Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website. This post was selected to commemorate Elvis Presley on the anniversary of his death, 35 years ago today.
It was the spring of 1968, and Elvis Presley was in the middle of filming another in the seemingly endless run of mediocre movies that had tarnished his career, his self-confidence, his fan base, and his morale.
Live a Little, Love a Little was typical grade-Z Elvis film fare. Nothing remarkable, special, or particularly notable about it. Probably the only good points of filming for Elvis were the relieved knowledge that it would be one of the last films he'd have to churn out and the happy company of his co-star, Celeste Yarnall, the actress he romanced in the film.
Elvis and Celeste became, according to her account, "instantaneous friends." Like almost every one of his attractiv female co-stars, Elvis and Celeste had a very close relationship. However, Celeste, unlike most of Elvis' women, will not reveal any intimate details about their relationship. "I am very private about our relationship and I want to keep it that way," she says, "But we just had a lot of love for each other and it was a very special time."
In early April, in the middle of their filming one day, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Later, Elvis and Celeste watched the funeral of Dr. King together in his dressing room trailer during lunch. Elvis took it hard. One of his favorite recitations was King's "I Have a Dream" speech. King was shot in Memphis, a stone's throw from Elvis' home, Graceland.
In the dressing room, Elvis told Celeste the backstory of his own struggle -that he felt a tremendous brotherhood with the black community because he grew up poor and he knew what it was like to live in poverty. He was also proud that many blacks embraced him as one of their own.
"He sobbed in my arms like a baby," says Celeste. "He was just devastated and desperately would have liked to attend the funeral. We choked down our lunch and sang a little a cappella tribute of 'Amazing Grace.'"
"If I Can Dream" was a tribute song to Martin Luther King, Jr. written by Walter Earl Brown, notable for its direct quotations from Dr. King. Now that Elvis had wrapped shooting for Live a Little, Love a Little, he was recording songs for his upcoming Singer Television Special, to be broadcast on television that December. When the song was first presented to Elvis, the TV special's producer, Steve Binder, was worried and thought it would surely be rejected. He wanted to include it, but the show was ostensibly to be a Christmas special, and "If I Can Dream" was not a Christmas song.
Binder found Elvis and played it for him in his dressing room. "Let me hear it again," said Elvis. The song was played 7 or 8 times and Elvis finally said, "Okay, I'll do it."
On June 23rd, Elvis recorded "If I Can Dream" in several incredibly passionate takes. To Binder, his performance was so staggering as to seem almost like a religious experience. Out on the floor with a hand mike, Elvis fell to his knees. For a moment, he felt like he was back in church, singing the Gospel songs of his youth.
Not everyone was prepared for such a visceral performance: "The string players sat there with their mouths open. They had never seen anything like this." But the more astonishing performance came when the producers sent everyone home and Elvis re-recorded the vocals -in the dark.
Binder sat motionless, afraid to move as Elvis lost himself in the song. Once again, he fell to his knees. But this time, with the lights out, Elvis assumed a fetal position, writhing around on the cement floor. Then, after three more takes, all with the lights out, Elvis got up and walked into the control room.
Elvis sat in rapt attention as he asked Binder to play the song back to him. After listening to the song fifteen times, Elvis was finally satisfied and gave his O.K. Elvis was so affected by the song, he said, "I'll never sing another song I don't believe in. I'm never going to make another movie I don't believe in."
Sadly, Elvis' hope for the future was not to be. At the time, Elvis was extremely depressed about both his film and recording career.
"If I Can Dream" was shown at the close of Elvis' Singer Special (later to be known as the '68 comeback special) that December. It was the first time the song was heard by the general public. Later released as a single, it peaked on Billboard's Hot 100 at number 12 and sold over a million copies. It may well be the only gold record in music history that was recorded in the dark.