Inside the Elvis Comeback Special

A picture of Elvis performing at his 1968 Comeback Special

The Elvis Comeback Special. Picture: Shawshocks / Alamy

Singer presents singer

At 9pm EST on the night of Tuesday, 3 December 1968, an hour-long TV special titled Singer Presents ELVIS was broadcast on NBC. The “Singer” in the title was Singer Corporation, sponsor of the show. A few weeks earlier they had bigged up the event in a way that gave little away as to its contents:

Singer Presents ELVIS topped the Nielsen ratings for the night, capturing 42% of the TV audience. It also gave NBC its single biggest hit of the season. More importantly, it resurrected Elvis’ own career, turning him overnight from an increasingly cringe rock ’n’ roll has-been into a force to be reckoned with all over again.

The reason the TV special had got commissioned in the first place was the same reason Elvis’ career was on life support going in: the movies.

Since his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1960, Elvis had done little more than star in one mediocre feature film after another. And the musical, dramatic and production quality had been dipping yet further from year to year. By 1967, Elvis movies — and, by extension, Elvis himself — had come to be viewed by all but his most diehard fans as a sad joke.

Elvis’ manager, “Colonel” “Tom” “Parker” (actually Andreas Cornelis van Kujik), didn’t give a hoot about the profound damage all this had been doing to his charge’s reputation and artistic interests. But he did care, and deeply, about the fact that Elvis’ movies were no longer doing anything close to good business. Flop was following flop, and the ever thinner soundtrack LPs were finding fewer and fewer buyers. The “make ’em quick, make ’em cheap” formula was yielding returns so diminishing that even the carny huckster Parker was growing alarmed.

The million-dollar question

The current movie contract with MGM was drawing towards its close, with no serious prospect of a renewed contract on the horizon — nor of any other movie company’s showing interest in parting with grown-up money for a slice of Presley celluloid kitsch. 

Something had to give. Parker needed to save face, and fast. His perennial boast — to Elvis, to the world — that his star could command $1,000,000 a picture was in jeopardy.

And so, in late 1967, he came up with an inspired wheeze. He offered NBC a two-for-one deal: you get my boy for a TV special, plus you back a movie after that, and out of the kindness of my heart we’ll only trouble you for $1.25 million. 

NBC bit. By 18 January, the New York Times was informing its readers: “Elvis Presley Signs For First TV Special.”

I'm dreaming of a trite Christmas

The TV special was to be a delightful affair altogether. Elvis would sing a bunch of Christmas songs, thereby joining Perry Como, Andy Williams and Co. in the elite club of cosy TV light entertainers. To the Colonel, this was a most congenial scenario indeed. Back when Elvis had been in the Army, Parker had dreamed a dream: upon Elvis’ discharge, he would be rebranded as a harmlessly middle-of-the-road servant of the mainstream culture industry. No more pelvic antics in front of excitable young audiences; no more touring; no more fomenting of rock ’n’ roll barbarity on disc, stage or screen. The movies were the thing wherein he’d catch the cojones of the King. 

By 1967, he had been getting away with this utterly philistine strategy for several years, to the increasing chagrin of Elvis himself, for whom the movie set (and the recording studio where the ever direr soundtracks had to be dutifully laid down) had become a site of ritual self-humiliation. With the sands now running out on this racket, however, the Colonel turned to the upcoming NBC special as an opportunity. Not only would it help salvage the business side of things, it would also allow Elvis to come into his full and perhaps final glory as Televisual Crooner To The Nation. (Elvis’ friend Jerry Schilling would years later remark: “I always thought that the Colonel would have been happier if Elvis had turned out to be Bing Crosby rather than a rock and roll star.”) The Colonel already had plans to send out an anodyne Elvis Christmas Special to radio stations for broadcast on 3 December 1967, so an NBC TV Christmas Special for 3 December 1968 would merely be a bigger step towards completing the fine work he had been doing all these years in turning Elvis Presley into Elvis Pelvisless.

Thankfully, Bob Finkel, the NBC producer charged with driving the project, had other ideas. And he was backed, rather surprisingly, by Singer’s own man Alfred DiScipio, who by May was venturing the opinion that the special might more profitably delve into “the story of Presley as the initiator of a style of music which has become an integral part of our contemporary culture.”

Finkel — one of the undoubted heroes of this whole story — played a cute game from this point on. Instead of disabusing Parker of his notion that the special would be a homely Christmas affair, he quietly got to work finding someone with a bit of edge to produce and direct. (Himself he ruled out as producer/director on the grounds of insufficient rapport with the star, who was seventeen years his junior and who insisted, to Finkel’s dismay and over his protests, on calling him “Mr. Finkel” rather than “Bob.”) As soon as the wheels started turning, he would run interference as executive producer by keeping the Colonel distracted and pacified.

