The Story Behind Elvis’ Protest Song in Time for MLK Day
Elvis' 1968 TV special, simply called "Elvis" (but unofficially known today as the '68 Comeback Special), gave the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" a much-needed career boost after a series of mediocre films mixed with the fact that younger bands like the Beatles had stolen his thunder.
While the special was a fan success, the finale's protest song, "If I Can Dream," spoke to societal injustice, and its loose connection to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" brought the King back into the mainstream.
Of course, Elvis had never been one to speak out much politically, let alone sing what would become known as a protest song. So, why did he do it? Here's the fascinating story behind the timely song that's still discussed by families today.
Elvis Before the NBC Special
Elvis made his debut in 1956 and was an immediate smashing success, cementing his "King of Rock 'n' Roll" status fairly early on.
But in 1958, he shocked fans by deciding to join the military. He was drafted just a year earlier, and while he likely could have gotten out of it or taken a less-active role, he did not. The influence of Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, likely added to his decision to join.
He was discharged in 1960, and while he still had some hits, his career started its decline. Plus, Parker insisted Elvis act in a number of formulaic films, each one worse than the last.
By the time of the Comeback Special, Elvis hadn't played in seven years and hadn't had a hit in three. When he asked Steve Binder, who directed the special, where he thought his career was heading, Binder said, "in the toilet."
A Deal With the Devil
To understand Elvis during this time, you need to understand his relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, a carny who made his living with animal acts — a pony circus and dancing chickens (the chickens "danced" on a sawdust-covered hot plate.)
When Parker met Elvis, he saw dollar signs. He not only managed Elvis' musical output, but he also created and sold all kinds of merch (including "I Hate Elvis" buttons) to the tune of $22 million. Parker initially took a 25 percent commission from Elvis but soon helped himself to 50 percent. He made more money off of Elvis' career than Elvis himself.
So, the Comeback Special came about because the film studios were no longer willing to back the movies Parker wanted him to make. And the only way they could be financed was through the TV special, which Parker wanted to theme around Christmas, as it would air in December.
Elvis Got Cold Feet
While Elvis was initially excited about doing the special, he almost stepped away from the project just before the cameras were set to roll.
He told Binder, “I don’t want to do this ... I don’t remember anything I sang in the dressing room ... I don’t remember any stories that I told. My mind is blank, Steve. Let’s call it off. It’s not going to happen."
Binder was able to convince him otherwise.
1968 Was a Time of Upheaval
For those who were alive during this time, you'll know that 1968 was one of upheaval. That included the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots in the streets, a still-raging war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and a greater emergence of the hippie movement.
It's also important to note that Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis' hometown.
Elvis Wanted to Do Something Meaningful
After seeing the news about Robert Kennedy's assassination on TV in June 1968, Elvis, Steve Binder and a few others discussed the world as it was and about making a difference.
The next day, Binder asked the show's musical director, Billy Goldenberg and lyricist Earl Brown to come up with something for Elvis to replace the final song. The song would be loosely based on Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Binder said of the song, "I wanted to let the world know that here was a guy who was not prejudiced ... who was raised in the heart of prejudice but was really above all that.”
Colonel Tom Parker and the Christmas Spirit
Parker, who had planned to end the show with a Christmas song, was not happy with this new turn for the finale, saying, "This ain't Elvis' kind of song."
Elvis disagreed and wanted to give it a shot. Brown later said that, when Elvis recorded the song, the backing vocalists wept. One said, "Elvis never sung with so much emotion. [He] looks like he means every word."
On June 30, 1968, Elvis completed taping the Comeback Special with "'If I Can Dream" as the final song. He lip-synced the song in front of bright-red lettering of his name, which would later be repeated in a Danzig video and even parodied on "The Simpsons." He then left for a week's rest in Palm Springs, California, as the whole experience was physically and emotionally draining.
The special aired on Dec. 3, 1968. It was NBC's top-rated show of that year, with 42 percent of the viewing audience watching.
"If I Can Dream" Would Go on to Become a Hit Single
Not only did the special put Elvis back on the map, but "If I Can Dream" was a massive hit for the King.
It was released as a single just 11 days before the special. It reached No. 12 on Billboard's Hot 100, where it stayed for three months. The single sold about a million copies, and it was his biggest-selling tune since 1965.
During the making of the special, Elvis said, "I never want to sing any more songs I don’t believe in."
A Rejuvenated Elvis Announces a Tour
With Elvis now back in the public eye, he told Parker he wanted to resume touring. He recorded new material in 1969 — the resulting single "In the Ghetto" reached No. 1 on the charts. It was followed by "Suspicious Minds," which also topped the charts and became a signature song for Elvis.
Parker arranged a deal with the owner of the Las Vegas International Hotel for Presley to do two shows a night with his TCB Band. He played 57 shows from July to August 1969 in front of 101,500 people, a Las Vegas attendance record at the time.
He began touring the U.S. in 1970, which was the first time he had taken to the road since 1957. Every show sold out.
Parker's Nefarious Ways Eventually Catch Up With Him
While Parker's influence on Elvis waned in the 1970s, he continued managing the King until his 1977 death.
In 1980, it was found he had defrauded Elvis' estate of about $8 million in just the three years after Elvis died. He also made an agreement with RCA in 1973 for rights to 700 of Elvis' songs, for which he received $6.2 million, while Elvis' estate received about $4.6 million. The estate sued Parker for exploitation for personal gain and contract manipulation in 1983. The two parties settled out of court.
When Parker died in 1997, Priscilla, Elvis’ ex-wife, gave the eulogy at the funeral. She said, "Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I'm sure that Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out."
How Accurate Was the Movie?
In Baz Luhrmann's 2021 movie, Elvis practices the protest song and decides upon it without Parker knowing. Parker, who shows up at the filming in his Christmas finest (a snowman cardigan), is excited to watch Elvis perform a holiday classic. Much to his surprise, Elvis walks past everyone and knocks "If I Can Dream" out of the ballpark.
The movie is told from the perspective of Parker's memory, so it is, therefore, unreliable and ultimately, a more dramatic retelling of the filming of the special.