Elvis’ director talks about creating Presley’s big comeback special in 1968

Steve Binder was given the task of making a Christmas special for Elvis Presley in 1968. Instead, he took the fading star and revived his career for a captivated audience. Binder shares what it was like to work with the King

binder presley
Director Steve Binder gives directions to the crew on Elvis’ NBC special in 1968.

Steve Binder may be 85, but he remembers the details of his biggest job in 1968, fifty years ago, with perfect clarity.

He was tasked with directing what was originally conceived as a Christmas special starring Elvis Presley for NBC. It was to skew closely to the other holiday programs of the era, with Presley singing Christmas standards, no different than Bing Crosby or Andy Williams had done years before.

What Binder did instead was re-energize Elvis’ career, giving the rock star relevance to a generation that was quickly forgetting him in favor of the the British Invasion.

Elvis was trapped in a cycle of performing in bad movies and performing corny songs that the studios, and his manager, the unscrupulous Colonel Tom Parker demanded he deliver. His passion was gone, and his career was flat-lining. The performer who was once considered scandalous was now considered safe and passe.

Binder was convinced that by taking Elvis seriously as a singer and entertainer, he could revive the magic that the King still had in him. Keeping the Colonel at arms length, Binder gave Elvis a full orchestra, big show pieces and, most importantly, a section of the show where Elvis could perform in an intimate setting. Decades before MTV’s “Unplugged”, Binder has Elvis and his favorite bandmates play stripped-down acoustic version of songs, trusting that Presley could provide the electricity himself.

The gamble paid off, and the show was an enormous success for both the network and Elvis’ career. Binder has written a book about his experience in “Comeback ’68: Elvis: The Story of the Elvis Special” (Meteor, 2018), where he tells the story of his involvement on the special, from concept to its legacy today. We spoke to Binder at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he was speaking on his storied career in the music world. He has a career that reads like the history of popular music, but the Elvis special still holds a major place in his heart.

Then, as today, there is only one Elvis.