Elvis: the '68 Comeback Special

Presley, wearing a tight black leather jacket with upturned collar, black leather wristbands, and black leather pants, holds a microphone with a long cord. His hair, which looks black as well, falls across his forehead. In front of him is an empty microphone stand. Behind, beginning below stage level and rising up, audience members watch him. A young woman with long black hair in the front row gazes up ecstatically.
The '68 Comeback Special produced "one of the most famous images" of Presley. Taken on June 29, 1968, it was adapted for the cover of Rolling Stone in July 1969.

Presley's only child, Lisa Marie, was born on February 1, 1968, during a period when he had grown deeply unhappy with his career. Of the eight Presley singles released between January 1967 and May 1968, only two charted in the top 40, and none higher than number 28. His forthcoming soundtrack album,Speedway, would die at number 82 on the Billboard chart. Parker had already shifted his plans to television, where Presley had not appeared since the Sinatra Timex show in 1960. He maneuvered a deal with NBC that committed the network to both finance a theatrical feature and broadcast a Christmas special.

Recorded in late June in Burbank, California, the special, called simply Elvis, aired on December 3, 1968. Later known as the '68 Comeback Special, the show featured lavishly staged studio productions as well as songs performed with a band in front of a small audience—Presley's first live performances since 1961. The live segments saw Presley clad in tight black leather, singing and playing guitar in an uninhibited style reminiscent of his early rock and roll days. Director and coproducer Steve Binder had worked hard to reassure the nervous singer and to produce a show that was far from the hour of Christmas songs Parker had originally planned. The show, NBC's highest rated that season, captured 42 percent of the total viewing audience. Jon Landau of Eye magazine remarked, "There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock 'n' roll singers. He moved his body with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy." Dave Marsh calls the performance one of "emotional grandeur and historical resonance."

By January 1969, the single "If I Can Dream", written for the special, reached number 12. The soundtrack album broke into the top ten. According to friend Jerry Schilling, the special reminded Presley of what "he had not been able to do for years, being able to choose the people; being able to choose what songs and not being told what had to be on the soundtrack. ... He was out of prison, man." Binder said of Presley's reaction, "I played Elvis the 60-minute show, and he told me in the screening room, 'Steve, it's the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. I give you my word I will never sing a song I don't believe in.'

ElvisPresley-BabyWhatYouWantMeToDo1968.mp3