to perfection and shockingly handsome, holds court informally with ever-present companion Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas, Lance LeGault, and, most significantly, original Sun session player’s D.J. Fontana, drums, and Scotty Moore, guitar (Bill Black, the original bass player on those legendary Sam Phillips recording’s died in 1965 following a heart attack).
The show, commonly referred to as the ’68 Comeback Special, was a critical success and saved Presley’s career.
Although Colonel Tom Parker was a desperate man attempting to sell, in all truth, a product that had long since seen its sell-by-date before the Special was aired, one would never have guessed. The deal, one of the most breathtakingly audacious in the history of contemporary show business, made his star, at that particular moment, the highest paid failure in the music industry.