By Tim Roxborogh

Walking around the corner, through the garden and towards the fountain, there it suddenly is: the grave of the single most influential figure in the history of popular music.

Plenty of visitors to Graceland aren't even aware they'll be seeing the headstone for Elvis Aaron Presley and if it's been obscured by a slowly trudging line of people, that final reveal can hit you.

Elvis Presley's gravestone at Graceland. Photo / Supplied
Elvis Presley's gravestone at Graceland. Photo / Supplied

Memphis, October 2016 and it very much hits me. Is it dorky to admit that in that moment I found myself closing my eyes and doing a quick little "thank you for Elvis" to the man upstairs?

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Probably. But who cares. Because if not for Elvis, there might never have been the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and pretty much any other major act of the 20th century you can think of. Elvis changed everything in the mid 50s when he brought his confluence of country, gospel, blues and barely contained sexuality to a stunned, fearful and soon to be obsessed nation.

Within five years he'd racked up over a dozen number one hits, but as the 50s gave way to the 60s, it seemed both tastes and fortunes were changing.

For a start, Elvis had been drafted into the army at the height of his young career. It was absurd then and even more so now, but for two years at the tail end of the 50s, the only way he was still having hits was due to previously recorded numbers that his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker was drip-feeding to the public.

This was smart. As such, demand for Elvis remained high while he was in forced service and he stayed a constant presence on the radio. But still, the most sought after entertainer on the planet was buzz-cutted, on duty in Germany and unable to perform.

Tim Roxborogh and his fiance Aimee outside Graceland. Photo / Supplied
Tim Roxborogh and his fiance Aimee outside Graceland. Photo / Supplied

When Elvis came out of the army, the still infant American rock & roll scene was evolving and in seeming jeopardy. Chuck Berry had done jail time, Little Richard had abandoned music for the church, Buddy Holly had died and the world was only a couple of years away from being enveloped by four moppish lads from Liverpool. It was in that climate that the Svengali-like figure of the Colonel decided to steer Elvis in a safer, more financially secure direction.

The unthinkable happens. A singer deemed of such danger to the morality of young Americans that he can only be filmed from the waist up transitions into a balladeer and family-friendly movie star.

Against a backdrop of the Beatles and the Stones, Motown and the Beach Boys, he stops all live shows and while still capable of occasional hits, Elvis Presley begins a slow, inevitable slide into irrelevancy.

Only he doesn't. The year is 1968 and fed up with the ever-diminishing returns (not to mention plotlines) of his formulaic movies, a 33-year-old Elvis finally decides to go against the wishes of his manager.

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Contractually obligated to film a Christmas special, the plan is for a predictably safe holiday-themed production. That's what the Colonel wants and generally, what he wants, he gets. Except Elvis has been emboldened by the vision of the young director Steve Binder who encourages the now decidedly unhip star to ditch the carols and embrace the rock & roll that made him.

Elvis Presley's potent mixture of country, gospel, blues and barely contained sexuality kicked open the door for pretty much every major musical act of the 20th century. Photo / Getty Images
Elvis Presley's potent mixture of country, gospel, blues and barely contained sexuality kicked open the door for pretty much every major musical act of the 20th century. Photo / Getty Images

The '68 Comeback Special is the result, though it's easy to forget it was known simply as "Elvis" at the time. "There is something magical about watching a man who lost himself find his way back home," was the review by the soon-to-be-famous Jon Landau and to watch the '68 Comeback Special now is still awesome in the purest sense of the word.

Elvis was years away from his bloated 70s caricature, but it's arguable that caricature wouldn't have been able to even exist if not for that career-resuscitating night in '68.

Devastatingly handsome and instantly iconic in full black leathers for the thrilling, unplugged-like rock & roll numbers and in his white suit for the If I Can Dream finale (written as a response to the twin assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr), Elvis reminded everyone that he was still the King.

Suddenly he was back. He stopped making films, he recorded some of his most compelling music in years (Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto, Kentucky Rain etc.) and returned to the concert stage.

40 years on from his death, more than a billion total record sales and over 20 million visitors to his Graceland home, it's possible people like me would've never made a Memphis pilgrimage if not for that Christmas special that never was back in 1968.

Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's The Two, Coast Soul on Coast and writes the music and travel blog RoxboroghReport.com.