"When he found out I did the Elvis thing," Binder says of Kaufman, "he just followed me around, staring at me. I felt so uncomfortable."
Originally conceived as a Christmas show, the Comeback Special is Elvis's brief reclamation of his superpowers between tours of hell (Hollywood and Vegas). The show is remarkable for its ambition (Elvis sang with a gospel choir and, for the first time, an orchestra) and its intimacy (Elvis "unplugged" with Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Charlie Hodge). In Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the bookend to Last Train to Memphis, author Peter Guralnick describes the show as "an unmitigated triumph."
Thirty years later, Binder can scarcely make it out of a dinner party or industry function without dispensing anecdotes behind the making of the special, which originally aired on NBC as Singer Presents ELVIS. Bruce Springsteen buttonholed Binder at a gym, telling him it was "kind of the ultimate in rock and roll." Sunday, Binder will present the special--along with an hour of footage that has never been telecast--at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the museum's celebration of the King's 64th birthday.
Binder was an unlikely engineer of Presley's comeback. Then a 31-year-old grad of USC, he had directed episodes of Hullabaloo and a Petula Clark special, which was written about by Time and Newsweek; Clark made the then-racy gesture of clutching the forearm of her black guest, Harry Belafonte.
A fan of the laid-back California sounds of groups like the Association and the Fifth Dimension, Binder was more amused than fascinated by the concept of Elvis, though his sound engineer, Bones Howe, had worked with Elvis in the '50s. The young director was surprised to find Elvis so generous and hard-working. "Elvis was not book-smart, but he was street-smart. He had great instincts."
A storyline borrowed from The Blue Bird, a play about a boy who seeks fame and fortune abroad only to learn there's no place like home, was developed. Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man" would be the special's linking verb. But Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted his boy in a Christmas show, preferably one with guest stars. "Even the suggestion came in we put Milton Berle on the show," Binder says. He was feeling the full blast of the machine that manufactured Elvis as icon rather than artist.
"The Colonel laid down an edict from the beginning that I couldn't have him talking. All he could do was say 'hello' and 'goodbye.' I thought I needed him to express himself, where we could open him up, see him as he really is behind the scenes."
As the taping date neared, Elvis had essentially moved into the studio. Two dressing rooms were converted into his personal suite. After rehearsing all day, Elvis would grab a guitar for a hootenanny with the guys. Binder had an epiphany. "I got the idea that this stuff was better than what I was working on. So I asked Colonel Parker if I could videotape the room, and he said, 'Absolutely not.' I finally convinced him to let me try to create it onstage."
The show's musical arranger was replaced, and Binder flew in Elvis's old hands Moore and Fontana. By tap-dancing around the Colonel and reassuring an accommodating but nervous Elvis, Binder was getting what he wanted. He told Elvis to think he was making a record; the cameras would simply put pictures to the music. They connected when Elvis "realized I wasn't going to cage him in. One of the things I did do, I told him he could go wherever he wanted to go, and I would follow him ... I kind of put him in a boxing ring. There are no marks; there are no places you have to be under the lights. Just do what you have to do." Binder was learning Elvis would defy the Colonel (and the Colonel would yield) if Elvis didn't have to challenge his manager directly.
Elvis entered the "ring" wearing black leather. His expanding build at this point looked powerful, not bloated. His long sideburns framed what was still a remarkably handsome face. After a few moments of clumsiness, Elvis's forgettable years in Hollywood started to peel away. He and the band played rhythmic versions of old hits and blues tunes. They're seated, but Elvis keeps rising from his chair. During "Trying to Get You," Guralnick writes, "[He] is singing harder than he ever did, or had to, at the outset of his career, while playing with the audience, teasing it, miming emotion even as he feels it."
"It's just him having fun jamming," Binder says. "To me, it's just electrifying, magical."
Two days later, the production portion of the show was taped. Elvis's trademark songs were refurbished--one hesitates to use the word "contemporized"--by Billy Goldenberg, an arranger with Broadway experience. Elvis, apprehensive about singing over French horns, told Binder: "Steve, you have to promise me: If I don't like what I hear, you can send all these people home." They stayed.
Binder edited the footage into a 90-minute special, but NBC aired Singer Presents ELVIS as a one-hour show in December of 1968. It was the season's No. 1 show. When Presley died, the 90-minute version was broadcast along with 1973's Aloha From Hawaii. HBO obtained the rights to the "improv" set from RCA and Elvis Presley Enterprises, naming it One Night Only.
Binder worked steadily before and after Elvis. He's directed specials and films featuring everyone from Steve Allen and Mac Davis to the Stones and Diana Ross. His bio also claims "credit" for discovering Seals and Crofts and bringing Rick Springfield to America. (Yeesh.) The night before the day I spoke with him, he wrapped an ABC special of Michelle Kwan skating to the music of Mulan. Did he imagine Singer Presents ELVIS would be his calling card? "For me, it was just another special, truthfully."
Binder says the show is "like looking through a keyhole and seeing something you shouldn't be seeing." Indeed. The Comeback Special is not Sun Elvis, Army Elvis, Ann-Margret Elvis, or Dr. Nick Elvis. It's Elvis in full--sweet, sexy, sweaty, and sad.
Calling the show a Comeback Special does seem wrong-headed; the comeback was too short-lived. Afterward, Elvis didn't return to Memphis to cut blues or country records; he didn't invite John Lennon over. He took an orchestra and his scarves to Las Vegas. Perhaps he was too far down the path that would end on a Graceland commode. Drugs, karate, and conspiracy theories (Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968) were already part of his life. The unmaking was well under way.
It's difficult for Binder to look back at his Elvis experience with dreamy-eyed nostalgia: He and his team were unconscionably denied production credit on the corresponding record re-leased by RCA, which had two hit singles, "Memories" and "If I Can Dream." He says the Colonel threatened Billboard magazine that RCA would withhold advertising dollars if they were listed as producers. A $3,000 check the Colonel sent Binder to make the matter go away was returned. "A 2 or 3 percent royalty off that [record] would have been a fortune."
His respect for Elvis as a performer and a human being has not diminished. In the '80s Binder joined Priscilla at Graceland for an Elvis retrospective. The first time he ever stood in the Big E's living quarters, Binder noticed there were no gold records on the walls, no plaques, nothing that said Elvis Presley. It was the chamber of an artist with genuine humility and unquestionable instincts undone by a lack of will and taste.
"I think Elvis pretty much died of boredom, in my opinion, more than any drug he put in his body."
The '68 Comeback Special: Behind the Scenes with Steve Binder. 3 p.m., Sunday, January 10, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, $5 ($4 for members), 888-588-