Steve Binder talks Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback

Steve Binder and Elvis Presley on the set of the 1968 Comeback Special in Reinventing Elvis. Courtesy of Paramount+.

Steve Binder spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the new documentary on the historic special, Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback.

When the special premiered in December 1968 on NBC, it had been several years since Presley was regularly performing on the stage. Yes, there were the many jam sessions at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. However, he had been starring in many films, which were growing formulaic in their plots and whatnot. The King of Rock and Roll needed a change of scenery. Thanks to Steve Binder’s genius, fans were able to see Presley hanging out with former bandmates in completely improvised jam sessions, recreating what Binder had seen happen after rehearsal’s in Presley’s dressing room. It would prove to be the heart and sole of the special. Following his passing, the sit-down sessions would be edited into a concert film, Elvis: One Night with You.

Getting Binder’s vision on screen was easier said than done in 1968. The original plan had been to make a special full of Xmas songs. Binder didn’t want this and getting Col. Tom Parker to change anything would be an uphill fight. Bob Finkel, an executive producer, was able to keep Parker away for as much as possible. As he got to know Elvis, the plans would evolve in the days and weeks to come. And again, it was 1968 so it was quite a year of turmoil in America. It’s what led to the addition of “If I Can Dream” at the end of the show. Wisely enough, the song also closes out the documentary, which starts streaming August 15 on Paramount+.

Binder and I spoke in late July for the better part of 40 minutes as he reflected on the documentary and his six decades in the industry.

It’s so nice to meet you today. How are you doing?

Steve Binder: I’m doing great. Thank you.

Last year marked the 55th anniversary of the 1968 Comeback Special. How special was it to produce and direct the special?

Steve Binder: Well, I think I can answer that easily by just saying about 20 years ago, somebody was interviewing me and said, You do realize that no matter how many other projects you do in your life, you’ll only be remembered as the producer-director of the Elvis special. I think they knew what they were talking about. I mean, here we are, over 50 years later, and it seems we’re talking about something that I did last month.

Even though you also directed the Star Wars Holiday Special?

Steve Binder: Diana Ross in Central Park, Olivia Newton-John, and ABBA. I mean, we could go on and on with a career that spanned almost—wow, I’m thinking about it now. I guess I’ve been in the business producing and directing for well over 60 years.

What was it like to revisit the special for the documentary?

Steve Binder: I wasn’t at all considering even doing this documentary. I was approached by my book partner, Spencer Proffer, and a wonderful documentary director-writer, John Scheinfeld. They came to me and said, we’re going to do this project and we’d like you to get involved with us. I said, Who needs another Elvis project? There had been so many books written, TV movies, and Baz Luhrmann came out with his feature film last year. What could possibly be new about it that hasn’t already been said? Their answer was you. I said, What do you mean? They said, well, everybody who’s touched on the 68 special—their information is third party. They weren’t there. You lived there from the very first minute you started pre-production to the very end when you said your last goodbyes to Elvis and I think your point of view would be very unique. I said, Well, tell me what your concept is and I’ll let you know. We sat down and they pitched and by the time they finished telling me what they wanted to do, I said, I’m in, count on me, and I’ll help any way I can.

They called me whenever they had a question. Fortunately, even at my age, my mind is pretty sharp and I was able to recall and remember, specifically, every question they asked me during the entire process. I only knew Elvis Presley for approximately four months doing the comeback special. I never knew him before. I did see him on Ed Sullivan when he made his first appearance and did a couple of Lieber-Stoller type early songs, and then everything I knew about him was they were making a character caricature out of him.

I was not interested in seeing his movies. I think in the documentary, the viewers will get a kick out of one of our guest’s observations. We were lucky because he did a lot of movies for Paramount and through that, we had great cooperation and access to all the movies. There’s a whole section in the documentary that deals with them and this woman’s comments on what she thought of them. As an example, I’ll just give you a taste of it. She said, He was a racecar driver, pause, and a singer, too. She repeated that through all the genres of the kind of movies he made, whether he was a prizefighter or you name it. He was also a singer in those movies.

One of the things I found interesting in watching the documentary was how much of a role you played in making sure that we had the sit-down rounds with friends and his former bandmates.

