Elvis Presley was a tamed hound dog by the time he met Steve Binder, the director of what’s now known as the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special. But Binder, a music producer who was instrumental in helping cast off the racial shackles of broadcast television by filming Harry Belafonte touch Petula Clark’s arm during a performance, also loosened Elvis’ collar. Presley’s golden throat was constricted by Colonel Tom Parker, who stuck the King of Rock and Roll in increasingly shitty movies, controlled what and with whom he recorded, and skimmed a 25% commission off the top.
Elvis lost ground to the British invasion, but even the Beatles would have been happy to play sidemen to him. Presley could have showed up at the Monterey Pop Festival and knocked out the crowd with nothing but a guitar and a microphone on a whim, but he was managed by Colonel Parker, a former carney performer. I don’t want to say the Colonel, who never made it past the rank of private when he served in the U.S. Army, was a psychopath, but that’s what it said on his discharge papers.
He may have said he was high classed, but that was just a lie. Thomas Andrew Parker’s real name was Andreas van Kuijk. He was born in Breda, the Netherlands. He got the honorary title of colonel from a country singer named Jimmie Davis, when he was named Governor of Louisiana. The Colonel met Elvis through Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry in October 1954. Parker took every bad clause he ever saw in an entertainment contract, taped them together, and got Presley to sign it. Colonel Parker kept Presley securely under his thumb from the moment the rock and roller got out of the army. He tightened the screws for Presley’s big re-unveiling in 1968.
“It was a very tumultuous year. [Robert F.] Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated,” Steve Binder told the crowd at an exclusive screening and Q&A session at The Paley Center for Media. The event was in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, which will see a special theatrical release on August 16th and 20th courtesy of Fathom Events. “I was with Elvis at my office when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel. We watched it live on television.”
Binder, who also directed The T.A.M.I. Show, and would go on to film the Diana Ross Central Park concert where a thunderstorm pummeled the first set, had his own tumultuous time producing NBC’s Singer Presents…ELVIS in a barely demilitarized zone. His first job was to go behind enemy lines.
The special was going to be directed by NBC executive producer Bob Finkle, who “was an iconic ’50s television producer. He was doing the Jerry Lewis series at the time, the Phyllis Diller series, and so forth, and had a great reputation,” Binder explained. But even after setting up the deal for the special with the Colonel, he couldn’t get through to Elvis. He had to leap a huckster’s hurdle and a cultural generation gap. “[Elvis] kept calling me ‘Mr. Finkle’,” Binder recalled Finkle bemoaning. “I could never get him to call me Bob.”
Finkle read about the Petula Clark controversy in Time and Newsweek magazines, and figured Binder’s music and television background, as well as his “kind of rebel reputation” made him the right director for the special. Binder was producing groups like the 5th Dimension, Laura Nyro, and the Association, and was “around the same age as Elvis,” so Finkle figured they probably had a lot in common.
Working on a film project at Paramount, Binder said he first turned down the offer because he thought Elvis was “a redneck from Tupelo, Mississippi.” But his partner Bones Howe, who had engineered a Presley album, assured Binder he was wrong about Elvis, who had a sense of humor and was more liberal than he’d been depicted. The music producer agreed to direct the television special with one condition, that he got to meet Elvis one on one, with no entourage. He didn’t want to be muscled by the Memphis mafia, and he certainly didn’t want to be corralled by Colonel Parker. After hearing about the distance between Finkle and the singer, Binder wanted to see if he and Presley were compatible.
Colonel Parker worked with elephants and palm-readers before taking on country music promotion. He didn’t rise to the top of rock and roll royalty representation by giving ground. Binder was told the Colonel would allow him to meet Elvis on one condition: He had to meet the Colonel first.
That wasn’t actually the only condition. It seems the hound dog taming ways of the Colonel Parker extended to doggie bags. When Binder got to MGM studios in Culver City, California, he was told The Colonel wanted him to bring French pastries to the meeting.
“There happened to be a French pastry shop near our offices,” Binder told the crowd. “So we stopped on the way to Culver City. I was escorted to the Colonel’s office, and I handed him the bag of pastries, expecting we were going to have breakfast or at least coffee and pastries. He took the paper bag, opened his briefcase, threw them in, and never acknowledged them. So I gave him three French pastries upon first meeting him.”
