BY LORI ACKEN
In 1968, Elvis Presley was more omnipresent movie star than rock ‘n’ roll rebel, and his cinematic popularity was fading. Courtesy of 28 hastily produced films that relegated the handsome Mississippi native to singing, swiveling and scoring the girl—and a music scene increasingly populated with U.K. upstarts—the once-invincible hit-maker and sex symbol wondered if he was already a has-been at age 33.
Enter Steve Binder, a young TV producer who specialized in broadly popular music-centric projects. When Presley’s infamously stubborn manager Col. Tom Parker pitched NBC a Christmas special featuring Elvis crooning carols, the network brought in Binder to assure its success. He started by scrapping the hokey holiday theme in favor of what made Elvis an icon in the first place—his ability to wow a live audience with his charm, sex appeal and, most critically, those irresistible, rockin’ songs.
To win a dubious Elvis over, Binder paid special attention to his star’s sensitivities, flying in Elvis’s original bandmates, drummer D.J. Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore, to back their former boss. He tapped songwriter Earl Brown to create a special finale song that reflected Elvis’s emotions about the social upheaval of the time.
The resulting song, “If I Can Dream,” became a Presley favorite, spending 13 weeks on the Billboard chart. When Presley recorded the song, he did so in the dark.
“He was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song,” said Binder in an interview. And when he got done, he came in the control room and we played it maybe 15 times. He just loved it so much.”
Binder also crafted a gospel segment populated with racially diverse singers and dancers, which he knew would spotlight the Southern-born Presley’s disdain for prejudice.
But Elvis wasn’t without its missteps. NBC initially axed a bordello-themed segment. And in a recent interview, Binder told Rolling Stone that Parker gave most of the tickets for the jam-session segments to a single NBC employee, necessitating an impromptu field trip to a nearby Bob’s Big Boy to round up volunteers. Volunteers who would become part of the highest-rated TV special of 1968 and the rebirth of the king’s career.
Making sure ladies’ hearts pounded from the start, Elvis—slim, burnished and more handsome than ever—spent much of the special clad in a form-fitting leather ensemble that matched his gleaming jet-black hair. With Fontana drumming on a guitar case just like old times and the audience howling its appreciation for chart-toppers like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Elvis began to relax. And then to shine.
He joked easily about his signature sneer, his (undetectable) rustiness and the early days when his unfettered sex appeal threatened to derail his career. He made playful fun of Richard Harris’s bombastic current hit “MacArthur Park.” He started to boogie. And then boogie some more.
And in an unforgettable Christmas gift to his fans and to himself, the king of rock ‘n’ roll claimed his crown once more.
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