The King of Rock & Roll's 1968 Christmas
television special and corresponding LP needed no other title than
ELVIS (emblazoned in letters as tall as the record itself), but it
became enshrined as "The '68 Comeback Special." During the late
'60s, several years removed from live performance of any kind, Elvis
had become something previously unimaginable: safe. His recorded
output and material were strictly controlled to maximize profits,
his appearances were limited to movie theaters, and only his friends
saw the uninhibited rebel that had shocked America during the mid-'50s.
But when Presley and Colonel Tom Parker agreed to record a Christmas
television special to be directed and co-produced by Steve Binder,
it became the catalyst for a comeback. Binder's previous involvement
in television (the widely respected T.A.M.I. Show and Hullabaloo)
had proved that he understood the best way to present rock music in
a television context. On the eve of recording, Binder and his tested
crew were on track to produce an excellent show (with dramatic and
thematic set pieces tied to Elvis' performances), but it was
Binder's chance witnessing of an informal after-hours jam in Elvis'
dressing room that transformed a sturdy television vehicle into one
of the signal moments in Elvis' career. Binder proposed that Elvis
perform part of his special in an informal sit-down jam session,
spending time reflecting on the Elvis sensation of the late '50s
while he performed some of his old favorites with a group of friends.
Although initial reception to the idea was lukewarm (from the
Colonel especially), Elvis finally agreed and, with only a few days
before taping, invited two of his earliest bandmates, Scotty Moore
and D.J. Fontana, to join him.
Although he exhibited more nerves than he ever had in the past -- a
combination of the importance this chance obviously presented plus
the large gap between the psychedelic music culture of 1968 and the
rather quaint rock & roll of ten years earlier -- Elvis delivered an
incredible performance throughout the television special. His vocal
performances were loose and gutsy, and his repartee was both
self-deprecating and sarcastic about his early days as well as his
moribund film career ("There's something wrong with my lip!...I got
news for you baby, I did 29 pictures like that"). He was uninhibited
and utterly unsafe, showing the first inkling in ten years that life
and spirit were still left in music's biggest artistic property. The
resulting LP, NBC-TV Special, combined sit-down and stand-up
segments, but probably over-compensated on the stand-up segments.
Several previous RCA compilations (Memories: The '68 Comeback
Special and Tiger Man) issued more of the sit-down shows, but for
the 40th anniversary of its recording, RCA released The Complete '68
Comeback Special, a lavish four-disc box set. It collects the
original LP plus bonus tracks on the first disc, then presents
Elvis' complete performances of the two sit-down shows and two
stand-up shows on two successive discs. A fourth disc includes
earlier rehearsals for the special that find Elvis incredibly loose
and joking with friends as well as the audience. Although four discs
centering on a single show verge on overkill for any but the most
enthusiastic fans, what impresses about The Complete '68 Comeback
Special is how much it prefigures the rest of Elvis' career.
Dramatic, intense, driven, and earthy, frequently moving but not
without the occasional cloying note, Elvis during the '70s was the
apotheosis of rock music, a righteous blend of rock and soul, gospel
and pop, blues and country.
(AllMusic Review by John Bush