Steve Binder: To me, that was the heart of the whole special. I kept hearing over the years that he was capable and doing with his buddies and his fellow musicians. He was jamming all the time at Graceland but nobody was able to ever record any of it. It was just kind of use your imagination. Once he made the decision to live at NBC while we were doing this special—even though he and Priscilla had just Lisa Marie. She was only two months old at the time and they were living in Beverly Hills in a rented home. Elvis said, is there any chance I can just live out at NBC so I don’t have to travel the distance every day back and forth to to our rented home. That was the gift of all gifts because that’s when he started living at NBC doing rehearsals. We started recording some of the segments and when we finished all that, he had nothing to do so he just picked up his guitar and whoever was hanging around the dressing room—converted into his bedroom—came in and they just kept jamming until sometimes 1-2 in the morning. That’s when I said, wow, this is better than everything else.

The original concept was big production numbers, the Guitar Man, Gospel, etc. It never occurred to me until I saw this in person of what was going on. I said, this is better than anything we’re sitting here spending a ton of money on and planning to do. I’ve got to get this into the show. This is what everybody worldwide has been talking about for years, but nobody’s seen it.

Even though I was rejected by the Colonel over and over again—I wanted to bring cameras into the dressing room and he wouldn’t let me. Finally, I think I pestered him so much every day, he finally acquiesced to saying, okay, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You can recreate the dressing room out on the stage, but I won’t promise you you can put it into your show. I don’t think he realized what he said because I instantly jumped on it and within 24 hours, we had it all organized and ready to go. That’s when Elvis said to me, do you think there’s a chance I could get DJ Fontana, his original drummer, and Scotty Moore, his original guitarist, to fly into Burbank and do the segment with me? It all kind of came together magically because without DJ and Scotty—and then Charlie Hodge got involved in it—I don’t think it ever would have been the same if I just had our regular studio musicians in the segment with him because there wasn’t that camaraderie of youth, where Elvis grew up with these guys musically. It all came back to all of them.

Some reviewer, I was told—I didn’t even read the review but he wrote that that segment turned out to be the heart of the entire program. It was really a case of the show looked, in that segment, it looked unrehearsed. Well, that reviewer didn’t realize it was unrehearsed. Literally, I just said do what you did in the in the dressing room and didn’t give them any direction other than to be totally free and in Elvis’s case, just use your instinct. He balked in the beginning, saying, his mind was a blank. He couldn’t remember anything he did in the dressing room. He couldn’t remember any of the songs, he couldn’t remember any of the stories they told. When he finally made the decision that he was going to do it after I told him he had to—I had never asked him to do anything he didn’t want to do. I said, in this case, I don’t care if you just go out and say hi and goodbye, I’m Elvis Presley, and that’s enough for the audience and come on back, but you’ve gotta go out there. He did and then it was the cliche of get the vaudeville cane, where this enormously long thing cane in and drags the artists off the stage.

Elvis did two hours of this improv and never ran out of gas. I think he might have gone on another two hours because I think he forgot. Once he was into it with the guys, he forgot he was doing a television special. He was just having a ball and loving something he had been denied in doing for decades. I was the beneficiary of being part of capturing that for the first time. It’s proven itself, what now for five or six decades, where the show is watched by people all over the globe. I’ve yet to see a negative reaction or review of the improv acoustic segment. Everything else fit in as a puzzle piece, when he did do the gospel. It took on more meaning—everything he did or said in that special because of that acoustic segment.

Was it easy to stand up to Col. Tom Parker?

Steve Binder: The interesting thing is, I was thinking about Elvis and 68, obviously, a lot since Baz’s movie came out through Warner Brothers. I fortunately got to know Baz really well when he was making that movie and I was a creative consultant on it. Baz’s wife is the set decorator and the costume designer on his movies. I think I had more communication with her in terms of the authenticity of what it looked like. We had lots of conversations regarding costuming and color control. The show was intentionally based on a black and red signature. I let the other colors come in through the musicians, singers, dancers, and what have you.

It was really a case of after the movie exploded all over the world and that’s why the documentary—once I realized we were really doing it. I had a lot of communication, obviously, with my partner, Spencer and John Scheinfeld. It was their project. I was just there filling in some of the memories of what really happened as opposed to the folklore that comes from any project that you do. I’m amazed, even now, in the people with that participated in the making of the documentary. I think it’s going to really surprise a lot of people when they watch it. As one of the people interviewed in the documentary said, I tuned in thinking it would suck. He ended up loving it. I think that’s going to be the general, at least I’m hoping, reaction from all—not just the Elvis fans, but people from all over the world who just heard the name Elvis Presley. It’s interesting—so many people were born after he passed away and yet his popularity today is bigger than when we did the show in 1968. It’s talked about all over the world. I think this documentary is going to have a major impact on the final impression and imprint that Elvis left the rock and roll world and the world in general, in terms of his talent. He was not the figment of RCA Records publicity machine and distribution and so forth and Colonel Parker’s genius as a personnel manager, and so forth.

