“If I Can Dream”: How Elvis Resurrected His Fledgling Music Career 

As hard to believe as it may be now due to Elvis’s status as a musical goliath, there was a time when “The King Of Rock’n’Roll” was far out of the musical spotlight. So was his presence in the 60s that authors of the book Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, And The American Dream Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx described the artist now with the most number one singles in UK history as: “viewed as a joke by serious music lovers and a has-been to all but his most loyal fans.”  

It would take a solitary display in 1968 of “If I Can Dream” to pull Elvis from a Hollywood rut to national praise. Here we examine how Elvis Presley turned his career around with the most political single he ever sang. 

Early Career In Brief 

From humble roots in the American south, born in the small city of Tupelo, Tennessee and raised later on in Memphis Tennessee, Presley originally had little interest in music. After being gifted a guitar, Elvis developed a love for hillbilly music from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Jake Hess. 

Elvis was unquestionably the biggest name in popular music during the 1950s, bursting onto the scene with the track “That’s All Right” in 1954.  

 This was followed by 12 Hot 100 number ones over the rest of the decade including first chart-topper “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, “All Shook Up” (his first UK number 1), and “Jailhouse Rock” to name a few. 

Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show
On The Ed Sullivan Show (Photo courtesy of History 101)

In 1958 however, Elvis’s active musical career was halted when drafted into the military. Although he still saw success, his career momentum was knee-capped with an inability to perform on stage, which was one of the skills Presley thrived at.  

After returning from service in 1960, Elvis proved immensely popular with a string of number one hits including military-inspired “It’s Now Or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. A performance on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show, given the subtitle: “Welcome Home, Elvis” saw his first televised performance in three years. This drew in 67.7% of the overall televisual audience, more than three times the second most watched programme. For eight minutes work, he drew well over $100,000 (about $1,000,000 today); a similar sum went to manager Colonel Parker. 

From Memphis To Hollywood 

Despite proving his abilities as an attraction to the US public, Elvis performed his last live shows for seven years in 1961 in a Pearl Harbor memorial show. Why? Col. Tom Parker thought it was time to move to the big screen. 

Parker, who don’t forget had perhaps more at stake in Elvis than Elvis himself – and his own reputation, decided to regularly cast Elvis in rather low-budget musical ‘comedies’. These were not only hated by critics but often Elvis himself but they were commercially successful.  

From Blue Hawaii (Photo courtesy of YardBarker)

About the film G.I. Blues, Elvis remarked that he felt like a “Goddamn idiot” for his work on the production and told wife Priscilla: “They have about twelve songs in it that aren’t worth a cat’s ass.” He has also claimed about the films and their music: I would like to say they were good, but I can’t.” 

Thank God Elvis has a singing career to fall back on though, right? 

The British Invasion 

“The King” fell foul of a changing musical scene however. At this time, a musical event known as the “British Invasion” was occurring. It was out with the old, in with the new. 

Propelled by The Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964 which drew 73 million viewers, American interest was piqued in acts from across the Atlantic. As such, in that year alone, British acts Peter & Gordon, The Animals, and Manfred Mann all saw Hot 100 number one singles.  

(Photo courtesy of BBC)

1965, arguably the peak of the boom, saw Hot 100 chart-toppers from: The Beatles, Freddie & The Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits (a band actually more successful in the US), The Rolling Stones, and The Dave Clark Five. At this point, who really wanted to listen to the cheesy, passe Elvis? 

Elvis was floundering. Elvis often just struggled to get in the US top 20, if at all. The biggest musician in the world a decade ago was flagging and struggling to draw strong sales. 

In the five-year period from 1964-1968, Elvis secured just one hit within the top 10. Furthermore, of eight singles released within ‘67-’68, only two charted with the top 40 but none in the top 20. 

Many saw Elvis’s career as in the toilet. 

Comeback Show 

In his first TV appearance in eight years and first concert in seven, Elvis made his TV return with the Elvis showing, a 1968 Christmas special. A previous Elvis album in 1957 had gone platinum so the idea behind Col. Tom’s plan was to rekindle that success. 

In the words of then-wife Priscilla, “He was either going to make it or kill his career, and that’s how he thought.” 

Parker had planned for the show to be a Christmas spectacular with carols, clothing, and celebration, or at least fictionalised elements of the recent Elvis biopic claim. The Colonel did indeed however want it to be more festive than it would transpire to be. Parker even wanted Presley to perform in a powder-blue tuxedo for the occasion.  

Closer Weekly
(Photo courtesy of Closer Weekly)

However, Parker’s vision was not Elvis’s vision, as – working alongside Steve Binder – Elvis turned back the clock for a leather jacket-donned sit-down performance before taking to the stage for the final number of the night; it would be watched by 42% of the television viewing audience. 

“If I Can Dream” 

Although a southern boy in a fractious south, Elvis largely stayed away from politics and current affairs. Yet two killings seemingly pushed Elvis into the direction of the political sphere: Robert Kennedy, and more significantly Martin Luther King, Jr. 

