Elvis Presley reportedly got more than a little shook up while recording his iconic 1968 TV special, the show that marked his triumphant return to music after years of increasingly iffy films. According to Steve Binder, who directed that landmark television event, the evidence was there when the King came backstage after filming—and costume designer Bill Belew, while drying the star’s perspiration-soaked outfit, discovered that Presley had orgasmed into his black leather pants.
“I learned a great lesson,” Binder said in an interview. “Never again after that did I ever have only one costume for the star; I always ordered two or three.”
Binder will provide less salacious, but no less illuminating, behind-the-scenes details about the making of Elvis, the singer’s so-called “Comeback Special,” in a newly filmed conversation with Priscilla Presley—part of Fathom Events’ 50th anniversary presentation of the special, in theaters August 20. He has also written a definitive book about the event, Comeback ’68: The Story of the Elvis Special, which will be available in September.
Elvis looms large in the singer’s legend. The live-wire special is featured prominently in two 2018 documentaries, Eugene Jarecki’s The King (now in theaters) and Thom Zimny’s The Searcher (on HBO). It capped a decade in which Elvis could mostly be seen only in the movies, and, increasingly, not very good movies at that. Taped in June and broadcast on December 3, 1968, it was his first television appearance since 1960, when he guest-starred on Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis. At the time, he hadn’t performed in front of a live audience in seven years.
But Presley and Binder’s creative team delivered. Binder, a self-professed “West Coast guy into surf music,” finished the special feeling in awe of Presley. “For me, the ‘68 special is seeing a man re-discover himself,” Binder said. “I saw it on his face and in his body language as we progressed.”
Susan Doll, author of Elvis for Dummies, agreed. “I think it’s the peak of his career,” she said.
Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s infamously controlling manager, had promised NBC a one-hour special if the network financed Presley’s next film—Change of Habit, Presley’s screen swan song, released in 1969. He never told Presley about the deal, with good reason: “Elvis didn’t want to do television,” Binder said. “He felt he had been burned by it.” Even Steve Allen, the talk-show host hip enough to give Lenny Bruce a shot on prime time, forced cheese on Presley, putting him in a tuxedo to sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog.
Presley’s reputation wasn’t helped by the culture surrounding him. In a turbulent year that witnessed rioting in the streets during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Elvis had begun to seem over the hill at the age of 33. That year’s cutting-edge cinema, like Monterey Pop, Wild in the Streets, and Brian De Palma’s Greetings, reflected the new, rebellious youth culture; Elvis’s movies in 1968 were the innocuous, old-fashioned Stay Away Joe, Speedway, and Live a Little, Love a Little. Even worse, he hadn’t had a top 10 hit since “Crying in the Chapel” in 1965.
In their first meeting, Presley asked Binder—director of the landmark rock-concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show as well as acclaimed variety specials starring Leslie Uggams and Petula Clark—to assess the state of Presley’s own career. Binder replied, “In the toilet.”
That’s a little harsh, according to Doll—though she agreed that musically, The King had become largely irrelevant in the late 60s. Instead, his fame lay in other media: “He was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. . . . His films made money. In that regard, it’s not like he had been forgotten.”
Still, Presley, appreciated Binder’s honesty—and that forged a bond of trust. “From that first meeting, I knew he was champing at the bit to prove himself again,” Binder said. “Elvis asked me, ‘What happens if I bomb?’ I said, ‘Elvis, you’ll still be remembered for your movies and all your early hit records. . . . If it’s successful, every door that was closed to you will reopen.’ Which is exactly what happened.”
Parker envisioned Presley’s comeback program as a Christmas special. Binder, however, wanted to leave that material to Andy Williams or Perry Como. He suspected that by making creative demands, Parker was merely trying to exert his influence over Presley—especially in front of those who would challenge his power. “He knew he had the goods. He had Elvis Presley, which nobody else had,” Binder said.
But Binder still managed to win the singer over. When Parker called a meeting to insist that the special contain at least one Christmas song, for example, Presley sided with his manager to his face—but once outside his office, he jabbed Binder in his ribs and said, “Fuck him.” And ultimately, Binder did not film any holiday material—though Elvis did perform “Blue Christmas”during one of his acoustic sessions.
Elvis eschews the traditional variety-special format. There are no guest stars, no comedy sketches. It’s all about the music and reminding audiences what excited them about Presley in the first place. It helped that while filming Presley was tanned and fit, fresh from a Hawaiian vacation. “I never put anybody I worked with on a pedestal,” Binder said. Yet the first time he met Presley, “I was awed, first of all, by the way he looked. If he was not famous, you would still stop and stare. As a director, you’re looking to see which is the good side, the bad side. Elvis was perfect from every angle. It was like a god walking in.”