I think when I got Elvis, he doubted his own talent. If I contributed anything to the success of the 68 special it was—which I think they wisely chose—the title because I think Elvis rediscovered himself in the documentary. At some point in it, you could almost read the expression on his face and his body language, that he said, Hey, I guess I deserve being called the King of Rock and Roll, at least in the white world. As I said, once we started filming, there wasn’t anything he didn’t want to do and didn’t do that I asked him to do. The original rundown of the show, created by my writers, Alan Blye and Chris Bearde, we executed exactly without changing anything. I said, Elvis, do you want to change anything in what we’re pitching you or you have any ideas that you want to insert? He said, No, I love everything you told me about and let’s just do it. Obviously, without the acoustic segment in it. Somebody mentioned that was the beginning of basically MTV’s success that they had for quite a few seasons, doing these acoustic sessions with other artists and so forth.

One of the things that surprised me in watching is how the risqué bit was not in the special when it aired in 1968 but has been apart of the Comeback Special ever since it re-aired after Elvis’s death?

Steve Binder: There’s so much involved in that special that I would just identify with luck and just blind timing and success. The original concept of doing 20 Christmas songs, which I was never ever going to do—my first meeting with the Colonel, when I left it, I went back to my office totally feeling, well, at least I got to meet the Colonel. I didn’t get to meet Elvis but I met him. We didn’t talk about anything other than the 20 song Christmas special. That’s all he cared about. And yet, what I found really interesting is that when I started production on the concept we came up with—my little team. We had just concluded where I produced and directed the Petula Clark-Harry Belafonte special that created an international incident around the world when Petula reached out and touched Harry on the forearm. In variety television, I think it was the first time ever that a Black and a white actually touched each other on the air, let alone a white woman touching a Black man.

Preceding that, I did have special with Leslie Uggams, who was very famous on American television and those years singing with the Mitch Miller Orchestra and choir, where the audience at home would follow the bouncing ball and be able to sing the lyrics to whatever songs they were performing on the show. At the time, I was in New York directing a show called Hullabaloo, which was NBC’s first primetime rock and roll show. Leslie was on Broadway doing a hit show called Hallelujah Baby. Everything in the 60s, especially in variety, was called special. I’d been thinking about that a lot and saying they’re destroying the meaning of the word. I would like to do some specials that really are special, that if the star fell out, there wasn’t a case of just saying, well, let’s replace them with so and so because it was over. It was all based on their music, their stories, and their personal journeys to their success. That’s why I chose to do this trilogy. That triggered our executive producer Bob Finkel, who was under contract NBC at the time. He saw Petula and Harry and that’s how he came up with the idea of calling me and asking if I was interested in doing Elvis Presley, which my initial response was, No, I’m not interested. It turned out to be obviously the best thing that ever happened in my life from a work standpoint.

But when I started actually working on the show, I never heard anything from Colonel Parker, NBC, Bob Finkel. None of them even brought up the fact that I had completely changed the format and wasn’t doing a Christmas special with 20 songs. The irony of the entire special for me and what I really get a kick out of, which very few people know, is that NBC chose to air a 60-minute version. In those days, that was about 48 minutes of entertainment because the rest was filled up with commercials and public service and what have you. I, on my own, edited a 90 minute version—now I had this two hour improv material to work with. I begged the sponsor, Singer Sewing Machines, put little ladies all over the country going to the sewing centers. I asked the sponsor, I asked NBC, please give us another half hour and instead of 60 minutes, let’s put on the 90-minute version that I edited. They turned me down and they refused to do it. They aired the 60-minute version. By that time, they had pulled out the entire—what they nicknamed themselves—the bordello segment. When I actually watched it, it was just the big production numbers, period. I used the improv as intros to the big production numbers, just as interstitial. I just had a few minutes of it throughout the 60 minute version.

What happened is when Elvis passed away, NBC made the decision to pay tribute to him do a three-hour special, put Ann-Margret in is the host, and they sent a gopher—years later—down to the basement to go find the master. Well, the gopher—when he went down there or she went down there—didn’t know the difference between the 60-minute master or the 90 minute version that I cut, which I didn’t even realize NBC kept and it was on their shelf at that time. They reached out and grabbed the 90-minute segment without realizing there was a 60 minute master probably a few feet away, came upstairs, and NBC was delighted because they now had enough material to fill the three-hour special they were about to do.

