Throwback Thursday: Elvis Presley Revolutionizes Music Programming With His “Elvis” NBC Special

After spending the previous seven years of his life focusing on his film career Elvis Presley made a triumphant return to live musical performance. In June of 1968 he bagan the taping of his revolutionary NBC special, Elvis. What was originally branded as a Christmas special the producers decided to market the event as a re-branding of Presley’s musical career. They aimed to  gear the special towards a younger audience. However, what they did not know at the time was that it would become much more than that.

The special saw Presley in a couple of different performance settings. He performed two cuts standing up, which featured an epic instrumental section and more boisterous vocal performances from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself. Another set featured Presley in a more intimate setting, sitting down in a circle with a live band. The atmosphere was more raw and stripped back as Presley communicated directly with the audience in between songs.

This notion of interactivity between the artist and their fan base was revolutionary for this time period. The intimate setting that Presley was cast in for this special laid the groundwork for future programs such as MTV’s Unplugged as well as NPR’s Tiny Desk series, both of which have become staples in the history of music programming. The special was an instant hit when it came out as well.

Airing on December 3, 1968, “Elvis” topped the Nielsen Television Ratings Chart for that week, became the most watched show of that season and garnered Presley a ton of critical acclaim in the process. Not to mention it also gave Presley’s music career a second wind. The very next month, January of 1969, Presley was already back in the studio working on his next full-length album. He teamed up with a house band called The Memphis Boys to record From Elvis in Memphis, which went on to become one of the biggest albums of his career.

From Elvis in Memphis peaked at number 13 on the Billboard top 200 and its lead single In The Ghetto reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles list. The album received universal acclaim from critics as well. Aside from being well-received at the time it came out From Elvis in Memphis has also stood the test of time. Numerous music writers have cited this album as being essential to Presley’s discography and Rolling Stone even rated it 190 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time back in 2003.

Elvis Presley is seen as a groundbreaking figure in the history of music for many reasons. He is widely dubbed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He was also a pioneer for being a musician of his stature playing such a huge role in film and soundtrack recording. However there are more subtle reasons as well. Presley also ushered in a new era of music programming that thrived on an atmosphere of intimacy and a personal sense of interaction between artist and fan. He paved the way for the future of music programming, leaving a legacy that is being felt more than ever 40-plus years after his death. These are the reasons why the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is more than deserving of this week’s Throwback Thursday segment.

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