BEST CLASSIC BANDS just published “Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback: Burbank to Graceland” (although it should have been “Graceland to Burbank”). It addressed the television special, the records associated with it, and what followed. The article declared, “By the final days of the decade, Elvis was arguably as famous as he had been in the ’50s.”
I read the article and submitted this comment:
As I read the piece above, I kept thinking things like, “Wow—this is really well written” and “Bravo—this guy knows what he’s talking about.” Then the writer mentioned my favorite Elvis movie, Finding Graceland, and I thought, “I gotta write this guy a comment.” It was when I scrolled down to the bottom that I discovered I had written this piece six years ago!
“Elvis” was the top-ranked show of the week, beating out Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In!
I don’t know what to blame my flagging memory on: old age (“My boy, my boy”) or sobriety (ten years without drugs or alcohol and still counting). Oh, well—as someone once famous once said, “Rockahula, baby!”
So it’s not a new article that BCB has published but a six-year-old article it has republished. (And whether or not the editors of the site will okay my comment remains to be seen.)
I am posting the BCB article here on Elvis — A Touch Of Gold for the first time. While the text remains the same (except for some minor stylistic tweaking), the BCB article has different photos and links to several performances from the ’68 Comeback.
To read the article as it first appeared on the Best Classic Bands site, click here.
Graceland to Burbank
At 9:00 p.m. on December 3, 1968, the televisions of millions of American homes were tuned to NBC, where they were greeted with this welcoming line: “If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.”
After an eight-year hiatus, Elvis Presley was back on television. He was joined by guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, both of whom had been with Elvis on his historic TV appearances in 1956 and ’57.
Television had changed a lot in those years: Presley was in glorious color for the first time! And he filled much larger screens than the tiny black-and-white sets that had shown a grainy version of him with Frank Sinatra in 1960, the last time he’d sung to a national audience.
And it was only the beginning: For the next 60 minutes, viewers saw and heard some of the rawest, hardest rock and roll music of their lives. And it worked: Elvis was the top-ranked show of the week, beating out the hugely popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The reviews that followed were generous, and the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, would later be given a Peabody Award for this special.
Tell me why can’t my dreams come true
But it was the response of the people that mattered: In the wake of the television broadcast, the single from the show If I Can Dream—a heartfelt appeal for universal brotherhood and acceptance—peaked at #9 on the Cash Box Top 100 survey. It was Presley’s first Top 10 single in three years, selling close to a million copies in the U.S. (It reached #12 on Billboard.)
The soundtrack album, ELVIS, reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s LP chart, also the first time that had happened in three years. These two records were hits around the world, the first time that Presley had enjoyed such global success since Crying In The Chapel in 1965.
In hindsight, all of this looks almost inevitable: How could such determination, ambition, and genius not be appreciated on a massive scale? But that was anything but predictable when the show aired that December, for on that late 1968 day, Elvis had fallen from the pinnacle of success.
He had made too many movies and the numbers at the box office and for their soundtracks had taken a noticeable hit. Whereas the soundtracks from his seven films from 1957’s Loving You through 1963’s Fun In Acapulco never failed to reach the top 5 in sales, none of the six titles from 1966 through spring 1968 even reached the top 10.
In the 1950s, Elvis had been the personification of rock and roll; it often seemed that he had singlehandedly established the genre as the most popular music in the world. By 1968, though, rock & roll had moved from the British Invasion, through folk-rock, and into psychedelia and progressive rock—and all of that in just the past four years!
He also recognized that he needed a return to relevance.
Singer Presents Elvis
With the special in essentially uncharted territory, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker found a “safe” sponsor: the Singer Sewing Machine Company. While the correct title of the show broadcast on NBC-TV was simply Elvis, because of their backing and their promotion, the show is often referred to as “Singer Presents Elvis.” It is also known as the “NBC-TV Special” and “the ’68 Comeback.”
And it was a comeback: On December 4, 1968, the day after the special, it was suddenly okay—almost cool—to like all things Elvis again.
We’re caught in a trap
This cool period was carried forward by the records Elvis made with producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studio in Memphis in early 1969. In The Ghetto, written by Mac Davis, found a white Southern man addressing the problems of black northern inner cities. In the hands of most singers, this song would have sounded contrived, forced, and perhaps even pandering. Elvis made it sound like a gentle call-to-arms to the very brothers he had reached out to with his previous single If I Can Dream.
The album was titled FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS and was a heady mixture of rock, country, and something new for Elvis, Southern soul music. This album showed the world that he could make a solid album from the first track to the last. It cemented his new stature as a potent force in the rock market.
Then came the next single, Suspicious Minds, written by Mark James. This was so masterful a record that a single hearing could leave a listener thinking he had just heard the greatest moment in Presley’s career.
And just as important as the music was the response: The records sold millions of copies worldwide. In 1969 and ’70, Presley received more RIAA Gold Record Awards than he had received at any time in his career.
In July of ’69, Elvis returned to live performing on the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas, boosting his visibility and name recognition.
Pilgrims are going to Graceland
By the final days of the decade, Elvis was arguably as famous as he had been in the ’50s. Due to the staggering growth in communication media—especially globally—and the growing interest in celebrities’ private lives, many aspects of Presley’s life became household words.
Among those aspects of Presley’s life attaining their own international celebrity were his wife Priscilla Presley and Elvis’ Memphis home, Graceland. In fact, the two are conjoined: after establishing herself as a successful actress, Priscilla became the guiding force in establishing Graceland as one of this country’s most visited places. Under her eye and hand, the name “Graceland” began to take on cultural meaning—metaphorical if not almost spiritual meaning—beyond merely being the home of a star.
The most famous use of Graceland as a metaphor is Paul Simon’s brilliant album of the same name, GRACELAND (1986). According to Simon, the song Graceland is partly about a trip to Elvis’ home by a man with his 9‑year-old son “trying to find some kind of solace from a loss of love” there.
Trying to find solace
This theme was carried on more directly and more poignantly in David Winkler’s 1999 film Finding Graceland. Harvey Keitel, one of the least likely actors on the planet to “play” Elvis, is a lost soul who believes that he is, in fact, Elvis Presley, that he took a leave of absence from being “the king” to get away from the craziness and find some comfort with the people. His people.
Finding Graceland deals with his need to return home, to Graceland, to find solace and closure in his life and to his journey. It is a lovely movie that does not require even liking Presley, but it does require the viewer to know something about Graceland—which everyone does.
Those sixty minutes of music and passion and playfulness changed so many things on December 3, 1968. And Graceland has, over the ensuing years, become a metaphor with a life of its own. As Paul Simon sang, “I’m going to Graceland for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe I have a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
FEATURED IMAGE: The image a the top of this page was cropped from this scene from the “production” section of the 1968 NBC-TV special Elvis. The production was built around a story involving a young man moving from the country to the city and finding himself a job in a bordello. Here Elvis lipsynced to one of the special’s three newly written numbers, Billy Strange and Mac Davis’s Nothingville.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, there’s not a lot to say. Should you want additional background information about being an Elvis fan in 1968 before he rescued his reputation along with the reputation of his dwindling number of fans with the NBC-TV special, click here.
For additional information about the Best Classic Band article, click here.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)