The year was 1968…and the King had gone silent.
Following his honorable discharge from the army in 1960, Elvis Presley’s career for the next seven years would spiral down the toilet of mediocrity. While his work was commercially viable, the lion’s share of his creative output suffered from a deluge of scathing attacks from both critics and fans. This string of critically panned subpar film soundtracks and pedestrian acting roles would render one thing very clear: Elvis wasn’t hip anymore. As more stylish musical waves like the frenzied British Invasion and Beatles’ psychedelic grandeur captivated the hearts and minds of the youth, Presley’s once impregnable popularity began to crumble gradually into the leaden darkness of the past.
But after a single, impromptu meeting with one of NBC’s heavyweight producers, Steve Binder, the depressing trajectory of Elvis’ career would effectively become a distant, hazy memory. In one night, Elvis had reclaimed his crown during the ’68 Comeback Special, a seminal event that would lead to a legendary Las Vegas concert residency and series of highly successful tours.
This Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the special and Q&A with Binder himself at the The Paley Center for Media. As I entered the Bennack Theater, I immediately was subsumed into the room’s spirit of reverence. We were about to see a treasured moment in music history, and the audience’s gratitude for such an opportunity felt palpable and warm, like a comforting hug from a friend you haven’t seen in a while. In the middle of the stage sat Steve Binder, whose grin was so wide it could have split his jawline in two. Here was a man who had an extremely enviable career, yet there was the sense that every time a fan or friend came up to greet him, he was the one who was the more thankful for the friendly exchange. In his old age, he is simply a peaceful observer, liberated, at terms with the tenuous nature of life. His only mission now was the share the joy and history he had experienced long ago. Nothing more, nothing less.
Go check out the Q&A below to get an exclusive look at how pioneer Steve Binder captured the spirit and talent of the King of Rock and Roll 50 years ago. The interview was moderated by Billboard’s Hillary Hughes and sponsored by Fathom Events and Authentic Brands Group.
Hillary Hughes: Let’s just start with my favorite question about this, because I still can’t believe this almost didn’t happen. Elvis was really nervous about filming the 1968 special and about coming back from what was a really creatively unfulfilling period of his career. So I was wondering if you could speak on that.
Steve Binder: When I first got the phone call, I just finished producing and directing earlier in the year…Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte in what’s basically turned out to be “the touch.” It was the first time on Primetime a black person and a white person touched each other. You have to remember 1968 was a tumultuous year. Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated…It was around that time that I got the phone call from NBC, who turned out to be the great executive producer Bob Finkel…who called me saying “I was going to produce and direct it when the Colonel made this deal. But I never could get through to Elvis. He kept calling me Mr. Kregel. I could never get him to call me Bob. After reading about your Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte controversy…I felt you are guys around the same age and probably have a lot in common. With your music background and your television background and kind of rebel reputation, I thought of calling you and see if you were interested in getting involved with Elvis Presley.”
At the time, I decided to leave television. I met an iconic 50’s film producer, Walter Wanger and he signed me to a contract for his next movie. So I was busy on working on a script with Walter, and so when I got the call from Finkel, I said, “I can’t do it.” And my partner [inaudible] said, “Steve, you’re crazy. I have engineered an Elvis Presley album and I know him..what do you think of him?” I said, “I think he’s a redneck from Tolepo, Mississipi.” He said, “You’re wrong. Elvis is really liberal and a great guy. I think you two will get along. You should call Finkel back.” So I did, and as fate enters our lives all the time, Walter Wanger died of a heart attack and the movie was cancelled, so I was really free. I called Finkel back and said, “I’m available if the offer is still open…but I have one condition: I have to meet him one-on-one…to see if we are compatible…”
Sure enough, in comes this god-looking Elvis Presley––he really was phenomenal looking. Even if he wasn’t famous, you would of stop and stared. So we had our first meeting and the first question he asked me was “What do you think of my career?” Well, you know the answer: I said, “I think it’s in the toilet.” The first reaction on his face was like he wanted to kill me I think, and then he broke into a laugh and said, “Finally, someone is talking straight to me.” We didn’t talk about the special, but instead the music business for a while. He was worried that with The Beatles and the English Invasion, his time might have passed him over, and he said, “What happens if the show turns out to be a disaster?” I told him, “I still think you will be remembered for your early hits.” “Well, what if the show turns out a success?,” Elvis responded, and I said, “Well, that’s a whole different story…”
The original special had no improv in it. I had two hours of material…but I was so frustrated that I couldn’t put it. So I cut my own 90-minute version and took it to NBC and begged them to open up another half hour of airtime. They adamantly refused. So the first show that aired had no improv really to speak of, although it did incredibly well––I think one of the biggest ratings in NBC history. I could go into all the behind-the-scenes action, but I wrote the book to explain all that. So what happened was––the real unsung hero of this entire thing––when Elvis died, NBC and their infinite wisdom, decided to air a three-hour special. They got Ann Margaret to host it. They sent a gopher down to the catacomb basement to find the Elvis Presley master. I’m sure whoever they sent down their had no idea what to look for, except something with his name on a two-inch videotape. They went downstairs, and thank God, they are the real hero and reason why we are here tonight, they pulled my 90-minute master. From that day forward, the [inaudible] was put back into it, and a half-hour of the improv, and you know, the old cliché, and the rest is history.
I think one of the best moments of the special is when Elvis is just jamming with his friends.
I feel like that’s the most personal touch that people had been really hoping for. Because you have this mythic figure, you have this person who has been doing 9 million movies and is, you know, an American icon. And yet, he just, kind of, grabbed his acoustic guitar and played through his hits. So for you, I’m curious: Was that your favorite part when you go back, when you think of sequences of ones that really represent the Elvis you know? Is it the improv you are talking about, or is there another moment that really grabs you from the special?
For me, to answer your question Hillary, [the improv] was the heart and soul of the show. I would gone with the improv and forgotten about the big production numbers, etc. Because I knew for the first time in America, you are seeing the real Elvis Presley and not this sort of character who screenwriters made up for the movies. The only time he was able to be himself was on the Ed Sullivan Show, on the special. [inaudible]
Well, Steve, thank you. I know that we are actually going to be watching the special, which is fantastic…
You’ve only got two questions?
Your stories are better than my questions. That’s how it works, man. It’s cool. I don’t think you talked enough…we are also going to be watching a twenty-minute exclusive to the Fathom event which is you and Priscilla and you talking about the event…
I just want to quickly say none of this would be happening without Spencer Proffer, who walked into my life [inaudible]…he has been my road manager, my promoter, and I can’t thank him enough. [applause]
“ELVIS 50th Anniversary Comeback Special” can be purchased beginning Friday, June 15, 2018, at www.FathomEvents.com and participating theater box offices. Go experience the comeback for yourself in select cinemas August 16th and 20th.