1968: The Return of the King
It was Elvis Presley, the white boy with the black beat and the hitch in his voice, who put the bop in the bop-da-bop-da-bop. – The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin
As the majestic swirl of Election Day 2008 continues to float into the air, reminding each of us that perhaps the American Dream is still alive and well, I couldn’t help but think of how far we had progressed as a nation in the 40 years since Our Year of the King.
1968 was a year that saw support for the Vietnam War begin to dramatically decline after the My Lai Massacre in which insurgent American troops murdered hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians, a disastrous showdown between hippies, liberals, journalists and the Chicago police force at the Democratic National Convention, and two tragic assassinations that seared and rocked America and the Great Leftist Movementcivil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., and New York senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Oh, but what a year for a certain American artform amidst the international turmoil
1968 was a magnificent year for music as the Beatles and Rolling Stones towered over the rock n’ roll world in the last year of their rein before Led Zeppelin would permanently alter the royal rock landscape in January 1969. Cream peaked and said goodbye, short-circuiting a band and a group of musicians who would flounder in diverse and mixed success over the next 40 years. The Band said hello with the slate-cleaning Americana classic, Music from Big Pink, Motown thrived, Stax/Volt triumphed, Aretha Franklin continued her rein as the Queen of Soul, winning a Grammy for “Respect,” and releasing one of her strongest albums to date, Lady Soul, while an American in an English trio, Jimi Hendrix, was quickly becoming the greatest guitarist on the planet.
All of the above litany of musical highlights pale in comparison to a single televised appearance by a musician who hadn’t played a live performance in seven long, mediocre-movie filled years, dwarfed by his past, and cowering on the edge of a mighty downfall.
The Elvis Presley “Comeback Special” marked its 40th anniversary on December 3, 2008. Presley was a gifted improviser, who had the ability to sing like an opera singer, quip like a comedian, and slash-and-pluck the guitar along with a real raunchy rock 'n' roll band. He was, and still is in most cultural quarters, called the King for a very good reason, and one simple look at this television special explains why.
The program was initially commissioned by Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker as a chance to get the King on T.V. singing holiday songs for Christmas. Parker, not known for his artistic innovation saypost-Presley’s discovery in the mid-1950s, thought that America wanted to see Elvis Presley delivering Christmas music for the masses, and then
he’d move on to the next career move for his artist. Unfortunately, Presley had been
churning out one ill-conceived acting role after another for most of the 1960s, and had lost the plot of his career. Not helping the matter was the fact that the twin towers of the musical renaissance during that turbulent decadethe Beatles and Bob Dylanboth acknowledged Presley as a primary influence on their careers, but it seemed to be completely rendered in a past tense tone as if the living legend had already retired.
Like the Beat King, hitchhiker, novelist, poet, alcoholic, and disturbed shit-disturber, Jack Kerouac, Elvis just didn’t matter anymore in a world filled with long hair, hard drugs, free love, 10-minute Grateful Dead feedback freak outs, and a film by Stanley Kubrick who consolidated all of his audio and visual strengths, took cinema, gave it an enema, dosed it with LSD, and warped many a noodle with the transcendent and deeply metaphysical weirdness of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And so we come to the third evening in the last month of the year which almost broke the back of a modern nation that a white kid helped build while playing black music. Elvis Presley was at a crossroads of his own device, and only he could find a way out of this madness. And yethe had help out of this dilemmabecoming relevant again within a war-ravished culture that had passed him by, found new gods to worshipfrom the unlikeliest of sources. Producer/director Steve Binder ignored the holiday premise, and focused on what made Presley the King in the first place: charisma, songs, and That Voice. Sure, Elvis sang a few holiday songs, but these cuts were buried in the avalanche of great material that covered the length and breadth of a once vital Presley oeuvre.