By 1968, the civil rights movement was still in full swing, with Luther King, a man who needs no induction for his immense work in asserting black rights, assassinated in April by James Earl Ray, who a later investigation found Ray had “a strong racist attitude toward Blacks” with his motive “a hatred for the civil rights movement.” 

Abandoning the jolly Xmas single “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, composer Billy Goldenberg and lyricist Earl Brown co-operated a poignant and meaningful track they knew Elvis would love. So it was that after the demo that “The King” remarked: “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in.” The ditching of the song seemingly irritated Parker who worried about breach of contract with NBC, having promised a Christmas finale. 

As you may imagine, Parker was initially hesitant but Elvis nevertheless had a go and the tears from the backing vocalists spoke volumes of just how important the song would be. The gospel composition, a genre Elvis loved, was a fitting tribute to the Civil Rights sound. 

It was with the grief and burden still looming that Elvis took to the stage and sang “If I Can Dream” in front of the icon red letters. With tremendous, pristine accuracy that Elvis sang, singing of a paradise dream world with where birds flew higher, civilians walk hand-in-hand, and a warmer sun in a song of justice, equality, and hardship. This is backed by a refrain, asking if he can picture a perfect world, “Why can’t my dream come true?” 

Forte Mag
(Photo courtesy of Forte Magazine)

Music historian and writer Dave Marsh documented the “emotional grandeur and historical resonance” of the song. 

Elsewhere, producer Steve Binder remarked: “He’d not performed in front of anybody live for almost nine years, and he did this entire special cold. He just went out and started; it was unbelievable that he could perform like that. I didn’t call it the Comeback Special [at the time], but I’m glad they did, because it truly is, in my opinion, one of the greatest comebacks not just in entertainment but also in history.” 


Elvis again was the talk of the music world, although he himself resented the label “comeback”, as if he was a has-been. 

“If I Can Dream” made it to number 12 and went gold, with Rolling Stone noting it was his highest-charting single in three years as well as his first top 20 single in two years. 

This bolstered his popularity and ramped up interest. In turn, Parker hyped another Elvis tour. His first Las Vegas show attracted a record-breaking attendance of 101,500 fans. Elvis Australia adds that by 1970, Elvis was touring the US again for the first time in 13 years. 

For the years afterwards, Elvis’s career had been revived into a third stage where he was again in the public eye yet despite a risen profile, his career prospect would be reversed for only a little while before crashing again. A crash many see instigated by Col. Tom Parker. 

The Las Vegas shows were top money-spinners but Elvis wanted to travel the world. Parker never let Elvis however as he – unbeknownst to Elvis – did not own a passport and was Dutch. This illegal status in the US banned travel so Elvis was forced to drain his life clock on his LA shows.  

This was not the only issue. His personal life was in tatters. A divorce and very little money served to further break the man who was once the most famous musician in the world. The downfall of Elvis is quite well-known so will not be covered in great detail here but Elvis got addicted to tranquilisers, barbiturates, and amphetamines whilst gaining weight. He was now an overweight has-been in a jumpsuit. 

The Mirror
(Photo courtesy of The Mirror)

Elvis was pushed to his physical limits too. The aforementioned Elvis film portrays Parker as a gluttonous, money-grabbing cretin with no regard for the health of his biggest act. With a 50-50 pay, Parker remarks in the biopic: “The only thing that matters is that that man gets up on that stage tonight.” The cash cow, Elvis is slaved away as the workhorse of Parker – a situation having a knock-on effect that ended up killing Presley aged just 42 in 1977. 


“If I Can Dream” and the 1968 concert as a whole may not have sustained a long-term, permanent placement for Elvis but it was the single thing that briefly put the eyes of the world back on the biggest star of the previous decade. 

Elvis’s tragic life saw him dip against into the midst of despair and isolation but had it not been for the 1968 Christmas show, he would have been a fondly-remember distant memory, not the cultural icon we now know. In 1977, Elvis’s death was headline news but had this concert not taken place and “If I Can Dream” not sung out as an emphatic closer, Mr Presley may have struggled to have seen his status rise and name as prominent.  

It was a reminder that Elvis was still here and could still hold his own and prove popular. It was all down to him whilst his downfall was perhaps the opposite.  

Without the Christmas special, Elvis would have long ago lost his moniker as “The King”. 

To close out, I quote producer Steve Binder, who stated: “I would say without the ’68 special, we wouldn’t be talking about Elvis Presley,” he continues. “We’d remember him pre-68 for his movies and his early Ed Sullivan appearances and so forth. But I think he would just be a memory, period. There certainly wouldn’t be that much interest in touring his home in Graceland, and there wouldn’t be all these huge corporations that are behind him. Previous to that special, the public never got to see the real Elvis. Suddenly they did, and that changed everything.”  


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