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Otterman speaks...

Cycling, macintosh, natural history and life in Singapore - Archives

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Thu 31 May 2007

When Elvis Presley & Céline Dion sang "If I can Dream"

Category : world

I've been chatting with friends recently about the Elvis Presley & Céline Dion duet that was presented on American Idol on 25 Apr 2007 (PST). They sang "If I can Dream," which has lovely lyrics.

I dug up the link from the earlier post, and so here it is folks! This Zippyvideos clip has better audio quality than many of the clips on YouTube, even this one.

How did they do it? A couple of videos explain the mechanics behind it. View the short version from Good Morning America or the long version, provided by 2livefools.


You know, I don't really care about the mechanics.

Céline Dion was really lovely, but I realised I was spellbound by the emotion I felt Elvis was communicating in that song. I caught my breath when I was watching that night and the hairs on my arm were on end. Weeks later, I still felt the same!

Wondering why, I took a closer look with the help of Google.

The song was specially written for Elvis' 1968 Comeback Special. Examining the lyrics, Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" and the civil rights movement of the 60's in the US sprang to mind. After all, it was pennned in the right time. Still, I thought, I shoud be cautious. I was interested enough in the events of that time to have searched out markers in D. C. when I first visited the US in 2005. So it was possible I was reading too much into the song despite the fact it seemed to be expressing a social conscience unambiguously.

"If I Can Dream" was written by W. Earl Brown [published by Gladys Music [administered by Cherry Lane Music Publishing Company, Inc. and by Chrysalis Music] (ASCAP)] and the original '68 performance is available on YouTube!

"There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can't my dream come true

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away
All the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won't that sun appear

We're lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We're trapped in a world
That's troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Deep in my heart there's a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there's a beckoning candle
And while I can think, while I can talk
While I can stand, while I can walk
While I can dream, please let my dream
Come true, right now
Let it come true right now
Oh yeah"

Wow, just think about it, 1968 in America - the events of that decade would have made that song heart-wrenching! A 2004 Salon article ponders Elvis' passionate performance ("The passion of Elvis," by Charles Taylor., 15 Jul 2004):

"The song is not an act of denial, not an attempt to ameliorate the horrors of 1968; it's an attempt to face them, to wrest some meaning from them beyond loss and sorrow and violence. Elvis really sings as if he could accomplish that.

... By the end he sounds drained, the "thank you, goodnight" a hoarse croak. And like everything else on the "'68 Comeback Special," the performance is an act of will. It builds and builds until, by the last verse, he's swaying his arm back and forth, hunched over as if he were scraping dirt away from a grave, rooting down a mountain scoop by scoop, so that each line feels like a triumph of sheer physical strength.

The anguished final line, "Please let my dream come true, right now!" is both plea and command, a supplicant's prayer combined with the unreasonable demands that rock 'n' roll has always made. The song is a vision of paradise sung from the valley of the shadow of death. And while you're listening to it, while you are watching any of Elvis' performances here, it really does feel as if death shall have no dominion."

The Rolling Stones magazine's biography of Elvis states he "... revealed a hitherto-unexpressed social conscience in closing the show without comment, but instead offering a dramatic reading of "If I Can Dream.""

So why did Earl Brown write the song?

I found lots of bits scattered all over and was unable to verify several facts. Although I did not find out directly how Earl Brown put this song together, I finally stumbled on an interview with Steve Binder, who was the talented, then 23-year old director who was asked to direct the Elvis special. He had just finished shooting a special with Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte which had raised a furor from bigoted corners - it was the first incident of a black and a white person touching physically on prime time television! Yup, it was a much different time.

"On June 3, 1968 Elvis began working with Binder and Howe at their offices. As they got to know Elvis better and saw how deeply he was affected by the June 6th death of Robert Kennedy, Steve Binder was inspired to ask songwriter Earl Brown, who was writing arrangements for the show, to write an inspirational song for the finale. That song would become the much loved If I Can Dream. "

- "Elvis - 68 Comeback Special." Elvis Australia.

Martin Luther King had died on 4th April that year.

Steve Binder interview offers a detailed background to some parts of the story:

"... Elvis ... in those moments of pure honesty, had been saying things that I felt we should say on the air in the special. So I went to Earl Brown, our special material writer and choral director, and to Billy Goldenberg and I asked them to disguise. I had read an article that in World War Two all the German artists were disguising their art work so, you know, the Nazis would never know what they were saying cause it was too abstract for them. And I said, "We're gonna get it passed the Colonel if we just write a speech. But if we can put it in the lyrics of a song, he's never gonna know what we did." So I asked them go home and write a song about the philosophy of what I was hearing from Elvis personally. That, you know, we're all created equal. We're all deserve to walk hand in hand with our brothers, and all that stuff.

And, one morning, very early in the morning, I got a phone call from Earl Brown saying "I think we did it. I think you've got your song." And so we rushed down to the studio to hear it and Billy Goldenberg played piano and Earl sang "If I Can Dream". And the lead sheet that I was handed had Earl Brown and Billy Goldenberg as the writers of it. And I said "Well let's wait till Elvis shows up and we'll play it for him."

In the meantime Colonel Parker was saying over my dead body "Are we gonna play that as the last song of the show?" And I waited for Elvis and Elvis came into the dressing room. And I ushered him into the piano room and Colonel Parker was in the outer room with Tom Diskin and a few of the RCA people and so forth. And I could hear them mumbling, you know, their discomfort and not wanting us to do what we were doing.

And we played "If I Can Dream" for Elvis and Elvis listened to it. He said "Play it again." So we went through it again and Elvis said, "Which I had become accustomed to." When Elvis was really making decisions he didn't just want to make rash fast decisions. He wanted to, you know, absorb it and hear it over and over. He had Billy and Earl play this song I would say three or four times. And he looked at me and said, "Okay I'll do it." I said "You'll do it" and immediately the door burst open, and contracts were in hand to give away the publishing and so forth for RCA and Elvis publishing company. Once they realized this is going in the show whether they like it or not.

And the really great story about this is that when Billy Goldenberg knew that Elvis was gonna sing it, he walked over to the piano. He took out a pencil and eraser, and he erased his name from the lead sheet, because in reality, Earl Brown had written that song all by himself. That probably cost Billy Goldenberg a zillion dollars, you know, in songwriter fees and what have you. But the integrity of that staff was second to none. I mean, I love these guys to this day I'm very, very close to all of 'em. "

Excerpt from "Interview with Steve Binder, director of Elvis' 68 Comeback Special." Elvis Australia, 08 Jul 2005. See also the 1997 Internet chat with Steve Binder hosted by The US Robotics Towne Square.

His song is still being used by some American teachers in social studies classes today. Elvis fans are rejoicing because the American Idol duet with Céline Dion acknowledged the king once again, and showcased him once again to millions of viewers in American and around the world. And some of us listened spellbound.

I was listened to Elvis' 1968 song in a loop while figuring this out; thanks Sue and Tamara!

Posted at 5:21PM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | , .