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The return of Elvis Presley

The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, was becoming ever more frustrated as his career plummeted and he suffered the effects of drug dependency. But then came the great comeback. Martin Chilton looks back at the pivotal events of 1968

Oozing charisma: Elvis Presley during his 1968 comeback special on NBC
Oozing charisma: Elvis Presley during his 1968 comeback special on NBC
Elvis and wife Priscilla on their wedding day
Elvis Presley in 1955

In the same week in May 1967 that The Beatles released their ground-breaking album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a dismal Elvis Presley movie, Double Trouble, opened in American cinemas. Presley knew he'd reached a crisis point in his life when he filmed a scene in which he imitated a clucking chicken while warbling "Old MacDonald Had a Farm".

Singing the children's nursery rhyme allegedly drove him to scream out: "It's come to this!"

Annette Day, from Telford, was Presley's leading lady in her first and only film and even the English teenager could recognise how frustrated he was.

Fifty years later, Day told The Shropshire Star newspaper: "I think, more than anything, Elvis wanted to be back out on stage singing to his fans."

With Presley, two strikingly different incarnations tend to come to mind: the youthful rock and roll rebel, and the middle-aged, bloated Vegas caricature. A third, however, is "Comeback Elvis", the man who gambled on a high-stakes return to concert performing with a television special. When NBC aired it on the night of Tuesday December 3, 1968, it marked one of the great moments in music history.

It is hard to overstate the seismic effect on popular culture Elvis Aaron Presley had in the mid-1950s. Born in 1935, the son of Vernon and Gladys Presley, he was raised in east Tupelo, Mississippi, in the kind of loving and impoverished white home that was a staple of the Deep South.

Presley's twin brother Jesse died at birth, and religious faith and gospel music became central to his upbringing.

His early Sun Record hits and appearance on The Ed Sullivan show, with his trademark hip-swivelling dance and lip-quivering sneer sparked a music revolution. "When I heard Hound Dog in 1956, it just shot straight through to my brain," said Bruce Springsteen.

"I realised, suddenly, that there was more to life than what I'd been living."

After a spell in the Army, Private Presley 53310761 returned from the draft to find that his unscrupulous agent Colonel Tom Parker had chained him to a film contract that was to blight the next eight years of his life.

Beautiful looks still made him a natural Hollywood poster boy but he was no longer starring in the sort of vibrant films such as Jailhouse Rock that he'd made in the 1950s. This was the dire decade of Kissing Cousins. He poked fun at the state of his career to fans outside his Graceland mansion. Asked what he had been filming recently, he replied dryly to a fan that "today I talked to a dog..." Presley's obituary in The New York Times dismissed his movies as "frivolous personality vehicles".

By the time he was reduced to mimicking a chicken, he knew he was becoming an irrelevance in the music world. The 33-year-old was lonely and depressed.

Even by the standards of the super famous, his life in the months leading up to the salvation of his "Comeback Special" was dysfunctional and eccentric.

Elvis and wife Priscilla on their wedding day

Presley, who cheated on his young wife Priscilla with a multitude of women, was mobbed in public and had been so badly scratched by female fans trying to get rings off his hands that he had taken to wearing plasters on his fingers. He sought solace with advisers such as Larry Geller, who is still alive and appearing on "Elvis Cruises" with other tribute acts (who prefer not to be called Elvis impersonators). Geller, who doubled as his hairstylist and spiritual guru, taught Presley about numerology.

At Graceland, he was surrounded by an entourage of enablers who were happy sponging money off the star and indulging his love of water fights.

But no one seemed to be encouraging him to make a serious return to music.

Worse was the cocktail of pills - enough uppers, downers and sedatives to leave an elephant stupefied - that he consumed constantly. He was obsessive, regularly checking a copy of Physicians' Desk Reference to Pharmaceutical Specialities and Biologicals he kept by his bedside.

Presley was piling on weight as he gorged on a diet of burnt bacon, deep-fried chicken, hamburgers, meatloaf, peanut butter and mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy. He would eat plate after plate while watching Star Trek, his favourite TV show.

He was also wildly and charmingly generous to strangers - buying gifts of cars and jewellery if he ever saw someone standing outside a showroom looking longingly at the expensive objects inside. He collected Cadillacs. He collected exotic animals. At one time, he owned a spider monkey, several chimpanzees, a caged myna bird that could chant "Elvis isn't here right now", 17 palomino horses and enough peacocks to make Flannery O'Connor envious.

In this midst of this weirdness, it is poignant to stop and consider another side of his character. The singer had a phenomenal memory and was a voracious reader. He loved books about science, philosophy, karate (a genuine hobby) and history. He said that reading The Prophet, written by Lebanese American philosopher Kahlil Gibran, was one of the few ways "he could truly relax". In a touching revelation, Geller said that the singer "always had a dictionary on hand, and he used to underline everything and make notes in the margin. His eyesight was terrible - he had glaucoma - so he used reading glasses and a big magnifying glass".

One of Presley's favourite books was Bette Davis's 1962 memoir The Lonely Life, which included the aphorism that "life is the past, the present and the perhaps". At this crucial point, the "perhaps" of fate came into play and turned around his life for a time.

Recognising that he was being eclipsed by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he was rescued by a proposal that came from NBC West Coast vice president for television Tom Sarnoff.

He wanted Presley to do something similar to the recent Nancy Sinatra Christmas special.

Parker, sensing another ride on the gravy train, asked for a million dollars for a festive show. This format would have left Presley looking musically dated but, luckily, NBC executive producer Bob Finkel hired Steve Binder, who had recently produced an acclaimed TV show with Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte, to direct the show. He was just a couple of years older than Presley and made some bold choices.