That 90-minute version was such a big hit on that show that they decided to basically destroy or get rid of the 60 minute version altogether. Ever since that day, only the 90-minute version has been played over and over and over again. That’s the special I always wanted them to air in the first place, which they refused to do, initially.

Previously, when I was doing Petula Clark and Belafonte, I shot at film style so I was able to do multiple takes without worrying about an audience and entertaining them and so forth. I did about six takes of this anti-war song and only once, the very last time when I changed the staging, did Petula reach over and touch Harry. All the other takes, they did not touch each other—right after, the sponsor’s representative exploded in the sponsor’s greenroom and said this would never air. He was going to use one of the other takes. I went down to the editing machine in the basement of NBC and I ordered the editor to erase all the other masters. His hands were shaking. He actually wrote up something giving him permission to erase the masters because I ordered him to do so, which I had to sign and I did. I wish I had a copy of that. But as a result, we erased all the master tapes of that number and the only one that was left was where Petula touched Harry. That was the greatest thing I did because I know, if I didn’t do that, for sure, NBC would have chosen one of the other takes through the use. Visually speaking, ironically, I loved the staging of the preceding takes—I did—but emotionally nothing was happening. I just said, forget the visual. I went down and I said, Okay, this time, the last time, Petula, instead of stopping behind Harry over his shoulder, just go alongside of him, shoulder to shoulder, and just sing your hearts out. The magic happened. All of a sudden, I looked up and in the middle of song tears are starting to come out of her eyes. Harry looks over at Petula, he sees her crying. He starts tearing up. That was the beauty of being able to let that in the show because at the time, in 1968, you have to realize America was in total turmoil. We’re fighting a war, students are protesting all over the country. Our National Guard had actually killed a few students on a campus in America—there was a huge controversy.

When I said that we’re doing this anti-war song and BC immediately said, No, we don’t want you to do it. I justified it by saying, well, Petula wrote it and it’s not about Vietnam—it’s really just about being an anti-war song about mothers send their children off the battle, and they come back wounded and killed. After the war is over, you go to the place where it all happened, there are flowers growing, and everybody’s singing love and peace songs so I think it’s really, really important that we have it in that special. With that kind of background, it didn’t, in any way, shape or form, deter me from holding my position when I confronted all these, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, policy and so forth. I just put my head down and basically ignored it.

As a matter of fact, the bordello scene that they’re talking about with the innocent blonde, who’s working in bordello for the first day, confronts Elvis. Before they can consummate their relationship, the place raided by the police and he jumps out of the window to his next adventure on his way to fame and fortune. That was, to me, so innocent. At the same time, NBC promised me that they would leave it in the show and they wouldn’t take it out because there was a rumor I was going to quit the Elvis show, which was not true. I never ever entertained the idea of walking away from the show. But the rumor was floating around and they were very nervous that I was going to leave in the middle of production. I brought everybody on stage involved in the bordello and I said, if you have any complaints, now’s the time to speak your peace and we’ll fix everything so there’ll be no reason for you to say I can’t air it. They did. They felt that all of the dancers’ cleavage was too risqué and they wanted me to get black netting and put in their bodices, cover it up and so forth, which we did. Whatever other objections they had, I confronted at the time and solved. I finally said to everybody—everybody was there, the sponsors the network, anybody involved in the business end of the business. I said, if you have any objections now, let me know. Otherwise, I want all of you to give me permission to air it as is and they all did. They all said, we’re not going to pull it, you can put it in this show and Aaron, and then they changed their mind after I delivered the master to them.

By that time, I think General Electric bought NBC and they decided that they were going to send a brown suit and brown-shoed General Electric executive to make the final decision, whether it’s in the show or out. When I went down to the editing room to meet him, he was watching a Dean Martin segment with this over-six-foot blonde beauty in a bikini, basically playing off of a dirty joke. He was laughing his head off and I said, Oh, this is no sweat. I mean, this guy’s got to see nothing in our little scene in the Guitar Man segment where Elvis has just experienced life trying to seek fame and fortune. He walked over to our tape machine and I started playing it for him and within, I don’t know, 10 seconds, he said, No, you can’t air that. That’s going to destroy the youth of America. That’s why it was taken out of the first show. But fortunately, it came back in so it all worked out. Life is that way.

