Director of Elvis’s ‘68 Comeback Special shares memories on 50th anniversary
How the King’s triumphant return came together
Steve Binder was not enthusiastic at all when he was asked by NBC to direct Elvis Presley in an upcoming TV Christmas special.
Binder was a successful TV director who had just produced a blockbuster Petulla Clark show and wasn’t even a fan of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“No, I was not,” Binder, now 85, said in a phone interview. “I was a west coast Beach Boys fan. I did see Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. And I read all of the publicity about him over the years. But I would never consider myself a fan.”
But the two would collaborate on what became one of the greatest comebacks in show business history.
Binder directed the “Singer Presents…Elvis” TV special, which came to be known as the ’68 Comeback. The special updated Elvis’s sound to appeal to a younger audience and was a ratings smash which returned Elvis to the top of the entertainment world.
The ’68 Comeback is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a special showing in theaters on August 16 and 20th across the country. Binder will also be making an appearance at Elvis Week on discuss his new book Comeback ’68 Elvis: The Story of the Elvis Special and to share stories about the making of the ’68 Comeback Special.
Binder said it doesn’t feel like 50 years has passed since he worked with Elvis.
“It feels like five minutes, not fifty,” Binder said. “I just can’t believe the time went by so quickly.”
He recently attended a screening of the ’68 Comeback Special in New York City and said the show has lost none of its magic since the first time it aired.
“In all honesty, and it as nothing to do with my ego, I was blown away,” Binder said. “After the screening was over I said, ‘did I do that?’ It was like he was still alive and performing.
And for me, watching the special, the treat for me was watching him rediscover himself that was key to the special.”
Binder encountered Elvis at a low point in his career. By 1968, Elvis has mostly become irrelevant. His movies weren’t doing well at the box office and he hadn’t had a Top Ten hit since 1966. Presley was discontented and depressed with the quality of his work.
With no movie offers coming in, Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker decided the best way to jumpstart his lone client’s career was to return to television.
Television has made Elvis a big star in the 1950s and Parker was hoping it would do so again.
Parker cut a deal with NBC for a one-hour Christmas special. Elvis was not happy with the idea of singing Christmas songs on national TV.
The network believed that Binder could refresh Elvis’s image and re-introduce him to new audiences.
“When I got Elvis in ’68, he had lost faith in himself,” Binder said. “He was trying to justify why they were still calling him the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Binder, on the other hand, was a hot property in Hollywood. He had directed the concert film T.A.M.I. Show and worked for NBC on Hullabaloo, one of the most popular Rock ‘n’ Roll shows on television. Binder had also partnered with Bones Howe, a brilliant Los Angeles record producer, and was responsible for turning out “sunshine pop” hits of the 1960s for the 5th Dimension and The Association.
Howe had worked with Elvis before and overheard Binder on the phone turn down the offer to direct Elvis and urged him to change his mind and meet with the singer.
Elvis showed up to Binder’s office and the two of them talked.
“When Elvis walked in to my office and saw all of Bones’s gold records on the walls he said ‘hey, you’re in the record business.’ And he said ‘what do you think of my career?’” Binder said. “I think it’s been quoted a million times, but I just blurted out ‘honestly, I think your career is in the toilet.’ I said ‘I haven’t seen any Elvis recordings on the charts in years.’” Binder said Elvis was open and friendly and told him that he was hesitant about doing TV. He was itching to do bigger and better things. But he wasn’t sure the audience would accept him. By now, the British Invasion had captured the top spots on the record charts and were setting audiences on fire.
“He said ‘well, that isn’t my turf,’” Binder said. “So I said ‘well what is your turf?’ He said ‘making records.’ So I said ‘okay, you make a record and we will put pictures to it.’ He told me it was that phrase that really relaxed him and made him decide to trust me.
“He asked me ‘what if it’s a failure?’ I said people will remember you from your hit records and all of your movies, but I don’t think your career will move forward. Television is the kind of instant water cooler talk. You’re either hit or miss the next morning, whereas it takes time to develop a hit record or even a hit movie. It’s not instant.
“He said, well, what if it’s successful?’ I said the world will open up again for you for whatever you want to do. Thank goodness that’s exactly what happened.”
Both Binder and Elvis were not keen on the idea of doing Christmas songs.
That was what singers like Perry Como and Andy Williams were doing on TV. He didn’t want to do that kind of show.
Binder, unlike many TV producers of the day, felt strongly that music and video could be successfully married together.
He decided to go against the wishes of Colonel Parker and threw out the idea of having Elvis just sing 12 or 14 Christmas songs.
“When he came home from that meeting he told Priscilla, who told me, that Elvis said ‘This time I don’t’ care what the Colonel says. I’m going with this guy Binder because I have a gut feeling we can make some magic together’ Binder said.
Binder assembled a production crew of people he had collaborated with before on past specials.
Billy Goldenberg was hired as musical director.
Chris Bearde and Allan Blye were hired as writers. Bill Belew did the costume design.
He sent Blye and Bearde out to music stores to buy every Elvis Presley record they could find. They devised the concept of telling Elvis’s story of his career through his songs.
The story would be connected by Jerry Reed’s song “Guitar Man” along with a Gospel segment and a climax song coming together at the end.
“I have to credit Allan Blye and Chris Bearde our writers who really conceived the concept of the show, minus the improv, which came late on in the production,” Binder said.
“They locked themselves in the writer’s room and came out with a format that we hardly varied from in the show other than the ad libbed acoustic improv segment.”
Binder hit on the idea of including an unscripted informal segment with Elvis talking to members of his entourage and playing songs from earlier in his career after hearing Elvis jam in the early morning hours in his dressing room. The singing helped him unwind after a long day of shooting.
“Every day after taping or rehearsals he would go into his dressing room and he’d jam sometimes until 2 a.m. in the morning,” Binder said. “And whoever was hanging out with him at the time would be invited in. I said ‘wow!’ We had a cast of hundreds of singers and dancers and extras and what I was watching live in his dressing room with just a handful of people is magic. I said that’s what the public has got to see, not the big production numbers that are kind of spoofs on his movies.”
Colonel Parker refused to let Binder film inside the dressing room and was opposed to the concept.
Binder knew that Elvis did better in an intimate setting and put Elvis in something resembling a small boxing ring without the ropes and surrounded him with an audience. He also invited Elvis’s former guitar player Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana to appear, which helped Elvis relax.
The two hadn’t played with Elvis in years and didn’t want to appear initially because of lingering resentment toward Colonel Parker who had broken the band up.
“I wanted to duplicate exactly what was going on in the dressing room,” Binder said. “We did two shows. They are now differentiated by what is now called the stand-up version live and then the acoustic version.”
Elvis was nervous about coming out because he hadn’t performed in front of a live audience in over eight years. But when he came out dressed in the now iconic black leather outfit he looked tanned and fit and started jamming with everybody, he quickly got over his jitters.
Binder said he didn’t know if Elvis would even go through with it.
By Mark Randall