The newly published The Comeback Elvis and the Story of the 68 Special by Simon Goddard (Omnibus Press, £18.99) includes an account of Binder's first meeting with Presley, when he told him: "I think your career is in the toilet." Presley reportedly replied with a laugh, "Man. Well, that makes a change, someone talking straight!" It was eight years since his previous appearance on The Sinatra Show and he confessed he was "scared to death" of returning to television. Presley overcame his initial doubts and told producer Bones Howe, "I want everyone to know what I can really do."

The inane Hollywood career had obscured the truth that Presley was a man of musical intelligence - and a perfectionist. When he recorded Hound Dog, he made his band record 31 takes until he was satisfied he'd captured the best version.

Scotty Moore, who had known Presley since the 19-year-old turned up at the guitarist's house wearing a pink jacket, white shorts and sporting a ducktail haircut, said: "When I first met him it seemed like he knew every song that had ever been recorded."

In a late change to format of the show, one Binder hoped would make Presley feel comfortable ad-libbing with a crowd in an intimate setting, the director urged Presley to bring in his musical buddies from the 1950s to play with him.

Drummer DJ Fontana and Moore, who brought along the custom-built EchoSonic amplifier used in the historic Sun Records sessions in 1955, flew into LA in June 1968. Moore later described it as being a "fantastic jam session". As the first day of filming neared, and Parker realised it was not going to be a Christmas special, things went awry. Parker told executives he would take care of ticket distribution for the gigs at NBC's Burbank Studios, assuring them he would charter a plane from Memphis to fly in devoted fans.

He failed to distribute the tickets, an act of sabotage discovered only by chance when a security guard told Binder that "an old bald guy" had dumped hundreds of tickets in his booth.

Elvis Presley in 1955

The disaster of an empty studio was averted by quick thinking. Elvis handed out tickets to fans at Graceland, asking anxiously, "are you coming?", while NBC put out appeals on local radio stations. An NBC staffer even ran to the nearby Bob's Big Boy diner on Vine Street, shouting "who wants a free ticket to see Elvis Presley?"

Excited fans flocked to the studio. Inside, the crowd at the front could not believe their luck: they had a chance to sit next to the King of Rock. Presley was performing on an intimate small square stage bordered by ropes, almost giving the impression of a boxing ring. Elvis looked happy to be the centre of attention and joked to them: "There is one thing about this TV special, they are going to let me do what I wanna do... which is sit down."

Presley's attire was spectacular. Of all his outfits down the years - including the white jumpsuit, gold lame suit and Hawaiian print shirts - one of the most striking is the black leather biker jacket and trousers he wore for those gigs.

With glistening skin and slick black hair and sideburns, he looked young and purposeful.

The leather suit was designed by Bill Belew, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, who had previously made costumes for Josephine Baker and Ella Fitzgerald.

He said: "At that period, everybody wore blue jeans and denim jackets and I said, 'why don't I take those and I have those copied in black leather?' I'd always been a great fan of Napoleon. When I looked at Elvis, I said he's the one person that I could do the Napoleonic collar with it, because it'll frame his face."

Although the hot material made Presley sweat profusely (and cry out "man, this leather is tough"), his outfit became an image indelibly associated with the singer. It was a reason Texas lead Sharleen Spiteri said she grew up wanting to be Elvis.

In the video for Inner Smile, she dresses in a copy of the black leather costume.

Nearly five hours were filmed for the eventual 50-minute edit and some terrific songs, such as A Little Less Conversation and a version of Ray Charles's I Got a Woman, had to be cut.

Although the hand-held camera work has a modern feel, there were nods to the TV conventions of the time - with costume sections and choreographed dances set around karate, a bordello and a disco.

Presley chose the songs and particularly enjoyed a rousing gospel medley with Darlene Love and the Blossoms. His love of church music went back to his days as a boy attending the Pentecostal First Assembly of God church, when he idolised bands such as the Blackwood Brothers and The Statesmen Quartet. His voice is transcendent on a performance of Saved.

The entire show has the feel of a relaxed king reclaiming his crown.

He was the funny, charismatic and self-parodying man his long-standing musician friends knew and the public rarely got to see.

As he sits among the audience to sing Memories, trying hard to please the crowd, you can sense the contentedness of a man accomplishing something he wasn't sure he could do. He was rediscovering his gifts and he gives a female fan a warm smile with a future still in it.

Presley's lover Susan Henning, an actress who appears in the bordello dance segment, revealed that when she rubbed her leg against Presley and cosied up to him "he looked at me and uttered his favourite slogan, 'my boy, my boy'," a catchphrase taken from comedian WC Fields.

He was having fun again.

The use of red bulbs spelling out "ELVIS" in 24 feet high letters was an inspired backdrop to the closing song If I Can Dream, which paid tribute to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King. Presley, dressed now in white, delivered a spectacularly moving version. The show was a triumph, watched by 42 % of the viewing public. The album went gold.

A reinvigorated Presley went back to American Sound Studio in Memphis in early 1969 to record a studio album for the first time in nearly 14 years. He was playing and singing with passion again and From Elvis in Memphis included some of his greatest work, such as Suspicious Minds and In the Ghetto.

The turnaround was fleeting and somehow makes the grim postscript of the 1970s even sadder. Parker, who was like human quicksand, pulled him into doing 837 cabaret shows in Las Vegas in eight years.

A morose Presley grew fatter and more publicly ridiculous. In one of his last appearances, his skin-tight pants split open.

When he died at just 42 on August 16, 1977, he left behind a nine-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who was born the year her father made his memorable comeback. Her mother found consolation in remembering the making of the show as a time he experienced moments of true joy. Priscilla recalled: "Elvis came home every day just bouncing. He was so happy."

The Comeback Elvis and the Story of the 68 Special by Simon Goddard is out tomorrow

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