Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback

January 01, 1970

(Jawbone)

www.jawbonepress.com

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Suffice it say that there have been countless volumes
written about Elvis Presley, enough to make him arguably the most documented
music performer of all time, the Beatles being possibly the only exception.
Consequently, a skeptical observer might have good reason to question the need
for yet another tome… and at 270 pages, a rather lengthy one at that. Yet
despite the vast number of entries already occupying literary shelves, Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great
Comeback
(Jawbone Press), Gillian G. Gaar’s spellbinding examination on the
King’s unexpected renewal via his triumphant 1968 NBC television special,
stands out from the pack, not only due to its specific focus, but also owing to
the fact that Gaar’s detailed narrative uncovers insights that the usual array
of fawning bios often breeze over. 

 

Gaar begins with the back-story about how the King fell from
grace, swept up in the steady tide of mediocre movies and marginal material
that diminished his output with the start of the ‘60s. Usurped by the bands at
the helm of the British invasion, Dylan and other up-and-comers who showed
their grit and grasp of Rock’s new era, Elvis had been reduced to little more
than an also-ran by that summer of ’68. In succumbing to the manipulation of
his mentor, Colonel Tom Parker, he had become a mere shadow of the charismatic
rebel who little more than a decade before forever changed the course of
popular music and seduced an entire generation in the process. Sadly, Elvis
appeared all too willing to relinquish his place in pop’s pantheon, seemingly
resigned to the notion that he had little choice other to accept the goods he
was given. Even the prospect of a television special offered little reason to
believe it would have any effect on his fortunes

 

“The special didn’t begin with the thought that it would
play a major role in resurrecting Elvis’ career,” Gaar notes early on. “Instead
it had its genesis when Colonel Parker ran into an unexpected roadblock in
securing his standard $1,000,000 fee for an Elvis movie; no one was interested
in meeting his price.”  According to the
author, the alternative idea of offering his client to NBC was merely a fallback
tact, just another way to keep the cash coming.

 

However, as the creative process got underway, Elvis took
interest and his enthusiasm was unexpectedly spiked. To their credit, the
show’s writers and producers had the wherewithal to turn it into a command
performance, one that would effectively reflect the Presley legacy, while also
showing that the potential for further glories could still be tapped. The
instigation for the show’s format appropriately originated with Elvis himself,
although the inspiration was likely unintended. Sitting in a room with the
program’s writers on the evening of June 6, 1968, he and the others watched in
disbelief as news reports followed Robert Kennedy’s assassination after his win
in the California presidential primary. Elvis sought refuge from the tragedy by
sharing personal reflections on his career and his role as an American icon,
making his points by strumming songs throughout the night on an acoustic
guitar. It immediately became clear that the special now had its theme, one
that would resonate with the public and reinstate Elvis’ relevance.

 

Gaar describes the events that set the stage for the show,
providing specific descriptions about its development, and concluding with
Elvis’ subsequent downhill spiral — what she calls “a gradual slide into what
some would see as ignominious caricature.” She also includes numerous quotes
from those closest to the King — his henchman, fellow musicians and those
involved in the creation of the program itself. And while the book basks in
stunning detail, its most intriguing entries are those that provide insights
into Elvis’ personality. The performer Gaar describes here isn’t the arrogant
maniac who shot up TV screens and dispatched his entourage to do his bidding,
but rather a savvy, self-deprecating and thoughtful individual who cared about
his career even while mired in frustration.

 

“I found Elvis to be a very sweet person,” an insider is
quoted as saying. That’s a surprising adjective for a man who’s often described
as brooding and aloof. Yet, it’s a telling image, one that pops up repeatedly
and helps to redefine Elvis in a way that’s rarely been done before.

 

Then again, Gaar is well qualified to pen this treatise. A
respected writer and critic for such notable journals as Mojo, Rolling Stone, Goldmine (which carried her column “All
Things Elvis”) and BLURT, she’s authored books about Nirvana, Green Day and a
history of women in Rock. “Return of the King” is clearly her most ambitious
effort to date — not to mention her most compelling – a book that should
appeal both to diehard devotees as well as the casually curious.

 

 

 

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