When I watched the documentary, I thought it was genius to end with “If I Can Dream.”

Steve Binder: That’s a great story behind that because as you know, the Colonel—he had dropped the idea of a Christmas show a la Andy Williams, Perry Como, what have you. He never cared a bit about Elvis’s creative talent. He only cared about the business of the business and for himself. It was interesting to me because it all seemed to focus when he called Elvis and myself into his little broom closet office at NBC, next to the stage. The Colonel was offered the Dean Martin dressing room for an office. He turned it down and he said, just clean out the broom closet because it’s the closest to the stage and that’s where I want to be. We put a little tiny desk in there and a little tiny chair. It was so humorous. Outside, you had two William Morris wannabe agents dressed in full English regalia as a palace guards standing in front door of the broom closet. Elvis and I walked in there and Elvis immediately took the position of putting his head down and kind of trying to shrink himself so he wasn’t there. The colonel looked at me and said it was called to my attention, Bindle—he used to call me Bindle on several occasions when he wanted to communicate with me something negative. He said, It’s been called to my attention that there’s no Christmas songs in the show and Elvis wants a Christmas song in this show. I turned to Elvis and I said, Elvis, if you want a Christmas song, I’ll put one in. I have no objection but you’ve never said anything about it. Elvis mumbled something. The Colonel had said, So it’s clear from here on in that you’ll do a Christmas song with Elvis, which we’ll use to close the show.

What he wanted for the close of the show was either a Christmas song or something he personally liked that he listened to in the 1950s by Frankie Laine, who was a popular singer at the time. It was a song called “I Believe,” which had nothing to do with Christmas. It was a very inspiring song in itself but it certainly had no relationship, in my opinion, at Christmas. It never uttered the word or the season or anything. Elvis acknowledged that that was okay with him and the Colonel said, Okay, boys, it’s settled. You’ll have a Christmas song and you go back to work now. The Colonel never was on stage with us when we were. Bob Finkel, who was my executive producer. was a genius keeping the Colonel out of our hair. He really was. He played poker with him and intentionally lost a lot of money to the Colonel just to keep him happy. They played games behind the scenes. They did photographs of each other, which they presented to each other. Bob was dressed as a naval officer in the 1800s and the Colonel dressed himself as a full Southern Colonel during the Civil War.

It was a case of Bob’s brilliance to just keep out of our hair. What was really interesting to me is in the documentary where his oldest daughter was on the show. She said, Bob was at the height of his career when he was approached to do this and they even wanted him to direct it. He said, No, I’m going to find a director to do it. He became the executive producer of the special. She said he was totally hands-on and that means that he would be involved every step of the way, from creatively deciding on what the segments would be and so forth, and so on. In my case, Bob was 100%, supportive of everything I was doing. He delivered the 100 Elvis’s for that great opening segment, “If You’re Looking for Trouble.” I never thought NBC would approve that many extras. The first question that Bob asked was, how many minutes are they going to be on the screen? I said, I think I’ll probably just be on for about 30 seconds. He said, Well, that’s gonna be a tough sell to NBC. If you could justify using them more in the show. I said, Bob, if I use them more, they’ll be meaningless. Just having him there for even 30 seconds and never again, people will remember that for the rest of their lives, which is exactly what happened.

Bob never asked me to change anything, never said anything that he wanted in the show that I wasn’t doing. The opposite of hands-on. He was there to make sure that we were not interfered with. He kept the Colonel out of our hair and let Elvis and I just work alone in executing all the ideas that we originally had. He was great. I never even knew it. In fact, to this day, I never thanked him enough for the contribution that he made on that Elvis comeback special. As the years have passed and I’ve thought about it and everything, I realized what more could I have asked for in an executive producer like Bob. At the same time he was involved with us with Elvis, he was producing the Jerry Lewis series on NBC and the Phyllis Diller series, which was going at the same time. He had two series on the air and the most important special NBC had ever done on his plate. He certainly had the right to make suggestions, etc., but he didn’t. He just totally supported me and said, anything you’re doing, I’m 100% behind and made no suggestions of changing anything.

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you this afternoon.

Steve Binder: Thank you. I appreciate it. I was looking forward to talking to you. I’d heard about you before and certainly the guys—John and everything—filled me in on who you were and so I appreciate it very much.

Paramount+ will stream Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback beginning on August 15, 2023.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.