The special comprises four production numbers that evoked Presley’s country-western, rhythm and blues, and gospel roots. Darlene Love, singing backup with the Blossoms on a rousing gospel medley, bonded with Presley over their mutual lifelong immersion in gospel music; the special’s star frequently went missing on set in order to sing favorite church hymns with Love and the Blossoms. When that drew grumbles, Love said in an interview, she had a response ready: “Hey, it’s not our fault; Elvis said he wanted to sing, so we sang.”
The meat of Elvis is its raw and intimate sessions in front of a rapturous audience. In the improvised so-called “Sit Down” sessions, he jokes, reminisces, and plays the hell out of his 50s hits, accompanied by his original guitarist and drummer, Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana, as well as friends Alan Fortas, Charlie Hodge, and Lance LeGault. In the “Stand Up” sessions, in which he is accompanied by an offstage orchestra and singers, he is, at times, photographed from above, giving the appearance of a boxer in the ring.
But arguably, Elvis saves the best for last: “If I Can Dream,” a plea for peace and understanding, which was written in response to Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Binder, Presley, and the creative team had watched coverage of the shooting on television; the singer was badly shaken, Binder recalled. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot just two months before in Memphis, Presley’s hometown. Binder wanted a musical statement based on their conversations about the assassinations and the discord gripping the country, and charged songwriter Walter Earl Brown to “write the greatest song you’ve ever written to put at the end of the show,” he said. “If you want to know Elvis’s thoughts and philosophy, Earl Brown nailed it in the lyrics.”
Elvis was a huge success when it aired in December, attracting 42 percent of the television-viewing audience and ending 1968 as NBC’s highest-rated show of the year. “If I Can Dream” made it into Billboard’s top 15, and the soundtrack entered the top 10 and was certified platinum.
Thus began a brief but shining Elvisaissance. After his comeback special, he recorded one of his very best albums, From Elvis in Memphis, which yielded the No. 3 hit “In the Ghetto.” He recorded his last No. 1 single, “Suspicious Minds.” He began his residency at the Las Vegas International Hilton, with Binder in the audience for his very first show. “I thought he was fantastic,” he said. “I sat in the back of the room and saw him having as much fun, if not more, than when he did our special. . . . Then I went to see him a few years later . . . I knew instantly it was all over.”
“The Comeback special makes the turn into the last phase of this career,” Doll agreed. “It is the beginning of what people call Vegas Elvis. Everyone associates Vegas Elvis with the gaudy jumpsuits and being overweight and sweaty. . . . That’s not true. It was the 1973 television special, Aloha from Hawaii,” that appeared to be the start of his physical and creative decline. Doll blames this in large part on his unhappiness at the dissolution of his marriage to Priscilla, whom he had wed in 1967. The marriage officially ended in October 1973, after the acceleration of his prescription-drug use (amphetamines, barbiturates, and tranquilizers).
Binder witnessed Elvis’s resurgence and decline firsthand. On what would be the last night he would ever speak with the star, Binder invited him to a pizza and beer party at Bill Belew’s apartment. Presley, emboldened and invigorated by his work on the special, announced to Binder that he would no longer sing a song or accept a script that he did not believe in. He then gave Binder a piece of paper with a number on it, and told him it was the only way he would be able to reach Presley. When Binder eventually called, a voice told him he had the wrong number. Binder blames his battles with Parker over the content of the special for making him persona non grata in Presley’s life.
Elvis’s fall after his regained glory is a teachable moment, suggested The King director Eugene Jarecki, who spoke with Presley’s spiritual guru, Larry Geller, about Presley’s comeback and his failure to ultimately keep his life on track. “Geller said at a certain point, Elvis knew that there was no good ending to this story unless he had a major change, and he had a major change in mind,” Jarecki said. “He said they were going to move to Hawaii and live a clean life . . . and then he would come back in a blaze of glory and do something meaningful. I asked him what happened, and he said [Presley] kept putting it off. The lesson of that, Geller said: ‘When you know what’s wrong with your life and what you need to do to fix it, don’t wait.’”
Presley died of cardiac arrhythmia in 1977; Elvis, however, lives. Darlene Love, for one, is carrying on the special’s legacy. She performs its gospel medley in her own shows, as well as “If I Can Dream.” Presley himself never again performed the song live, following the special, she said. “I sang it in Germany last year, and I had to do three encores of the song. It’s not easy to sing, especially for a lady. . . . The words in the song are so heavy; that song could be written for today. . . . Elvis did another song in his shows that I’m stealing, ‘You Gave Me a Mountain.’ I’m bringing that back, too.”