The King of Rock ‘N’ 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 was strictly controlled to maximize profits, his appearances were limited to movie theatres, 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 proven 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 there was life and spirit left in music’s biggest artistic property. The resulting LP, NBC-TV Special, combined sit-down and standup segments, but probably over-compensated on the standup segments. What impresses so much about NBC-TV 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. [Several subsequent RCA compilations (Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special and Tiger Man) issued more of the sit-down shows, and for the 40th anniversary of its recording, RCA released The Complete ’68 Comeback Special, a lavish four-disc box set.]