It seems hard to believe now, given his godlike status. But there was a point back in the late 1960s when Elvis Presley was considered something of a has-been. Thankfully, one particular track helped to revive his musical career — and it was one that had a much deeper meaning than you may think.
A pivotal year
The year 1968 proved to be pivotal for Elvis in more ways than one. In the February the singer and his wife Priscilla Presley welcomed their first and only child. Lisa Marie Presley would, of course, later go on to wed perhaps the only other man who could rival her father’s pop culture legacy, Michael Jackson.
On the wane
But at the time he became a dad, Elvis’ chart success had waned drastically. In fact, just two of the eight singles by him that hit the shelves from January 1967 to May the following year even made the U.S. Top 40! Released shortly after Lisa Marie’s birth, Elvis’ soundtrack for Speedway could only peak at number 82, too.
Colonel Tom Parker
But Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker soon started to set the wheels in motion for a project that would restore him to former glories: a televised Christmas special. The King hadn’t graced the small screen for eight years, with his last appearance being on The Frank Sinatra Timex at the start of the decade. And the Colonel ensured that his return would be a grand one thanks to a lucrative contract with NBC.
So how exactly had Elvis’ stock fallen so low? Well, the Colonel’s insistence that his client shouldn’t play live didn’t help matters. Yes, you had to go all the way back to 1961 for the last time that the “Heartbreak Hotel” singer had put on a concert. And even before that, Elvis’ ability to tour had been severely restricted.
That’s right: just as Elvismania was in full flow, the singer suddenly found himself as a private in the United States Army. The star had been drafted in 1958 and spent two years in service before being discharged as a sergeant. By this point, though, the notoriously fickle pop market had moved on to other fresher faces.
Yet Elvis still very much remained a significant pop culture fixture throughout the 1960s. But at the Colonel’s insistence, his efforts were focused more toward the big screen than the charts. Elvis appeared in no fewer than 31 movies on his return from the army. Unfortunately, the majority were forgettable fluff.
While Elvis was busy racking up the movie credits, the musicians who’d been inspired by him were pioneering a new, exciting take on rock and roll. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles instantly made the King’s music sound a little old hat, as did new musical trends such as Motown and psychedelia. So as you’d expect, Elvis grew increasingly disillusioned with his own work.
But the man who’d essentially been responsible for Elvis’ career decline at last hit upon a brainwave that would reverse the singer’s fortunes. The Colonel negotiated a deal with NBC for a festive special to be screened in December 1968. Still, his original idea for the show was very different from what eventually made the airwaves.
Yes, the Colonel wanted Elvis to put on a cozy, family-friendly special in the vein of Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. Thankfully, Steve Binder, the director of hip concert movie T.A.M.I. Show, managed to convince the manager that pure rock and roll was the way to go. But Elvis needed some persuading, too.
You see, Elvis was gripped by a fear of failure and of coming across as someone whose best days were far behind them. But after a pep talk from Steve, who was of a similar age, the “Hound Dog” singer agreed to re-embrace his rock and roll side. This was one of the few times when Elvis plucked up the courage to disobey the man who’d previously controlled his career.
In the round
Steve and Elvis came up with a plan to perform much of the show in the round alongside the singer’s regular backing musicians D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore. Only a select few fans would be allowed to witness the spectacle in person. And Elvis would sport one of his most iconic outfits for much of the occasion: a full black leather suit.
You could say the bold move paid off. Later dubbed the ’68 Comeback Special, the show reminded everyone of Elvis’ hip-swiveling stage presence, natural charisma, and catalog of rock and roll classics including “Jailhouse Rock” and “All Shook Up.” By the time the hour-long special concluded, Elvis was as cool as he’d ever been.
A huge milestone
Alanna Nash, the author of The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, told the Los Angeles Times newspaper that the show was a huge milestone in the Elvis story. She said, “If there hadn’t been the ’68 special, I’m not sure he’d occupy the place in rock music history he does today… What’s Greil Marcus’ famous quote about it? ‘It’s like watching a man find his way home again.’ That’s really what it is.”
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame CEO Greg Harris agreed. He told the same publication, “It was a resurrection in the way he came back stronger than ever. This was pure unadulterated emotion and the essence of rock ’n’ roll. I think that learning the narrative of how it came together just gives us a better appreciation for Elvis’ true concern and his love and passion for the music.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
But while the night was undoubtedly a moment of triumph, there was also more than a hint of sadness, albeit one that audiences mightn’t have picked up on. You see, Elvis had been a huge supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, the “Return to Sender” singer had pledged substantial sums to help fund the civil rights activist’s cause.
Linda Thompson, Elvis’ former girlfriend, later told CNN that the singer felt he had a kinship with the church leader. She said, “You know, he was this young kid from abject poverty who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, and was an amalgamation of lots of different styles of music, from black gospel to hillbilly.” And Elvis found himself inspired by Martin’s powerful words, too.
“He was a tremendous fan of Martin Luther King,” a candid Linda added. “We used to listen to his speeches over and over. And the cadence and the mellifluous tone of Martin Luther King’s voice was so inspirational.” But did the civil rights leader feel the same way about Elvis?
Well, it seems unlikely that Martin ever played a bit of “All Shook Up” before taking to the pulpit. The activist apparently wasn’t a huge fan of rock and roll music. But he may well have felt an affinity with Elvis due to the pair both having grown up in the Deep South at a similar time.
