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|MEMORIES OF 68 - THE KING AND I
An Irishman’s Diary about Elvis Presley and ‘If I Can Dream’
December 28, 2015 - The Irish Times / Elvis Express Radio
In this Irishman’s diary of 1968 on December 4th, there is the following entry. “God, how brilliant can a singer get? After twelve years as the reigning king, Elvis releases his
masterpiece, If I Can Dream. It’s all about a time when there will be peace all over the world, or somewhere. I nearly passed out when I heard it for the first time tonight.”
The song instantly made me decide, “(1) to go out tomorrow night and collect money door-to-door for the starving children in Biafra and (2) to finally commit to my dream of
becoming a journalist.”
If I Can Dream also became my theme song, which it remains, and one particular couplet I’ll quote later remains my motto and I want on my tombstone.
How’s that for taking to heart a song that this year, somewhat belatedly, finally topped charts all over the world – in ’68/’69 it didn’t even make the Top Ten – as the title track on an
Elvis album for which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provided new backings.
But let’s look at the song’s fascinating genesis and trajectory. If I Can Dream was chosen to close what has since come to be called Elvis’s Comeback TV Special in 1968. Back
then I read that while recording the black-leather-suit live segment, and waiting for the cameras to resume shooting, he casually sang a few lines from Richard Harris’s current hit,
Macarthurs Park. The show was focusing mostly on Elvis’s Fifties rock ’n’roll hits but after hearing that, the show’s director, Steve Binder, then reportedly asked Elvis if he would
record such contemporary material. “Absolutely, ” Presley replied, “but no one sends me such songs.” Binder asked W Earl Brown, who conceived the gospel medley for the show,
which included his own song, Up Above My Head, to write that kind of song.
But there’s more to the story than that. On June 5th, 1968, two days after Presley attended the first meeting about the TV special – he warmed to the idea that it would be based on
the theme of Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play, The Blue Bird, which tells of a young man who travels the world only to find true happiness when he returns home – Robert Kennedy
was assassinated. This disturbed Elvis as deeply as the fact that three months earlier Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis. Binder talked with Presley about such
matters and decided the show needed a closing song that would “capture something of his unexpectedly idealistic sentiments”. Maybe something along the lines of You’ll Never
Walk Alone, a song Elvis had always loved and recently released as a single.
Even so, the phrase “idealistic sentiments,” barely scratches the surface of the true nature of Elvis Presley’s soul. Although raised in a Pentecostal religion – it gave him his life-
long love of gospel music which informed all his singing and songs – by 1968, Presley was four years into his exploration of alternative theologies and ideologies, largely New Age.
He loved Joseph Benner’s book, The Impersonal Life, and Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and often visited the latter’s Self Realisation Centre in LA.
Put another way, Presley, so often accused of singing “the devil’s music”, was, in truth, and in essence, a spiritual seeker, in a pan-denominational even post-denominational 21st-
century sense. Circa 1964, he wrote on a page of David Anrias’s book, Through the Eyes of the Masters: Meditations and Portraits: “God loves you. But he loves you best when
It is not surprising that while recording If I Can Dream – against the wishes of manager Colonel Tom Parker who said, “That ain’t Elvis’s kind of song” – he ended up curled foetal-
style on the floor of a darkened studio wailing out its soulful lyrics. All of the backing singers, the Blossoms, had tears streaming down their cheeks and one, Darlene Love, said,
“He really loves the song, really believes in the song, he means every word.”
Why wouldn’t he? The composer had tapped into Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a Robert Kennedy speech in which he quoted a speech his brother JFK gave
in Leinster House. JFK said, “George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up his approach to life: Other people, he said, “see things and say, ‘Why?’ but I dream
things that never were – and I say: ‘Why not.”
But to me the best part of the story is the fact that Elvis added the final word in the part of the song that became my motto. Browne wrote, “As long as a man has the strength to
dream/ He can redeem his soul and life” but Elvis sings “and fly”.
That word change tells us all we need to know about Elvis Presley.