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THE KING AND KEN

The opening of Sunday night’s special Elvis All-Star Tribute flips between a fired up Elvis Presley and a leather-clad Blake Shelton trading verses on “Guitar Man” against a multi-level backdrop of silhouetted guitarists striking rock star poses. It closes with Shelton looking up at The King as his image fades into the famous red lights spelling out his first name, basking in the glow of perhaps the greatest marriage of rock & roll and TV in history.

“People are still talking about the ‘68 special,” Shelton says after the performance. “Often imitated, never surpassed.”

For producer Ken Ehrlich, the key to making the special was replicating the sets—as much as the show is famous for its in-the-round segment with musicians from his early days, the pieces shot on soundstages set a tone for decades to come.

“It was so groundbreaking that it became the template for hundreds if not thousands of musical performances on TV,” Ehrlich, who just wrapped a Motown at 60 special for CBS and is editing an Aretha Franklin tribute that will air 3/10 on CBS. The Elvis All-Star Tribute airs on NBC at 9pm Sunday.

The idea to pay tribute to the Elvis comeback special, which had the official title of Singer Presents…Elvis, began about two years ago when the Presley estate’s representative, John Branca, approached Ehrlich about whether a TV show could be made to salute its 50th anniversary. They took it to NBC, which aired the original on 12/3/68, and then-chief of entertainment Bob Greenblatt “basically bought it in the room.”

Ehrlich and musical director Don Was A&R’d the show which features Kelsea Ballerini, Alessia Cara, John Fogerty, John Legend, Little Big Town and others performing the songs from that special, among them “Are You Lonesome Tonight,”  “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” They created an all-star version of the ’68 Special’s closing number, “If I Can Dream,” with the King, Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes and Darius Rucker that RCA/Legacy has released as part of The Best of the ’68 Comeback Special.

Ehrlich says the show, like most of the tributes he has overseen, was split 50/50 between artists coming in with their own picks and artists taking suggestions from the producers and Was. Shelton picked “Suspicious Minds,” Keith Urban was keen on “Burning Love” and Ed Sheeran was in provided he could do “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Was and Ehrlich paired Mendes with “Hound Dog,” introduced Cara to “Love Me Tender” and when Rucker was confirmed, “there was no question that voice was born to sing ‘One Night.’”

Singer Presents…Elvis was Presley’s first TV performance in more than nine years and the show was the most-watched program for the week and the highest rated special of the TV season. It also relaunched Presley’s career as a concert attraction and within a year he was done with movies and re-focused on records and concerts. In a single hour, Ehrlich says, “it made him a star again.”

 

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