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New Elvis movie highlights Ventura County man's key role in reigniting "The King's" career

Elvis during his 1968 comeback special on NBC. Steve Binder of Oxnard came up with much of the concept for the special, and directed it.
Legacy Recordings/NBC
Elvis during his 1968 comeback special on NBC. Steve Binder of Oxnard came up with much of the concept for the special, and directed it.

Oxnard's Steve Binder helped develop the concept for, and directed the 1968 TV special which helped put Elvis back on the showbiz map.

The year was 1968. The man known as the “King Of Rock and Roll” was no longer on his throne. But, a TV special directed by a Ventura County man which gave the world a candid, unfiltered look at Elvis Presley helped put him back on top.

Today, it’s know as the '68 Comeback Special, but at the time the NBC show was called Singer Presents…ELVIS.

Steve Binder was a young record producer, and television director who was asked by NBC to direct the special.

"I didn't even know if Elvis and I would be compatible," said Binder. "As it turned out, the first meeting I ever had with him... with Elvis... we did have a lot in common."

Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had something other than rock and roll in mind for the TV special. He had sold NBC on the idea of the singer starring in a Christmas special.

"He told me if I did it, I was supposed to do 20 Christmas songs, and Elvis would wear a Perry Como-ish or Andy Williams-ish type of sweater, which I was never going to do," said Binder.

As they started three months of preparations for the special, Elvis moved out of his Beverly Hills home, and stayed on the NBC lot in Burbank. Unexpectedly, that opened the door to what would be the key to the special. They put a bed and a piano in his dressing room. Soon, he and whoever was passing by started jamming every night. Binder realized he needed to make these informal sessions the heart of the special.

But, the Oxnard man said convincing Elvis’ manager wasn’t easy. He said he asked Parker every day, and the manager would always say no. He finally wore Parker down, who relented, and said Binder could shoot the sessions, but there was no guarantee they would be in the finished show.

They ended up being the show.

Binder and his music producing partner Bones Howe also brought in some of the best studio musicians on the West Coast for the special, who would become legendary in their own way. Some of them would become the famed "Wrecking Crew," doing the background music for some of rock and pop music's biggest hits for decades.

The result was the highest rated television show of the year, a special which reignited Elvis’ career.

Now, that special is getting new attention. As it did in real life, it plays a key role in the new $85 million Baz Luhrman film Elvis.

"I loved it. I thought Baz did an incredible job. And I guess the greatest compliment I could give the movie is I thought I was watching Elvis," said Binder.

What was it like to see someone portraying him in the movie?

"It's weird... it still hasn't sunk in." said Binder. "I know how excited by kids are, and my family and friends... it's surreal."

He admits they took a lot of dramatic license with the film. In the movie, Elvis is at the famed Hollywood sign when they first meet. It actually took place in Binder's Hollywood office. And, he said there are little things, like they made him a smoker in the movie, and he never smoked. But, Binder said spicing things up is part of doing a Hollywood movie.

Binder is going to speak about the special, and the new Elvis film during an event at the Museum of Ventura County Thursday night. The 6:30 p.m. event hosted by Ivor Davis is open to the public in person, and virtually via zoom.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.