Tragically, Martin was assassinated just eight miles from Elvis’ iconic Graceland home. On April 4, 1968 the civil rights icon was shot by James Earl Ray while positioned on the Lorraine Motel’s second-story balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As was the case for much of America, Martin’s death hit Elvis hard.
Elvis was in the middle of shooting yet another film — Live a Little, Love a Little — when Martin’s funeral took place. But Celeste Yarnall, his co-star in the forgettable flick, later revealed that the singer cried while watching the ceremony on TV. “He really cared deeply,” she added.
And Elvis proved just how deeply he cared when it came to organizing his comeback TV special two months later. The music legend was initially supposed to bring the broadcast to a close with a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Affected by the deaths of both Martin and Senator Robert Kennedy, though, Elvis had other ideas.
Capturing the mood
You could say that this was an unexpected move. Elvis’ music had never previously been politically or socially conscious. But the King was keen to prove that there was a different side to his talents. And he was also determined to capture the mood of a nation that was still reeling from the tragic deaths of two of its most important political figures.
While the Colonel wasn’t on board with this alternative finale, the special’s producer certainly was. Steve later explained what had inspired him to give Elvis the chance to show a little more depth. He said, “I wanted to let the world know that here was a guy who was not prejudiced, who was raised in the heart of prejudice, but was really above all that.”
If I Can Dream
And “If I Can Dream” was deemed to be the perfect choice of song. The ballad had been penned by Earl Brown, the man tasked with arranging the vocals for the TV special. And as you can no doubt tell by the title, it was heavily inspired by Martin’s most famous speech.
March on Washington
That speech was, of course, the one famously dubbed “I Have a Dream.” Martin made it in front of a staggering 250,000 onlookers at the Lincoln Memorial during August 1963. This was part of the March on Washington staged to protest about social issues such as racial segregation.
Martin was speaking at a time when police brutality and gun crime were also at worrying levels. Yet with the huge crowd hanging onto his every word, Martin appeared confident that “somehow this situation can and will be changed.” He also expressed hope that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Earl’s lyrics undoubtedly alluded to Martin’s envisioning of redemption, equality, and freedom. See the line “If I can dream of a better land/Where all my brothers walk hand in hand” for a particularly obvious example. And the songwriter also used more subtle ways to align the track with Martin’s speech.
The “warmer sun where hope keeps shining on everyone,” for example, no doubt refers to Martin’s talk of a “sunlit path of racial justice.” And the “beckoning candle” appears to be a substitute for the activist’s “great beacon light.” There’s one slight but significant difference between the two messages, though.
Whereas Martin was relatively optimistic in his hopes for a brighter future, Earl appeared to be a little more cautious in his tone. The song’s title is “If I Can Dream” rather than “I Have a Dream,” after all. Perhaps also influenced by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the lyrics are slightly more fearful, too.
Of course, Earl’s lyrics wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact if they’d been delivered by anyone else. It’s Elvis’ performance of “If I Can Dream” that undoubtedly elevates the song into the realm of genuine classic. That’s not only with his pitch-perfect vocals, but with the inspired staging, too.
Elvis changed into an all-white suit for the finale. And he performed his heartfelt tribute to Martin with a now-iconic array of red letters behind him that spelled out his name. Scottish pop outfit Texas, rockers Danzig, and even The Simpsons have all paid tribute to this staging over the years.
In Careless Love, a book by Peter Guralnick, Steve recalled Elvis’ response to the original song and the unusual way he recorded it, too. The producer said, “He was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song. And when he got done, he came in the control room and we played it maybe 15 times. He just loved it so much.”
So much emotion
And Elvis wasn’t the only one in the recording studio to be touched by the song’s powerful message. Apparently the backing singers were reduced to tears on hearing “If I Can Dream” for the first time. “Elvis never sang with so much emotion. Looks like he means every word,” one reportedly said.
The song certainly appeared to ignite a new-found boldness in the King. Steve recalled to the Los Angeles Times, “Elvis once told me, ‘Steve, I never want to sing any more songs I don’t believe in... I never want to make another movie I don’t believe in,’ and going on and on and projecting into the future. He wanted to travel the world, experience things he never had the opportunity to do.”
Regrettably, though, things didn’t quite work out this way. “I said, ‘Elvis I hear you, but I don’t know if you’re strong enough to stand up to the Colonel,’” Steve explained. “He always pulled his power play over Elvis, and Elvis would humbly bow his head. He never stood up to him in any other confrontations. In the end, unfortunately, I was right.”
Mind you, the ’68 Comeback Special undoubtedly rekindled a love of all things Elvis among the general public. An impressive 42 percent of those watching TV in its timeslot tuned in to the musical spectacular. And as a result “If I Can Dream” climbed all the way up to number 12 on the Hot 100. This made it Elvis’ highest-peaking single for three years!
The special’s soundtrack sold by the bucketload, too. Elvis also went on to have several more Billboard hits, while his residency in Las Vegas became the stuff of legend. But the singer remained very much in thrall to the Colonel. And this was also a period when his personal life went into freefall.
In the 1970s Elvis split from his long-term partner Priscilla and rarely got the chance to see his daughter Lisa Marie. Even more damagingly, the King developed a gargantuan drug habit. And it was this that ultimately led to Elvis’ premature death from a heart attack less than a decade after his triumphant televised comeback.
But like pretty much all of Elvis’ music, the song still lives on. It’s since been covered by everyone from former England men’s national soccer team coach Terry Venables to Canadian diva Celine Dion. And during a forum chat in 2017, the King’s ex-wife Priscilla revealed that “If I Can Dream” was one of her two most cherished Elvis tracks.