Elvis comes back: “If I Can Dream” (1968)

elvis comeback

The most-watched television show of the 1968-1969 television season aired fifty years ago tonight.

Singer Presents… Elvis was assembled from performance footage that had been taped earlier that summer, edited down to a 50-minute special, and aired on NBC. It gathered 42 per cent of the television audience on December 3, 1968. Perhaps more importantly, it got people talking about Elvis again, which is why it’s often referred to as the “Comeback Special.”

To look at Elvis in the 60s requires a little bit of head shaking. He started the decade strong with a string of hits that followed his stint in the Army. After that, it’s a string of movie songs that sell soundtrack LPs, and modest chart success, but don’t seem to fit the rest of what’s going on in pop music. As I tell my students, to study the Sixties is to study massive shifts in popular culture: the world went, quite literally, from black and white to color in more ways than just television. This shift seemed to happen around Elvis. In 1965 Bob Dylan goes electric, the Beatles start to expand their minds, and Elvis releases “Do the Clam.” 1967 sees the King dent the Top Forty only twice: “Indescribably Blue” makes #33 while “Big Boss Man” squeaks in at #38.  Presley was incensed that Colonel Tom Parker called the tour that followed the TV special a comeback tour, but in reality that’s what it was.

I might make an argument that the songs I most loved of Elvis’ come from this special and the period right after. Seeing the popularity of the show, RCA put out a soundtrack LP, which sold well. The soundtrack album, called – cleverly – Elvis (NBC TV Special), opens with the “greatest hits” section that begins the program. Here Elvis revisits his 1950s work – the songs that put him on the map. From there it’s on to the Gospel section. (We are quick to forget that Elvis won more Grammy awards for his Gospel work than for any of his pop contributions.) But it’s the last song on the album, “If I Can Dream,”
that closes the show and gets – rightfully – the attention.

“If I Can Dream” is a nod to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was recorded in June of 1968, just after his passing, and is sung with the same intensity that Presley brought to the aforementioned Gospel tracks. Supposedly when the song was composed by Walter Earl Brown and played for Presley, Parker said “that’s not an Elvis kind of song.” Elvis, in a rare instance of defying the Colonel, insisted on giving it a try.

The gamble paid off. The song went to #12, earned Elvis his fortieth gold record (his first since 1966), and paved the way for the concert tour. I’d argue that without the tour, and the renewed interest in Presley’s music that it brought, we wouldn’t have seen the subsequent songs that Elvis created back in Memphis in 1969-70. Songs like “Suspicious Minds” (which went on to be his last #1 song), “In the Ghetto,” “Kentucky Rain,” “The Wonder Of You,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” – they all came out of this period of time. Comeback, indeed.

You can hear “If I Can Dream” by clicking here.

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