And what did Binder get in return? The same quarter inch audio tape of 20 Christmas songs the Colonel handed out to “Disc jockeys all over the country.” Presley himself was also an exclusive American commodity, at least when it came to touring. Because the Colonel had difficulties traveling abroad, Presley missed out on millions of dollars in ticket sales he would have made by touring London, Berlin and Tokyo. In 30 years as a performer, Presley only put on three concerts outside America, when he played Canada in 1957. His manager sold him the idea it was bad business.
The Colonel tried to sell the young director on a version of the special Binder had no interest in: Christmas songs. The honorary colonel also made Binder a member of a fake organization called the Snowman’s club. “It was for, pardon my French, people who really knew how to bullshit,” the director told the audience. The Colonel also told Binder he wanted him to direct Elvis’ next movie.
Although Binder left the meeting thinking it was a disaster, Finkle called to tell him he charmed the Colonel, and Elvis would take the trip to his office the next afternoon.
Binder broke the ice by telling Presley he thought his career was “in the toilet.” A risky move, because Presley had a thing for martial arts and does a wonderful choreographed fight/dance scene in the TV special itself. At first, Binder said he thought it looked like Presley wanted to kill him, but then the King laughed and said he appeciated such straight talk.
Binder assured him that if the show turned out to be a disaster, Presley would still be remembered for his early hits and movies, but his career would probably be over. Success would be another story, and it would be felt instantly.
“In those days there were only three networks, Fox wasn’t even in existence. So we had, I think half of America watching our show,” Binder explained.
Presley told Binder the Colonel made the deal with NBC because “all of his money had dried up at the film studios.” NBC was invited to finance Elvis’ next movie but wasn’t offered anything to put on TV. The network decided to fund the film on the precondition that Elvis broadcast a television special.
Presley, who still felt the pangs of doing the early television appearances where “they put him in a tuxedo, put a hound dog in front of him, and basically made fun of him,” didn’t find out about the special until the last minute. Elvis felt television “wasn’t his turf.” He was a musician and only truly felt at home making records. So Binder suggested Presley “make an album, and I’ll put pictures to it.”
Elvis was so excited about the possibilities, he gushed about it to Priscilla Presley, proclaiming “I don’t care what the Colonel says, I got a gut feeling about this kid Binder. I’m going to do what he asks me to do,” the director fondly remembered being told by the iconic young wife of the legendary rock and roller.
That wasn’t the only coup the young musical producer pulled on the Parker camp. Presley’s original musicians, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, “felt they had been burned by Colonel Parker.” The legendary Sam Phillips paired lead guitarist Moore and upright bass player Bill Black with the teenaged Presley during the earliest Sun Session Studio sessions, which included the recording of Arthur Crudup’s 1946 blues song “That’s All Right.” Moore had been fronting a group called the Starlite Wranglers. Calling themselves The Blue Moon Boys, the trio became a quartet when they added Fontana, the in-house drummer for the Louisiana Hayride Saturday night radio broadcast, to keep the beat.
Besides backing Presley on all of his early hits and the famous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Moore was also Presley’s first manager. Control freak manager Colonel Parker didn’t want the band anywhere near Elvis once he went solo. “They reluctantly came, and it was the greatest thing,” Binder remembered.
During rehearsals and taping, Elvis slept in his dressing room to avoid the commute from Burbank to Beverly Hills, where he was renting a home with Priscilla. On his down time from performing, Presley “would jam until sometimes two in the morning and whomever happened to be hanging out would come in, and bang on the piano or bang on the guitar cases or whatever,” Binder recalled.
The producer said he begged the Colonel to let him bring the cameras into the dressing room, but Presley’s manager was only interested in power, and said he it would happen over his “dead body.” The manager finally allowed Binder to recreate the impromptu sessions on stage but “then did everything in his power to sabotage it.” To hear that story, you have to buy Binder’s book, Comeback ’68 The Story of the Elvis Special, which is set to be released in September 2018.
“Elvis did do the improv. His buddies from his roots were there and they just have a lot of fun,” Binder recounted. “In fact Elvis forgot he was being televised, I’m sure, while he was doing improv. I ended up with two hours of material.” Between songs and sometimes during them, Presley joked with the other musicians, mocked his image. and changed the lyrics to songs. He repeatedly allowed his lip to slip into the sneer that got him through 20 pictures.
When he got off the stage Presley told the director he was so comfortable and had so much fun he didn’t remember anything about what he’d done. Audiences won’t forget a thing.
Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special hits theaters on August 16 and 20th courtesy of Fathom Events. Find tickets and participating locations here!
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.