Very few people could stand up to Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, least of them Elvis himself. But legendary producer Steve Binder did. It’s a story he loves to tell, and it resulted in one of The King’s shining moments, the famous 1968 comeback special. After years of Hollywood movie musical pablum, the Elvis people saw in ’68 was revitalized, dressed in black leather and — in the section of the special that would become its most beloved — sat down with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, his original Sun Records band, and jammed. That section influenced every similar acoustic set from MTV Unplugged onward.
Viewers will get a chance to see that special (with 30 minutes cut from original broadcast) in a screening Saturday night at Carpinteria’s Plaza Playhouse Theater, followed by a Q&A with Mr. Binder himself. This follows Mr. Binder’s previous appearance at the theater, where he screened the other famous show he produced, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which showcased James Brown, The Rolling Stones and The Supremes. That screening, which was also a fundraiser for the theater, was sold out. No wonder they demanded Mr. Binder return.
When he was asked to present the Elvis show he balked at first. January is Elvis’ birthday month (he would have been 80 this year), and requests come in often worldwide, and he doesn’t want to be seen as part of Elvis’ “entourage.”
“In all actuality Elvis joined my team,” he says. “No one from his world was part of that special.”
As Mr. Binder tells it, his ideas — and his stubbornness — kept Elvis’ manager from turning the special into non-stop schmaltz. Without Mr. Binder, viewers would have seen the Bob Hope Orchestra backing Mr. Presley, and way too many Christmas songs. Mr. Binder brought in the backing band known as The Wrecking Crew, and personally got Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana to fly in to back Elvis.
Mr. Presley didn’t want to do television at all, and balked after he heard Colonel Parker had already set up the special. Mr. Binder too turned the special down because he had signed to work on a movie, “but as fate and time had it,” his movie producer had a heart attack and died. Mr. Binder stipulated that he’d only do it if Elvis could meet with him alone, with no Colonel Parker in tow.
“I saw major executives, ones who terrified other people … they were terrified to meet Colonel Parker,” Mr. Binder recalled. “He had this aura of power … But I sized him up in two seconds … and I was one of the few people he met who didn’t want something from him.”
Mr. Binder wasn’t a yes man, and really didn’t want anything to do with a Christmas special. And that gave Mr. Presley cover to stand up to his manager, something that Priscilla Presley told Mr. Binder much later.
“It was the first time she remembered Elvis going to the Colonel and saying, I don’t care what you say, I’m going with Binder and whatever he says, we’re going to do it.”
Now, there was a compromise of sorts. Colonel Parker insisted on at least one Christmas song, but Mr. Binder found among the acoustic session that they had played “Blue Christmas.”
The Colonel also wanted to close the show with “I Believe” by Frankie Laine, but Mr. Binder didn’t want Elvis singing somebody else’s song. So he went to songwriters Earl Brown and Billy Goldenberg and asked them to write a song that would encapsulate the relationship they’d all had with Elvis over the last few months. They returned with “If I Can Dream,” a hopeful song for a tumultuous year.
History was made, Elvis had his comeback, but it was not for long. Any independence the King might have gained vanished, and in a few years, Elvis would be playing Vegas, wearing jumpsuits and inadvertently funding Parker’s gambling addiction. The comeback special is a glimpse of what could have been.
“It’s one of the great tragedies of American history,” says Mr. Binder. “I felt there was so much he could have done … I think the real strength of the special is Elvis rediscovering himself, that he was realizing that it wasn’t the Colonel that made him special, or RCA; it was himself.”
“Elvis: 1968 Comeback Special,” with guest Steve Binder
Where: Plaza Playhouse Theater, 4916 Carpinteria Ave.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Information: (805) 684-6380, www.plazatheatercarpinteria.com