Elvis Presley’s iconic “If I Can Dream” performance in his 1968 comeback special (left) was recreated on screen by Austin Butler in the 2022 biopic Elvis (right).
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, rock star on the eve of a comeback
Burbank, California, June 1968
Release Date: June 23, 2022
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Tailor: Gloria Bava
Original Concept: Bill Belew
Fifty-five years ago tonight, the King signaled his return to glory in the music world when NBC aired Singer Presents… Elvis, now also known as the ’68 Comeback Special.
Despite his start in music, Elvis Presley’s career through much of the ’60s was anchored in movies. There were a few winners among the mix, but the singer’s famously shrewd manager Colonel Tom Parker engineered them closer to formulaic, low-budget comedies that would yield higher profits—particularly when they could be linked to a soundtrack album, an opportunity less possible or profitable with the more dramatic (and often higher-quality) roles that Elvis preferred.
By late 1967, Elvis had grown disenchanted with the programmatic films like Clambake, Double Trouble, and Stay Away, Joe that had led him far from the recording and touring that cemented his colossal popularity in the ’50s. At the same time, Colonel Tom approached NBC with a million-dollar deal to feature Elvis in what would be a holiday special, designed to conclude with the King of Rock and Roll crooning Christmas carols.
Luckily for Elvis, producer Bob Finkel convinced his cohorts and presenting sponsor Singer Corporation to green-light a different concept that focused exclusively on Elvis—intended to connect him with younger audiences and refresh the cultural mindset of Elvis as a groundbreaking rock star and not the tired star of corny comedies. Despite expected resistance from Colonel Tom, Elvis was fully on board with Finkel and director Steve Binder’s renewed vision for the special, which was rehearsed, recorded, and produced through June 1968.
It was during this tumultuous month that Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, just two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. The King assassination particularly troubled Elvis, who “definitely wanted to say something more with his music than a song like ‘Hound Dog’ could express,” as Peter Guralnick wrote in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. “Binder wanted a musical statement based on [Elvis’] conversations about the assassinations and the discord gripping the country,” wrote Donald Liebenson for Vanity Fair on the 50th anniversary of the special. Binder charged songwriter Walter Earl Brown Jr. to craft “the greatest song you’ve ever written,” which Brown did—overnight.
The next day, Brown played “If I Can Dream” for the core members of the production. After Elvis asked Brown to play it at least six times, he simply stated “We’re doing it,” and the special’s finale was determined. Of course, Finkel knew that “the Colonel will blow his stack. It’s got to be a Christmas song,” and even after Colonel Tom’s initial protest that it “ain’t Elvis’ kind of song,” taste prevailed and “If I Can Dream” became the closing number of Singer Presents… Elvis. Continue reading