Binder noticed Elvis Presley’s dynamic interplay with musicians during rehearsal, and came up with a landmark idea that would resonate with the artist and his audience during the icon’s first television special. This moment of epiphany prompted Binder to get Presley back together with his original classic 1950s/pre-Army/pre-movie career malaise band, which included Scotty Moore on guitar, and D.J. Fontana on drums.
The “Black Leather Sit-Down” show, so-called because Presley was clothed in black leather jacket, pants and boots that made him look like he not only invented rock n’ roll, but he WAS rock n’ roll. Gone was the smarmy dialogue in some hokey Hollywood film. Gone was the residue of what he was, and could have been. In its place was the Return of the King as he sat down with his old band members, singing and riffing through song after song with an energy rarely found on television, let alone a small studio environment filled to the brim with an adoring audience. The musicians played these songs with an ease and hipness that belied the fact that Presley needed this performance, needed this night to happen. Presley, Moore, Fontana, and Elvis friends and entourage members, Charlie Hodge, Alan Fortas, and former Elvis movie stand-in Lance LeGault played great music, and a legend returned to his place in the ethereal history books.
This moment could have been the height of cynical cheesiness. Instead, the man grabbed his chance with an overwhelming confidence. Here was “the white boy with the black beat and the hitch in his voice, who put the bop in the bop-da-bop-da-bop.” Here was
Elvis Presley in all his glory as the group tore into an incendiary set of unequaled rock n’ roll classics, sitting down, and improvising their way through the transcendent set: “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” a Jimmy Reed song featuring a performance that served as formidable proof to anyone doubting that Elvis could play the guitar. He could on this evening, while borrowing Scotty Moore’s electric, and reminding millions of that fact while remaining loose, relaxed, and filled with a swagger and a look that anything could happen at any time, and it was all going to be FANTASTIC.
Binder showcased Presley in a variety of settings including the “if you’re looking for Trouble, you’ve come to the right place/Guitar Man” show opener, a choreographed gospel production, the “Black Leather Stand-up Show” where Presley ripped through his songs, solo and in command of his material like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” the flirtatious bordello sequence which wasn’t aired due to sponsor trepitude, but saw the light of day on the 2004 all-takes’ 3-DVD version of Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special, and the closing “If I Can Dream,” which juxtaposed in a wonderful way with the smoldering leather-clad Presley sequences as the man was dressed in an all-white suit with a red tie, singing solo in front of that now famous ELVIS’ logo bathed in right light bulbs.
After the television program, Presley’s musical career would be reinvigorated for a time, including new singles and tours, long Las Vegas stints, and unwieldy entourages filled with “Yes” men carrying bags of pills for the beleaguered and troubled superstar, and a worldwide broadcast from Hawaii that would somehow miss what made him special. Sadly, the original Guitar Man would die eight years after this groundbreaking special. His career would forever be intertwined with the 1950s and feelings of nostalgia about a bygone era of equality, happiness, and peace and prosperity that never really happened. In truth, the greatness of the American Dream for all citizens only began to be truly tapped as something that held a bit of promise on November 4, 2008, but in 1968, one had a hope, a feeling, a dream that one day that idea would happen. Whether or not that idealism was high up on Elvis’ agenda is unknown, but to condemn the man for being the white guy who brought black music’ to a world audience is, perhaps, short-sighted.
Indeed, the Little Theatre’ sequences with Elvis and his original guitarist and drummer, in a mad yet brilliant bit of improvisatory inspiration by producer/director Steve Binder, negating the anti-creative streak of Presley manager and albatross Colonel Tom Parker, would forever cement the Memphis crooner’s musical reputation. In a way, Elvis had something to prove, his own musical debt to repay after years of squandered talent. Regardless of the occasional bloated mediocrity to follow, 40 years ago on December 3, 1968, in the “Little Theatre” of musical immortality, the “Black Leather Sit-Down Show” was where Presley and his old band mates found their muse again, and carried the King from Hollywood and back to his rightful placethe throne of rock n’ roll.