On December 3rd, 1968, Elvis’ “68 comeback special” was aired across America. The nation watched the program with bated breath. Elvis had become an international rockstar in the 50’s, but in the following decade had decided to focus on his movie career, which was middling at best. For much of the 60’s, there was a big question mark surrounding Presley and his future legacy. Sure, songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” had cemented Elvis’ place in Rock n’ Roll history, but many thought that Elvis’ career was a single-decade affair.
That now-famous 68 special proved them wrong, of course. Elvis exploded back into the spotlight with lively performances of his past rock hits. However, he surprised audiences with a few soulful renditions of Gospel music. To many, the 68 special represents Elvis at the height of his career. This blend of his youthful energy mixed with his intimate sensibilities made for peak musical performance. The 68 special could’ve ended there, with Elvis simply reminding the nation that he was still alive and kicking. However, Elvis decided to take things a step further, by ending the show with what many would consider to be his most politically-charged and passionate performance of his entire career; I’m of course talking about his now-iconic “If I Can Dream” performance, an emotional ballad inspired by the assassinations of MLK Jr. and RFK.
While Elvis’ comeback special aired in December of 1968, the show was filmed beforehand, in the late spring and early summer of that same year. Elvis was conducting rehearsals for the T.V. special when he heard the news of RFK’s death. The death of Senator Kennedy, paired with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. a few months earlier put Elvis into an emotional tailspin. The night of June 6th, 1968, the day RFK was officially pronounced dead, Elvis talked into the long hours of the night with the show director Steve Binder about his strong feelings on the matter. After that discussion, Binder approached the show’s musical director Billy Goldenberg and songwriter Earl Brown and told them about the discussion he had with Presley. At the time, the show was planned to end with a Christmas-themed song, in-line with the December air date. However, that idea was scrapped and replaced with the “If I Can Dream” performance.
If the previous performances of the night didn’t let the world know Elvis was back, that ending powerhouse performance sure did. With so many toiling from the months-apart deaths of two of the world’s brightest leaders, “If I Can Dream” represented the solemn, yet hopeful feelings so many American citizens needed to latch onto in the year of 1968.
This article was written as a companion piece to last week’s episode, and that episode was inspired by the recently-released “ELVIS” film. If you want to learn more about RFK, listen to part one of this two-part series that details Robert F. Kennedy’s life-changing trip to the Mississippi Delta. Thanks for reading!