While America endured a rough year five decades ago, a television special featuring the King of Rock-and-Roll helped change the conversation.
I’ve written a lot about 1968 in this space and in the pages of the Merced Sun Star.
If you lived through it, you recall the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the spring, the violence during the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the election of Richard Nixon in the fall.
The year came to a close with the inspiring Apollo eight mission around the moon at Christmas. 1968 ended on a positive note. Make that a positive musical note.
In music, it was the year of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album. Johnny Cash took his recording equipment inside a prison and came out with the live recording known as Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.
In December, NBC ran Singer Presents Elvis, an hour-long special featuring nothing but the music of Elvis Presley. No guest stars, no narration, just sixty minutes of Elvis. I was an eleven-year old boy watching the show in our living room that night.
It changed me.
Shortly after the telecast, RCA released the soundtrack to the special. I played it so often the vinyl disc had streaks of gray from the record player needle wearing down the grooves.
The special had some dance numbers that did not impress me at the time, and even today have a look of dated variety-show razzmatazz. But on the record player, I did not see the dancing. It’s all about the music. In the broadcast, there was an extensive section with Elvis and a few musicians surrounded by about two-hundred fans.
The segment included Elvis talking about some of his experiences from the early years and the frequent playing the old hits. While Singer used the broadcast to sell sewing machines, the special was used by RCA to release two singles. One was Memories, written by Scott Davis who would later become a performer changing his name to Mac Davis.
If I can Dream
The other single was If I Can Dream. It was the song that closed the show. Written by W. Earl Brown, the song essentially asks if we can put aside the tribulations of any time and dream of a “better land, where all my brothers walk hand in hand”.
In 1968, the symbolic message was simple: can we get past the bad from that year (the assassinations, the violence, the Vietnam War), and work toward a promising tomorrow?
It was a positive message coming at the end of a difficult year. In later years, the program was called the Comeback Special because it led to Elvis resuming a performing career.
He’d have a few good recordings during what would become his final years of life before all his troubles with success, prescription drugs, and a hard-living lifestyle caught up with him. He died in 1977.
Putting that all aside, I encourage you to listen to If I Can Dream on YouTube. In recent years, the Presley estate endorsed an updated version of several Elvis songs, including this one, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The result is satisfying. But I’m still partial to the original recording. That recording was intended to close the 1968 special, and for me it closed 1968 on an upbeat.
The song is a call for positivity in a year full of negativity. It challenges the listener to imagine something better.
In a time of divided politics, random acts of violence, and plenty of uncertainty, the song inspires.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.
His new book Stand-By Camera One will soon be published on Lulu.com