On the path to glory

Finkel approached Steve Binder, a highly regarded TV-special auteur just three years older than Elvis. What made Finkel think of Binder was the recent Petula Clark TV special he had directed. It had generated no little controversy upon broadcast, due to the fact that the white Clark had placed a hand on the arm of her black duet partner, Harry Belafonte, as they sang the anti-war song, ‘On the Path to Glory.’ Finkel was impressed by the integrity and courage of a director who had (along with Clark herself) insisted that ‘the touch’ remain untouched all the way to broadcast. 

Binder had form in this department. Back in 1964, he had directed T.A.M.I Show, a remarkably dynamic concert film (actually two concerts) whose stellar lineup included Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore, The Beach Boys, The Supremes and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Performers black and white were brought together in an exuberant celebration of transatlantic musical talent and American teen culture. As such, Binder had invited his audience into a world — still, alas, a utopian world — where a person was judged not by the colour of their skin but by the contents of their chorus.

When Finkel pitched Binder the idea of doing an Elvis Presley special, Binder was reluctant. To him, as to so many, Elvis was a figure of sorry irrelevance to the current cultural moment. Besides, he had hopes of making a sideways move into the movies, and an attractive project was in the works. It was only after his business partner, the record producer Bones Howe, told him he had worked in the studio as an engineer with Elvis back in the day, and was quite sure Binder and Elvis would hit it off, that Binder agreed to meet the Presley team for an exploratory chat.

Binder meets Elvis

On May 17, Binder was summoned to Colonel Parker’s office on the MGM Studios lot in Hollywood. Parker, acting as though Binder’s involvement were a done deal, gave him his brief: a Christmas special, along identical lines musically to the previous December’s radio special. Carols and traditional festive songs galore, with Elvis’ entire spoken-word contribution amounting to no more than a “Good night and Happy Christmas” at show’s end.

Binder was not at all impressed with the blowhard Colonel, nor with his cockamamie vision for the special, but (as he was afterwards surprised to learn from Finkel) the Colonel was pleased with him. Evidently, keeping the majority of one’s thoughts to oneself was the golden strategy when handling this old chancer. Later that day, Binder met Elvis himself at his and Bones’ offices at 8833 Sunset. Elvis asked him where he thought his (Elvis’) career was at these days. “In the toilet,” risked Binder. After a tantalising silence, Elvis laughed. The ice was broken.

By the end of the conversation, both men were all in on the project. And the project itself had changed radically. Out was the cheesy Christmas special; in was a shared commitment to creating something that would show the world that Elvis Presley — the real Elvis Presley — had not gone anywhere. 

Guitar man

Elvis was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii with his wife Priscilla and their baby daughter Lisa Marie (who had been born on 1 February). Binder undertook to put together a creative team that would cook up a concept for the show, to be presented to Elvis upon his return. He gave Elvis his firm assurance that he would under no circumstances be asked to do anything he didn’t feel one hundred percent comfortable with. Elvis would have power of veto over all artistic decisions.

By the time Elvis came back, the core theme had been established by Binder and the two writers he had hired, Chris Bearde and Allan Blye: Elvis as Guitar Man. 

In the course of their hurried deep-dive into Elvis’ musical back catalogue, they had established a startling fact, all but unknown to the wider world: Elvis’ comeback had already started the year before. For 1967 had seen Elvis turn to producer Felton Jarvis and arranger-contractor Billy Strange to help him cut a series of gritty tracks that were a world away sonically and aesthetically from the indifferent and woefully-mixed movie numbers he had been forced to churn out. They included the Jerry Reed songs ‘Guitar Man’ and ‘U.S. Male,’ on both of which Reed himself played guitar in his inimitable style; as well as the great Jimmy Reed’s ‘Big Boss Man’ (again with Jerry Reed on guitar), Tommy Tucker’s ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers,’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Jerry Reed on guitar). 

This represented Elvis’ most compelling musical output since his superb 1960 LP Elvis Is Back! More to the point, it showcased a new Elvis Presley, whose voice had grown husky and whose persona had enough wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world attitude to be more than just a recapitulation of his 1950s rebel image. Even his recent soundtrack work for an upcoming movie, Live A Little, Love A Little, contained an absolute gem in the form of ‘A Little Less Conversation,’ as well as an eyebrow-raisingly odd piece called ‘Edge of Reality.’ (Binder actually sent Parker a letter on 17 June requesting the master tape of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ and permission from MGM to use the song in the special. As the song never got used, one can only presume MGM said no. In 2002, JXL’s remix of an early, lower-keyed take of the song from the original soundtrack session on 7 March 1968 became a worldwide smash.) 

The Elvis who had come in for that meeting on 17 May, in short, was not just a man sick and tired of prostituting himself to the Hollywood machine, he had already upped his musical game in a dramatic way. Binder now understood that his task was not so much to get Elvis to reinvent himself as to get out of the way of the new Elvis who was already in formation and let him show himself to the world.

The team pitched Elvis their ideas for incorporating elements of rock ’n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues and gospel into the show. (Elvis was in a good place for this: he had recently asked his original guitarist Scotty Moore to transfer to tape his multi-genre collection of old 78s.) A wealth of carefully chosen songs from his own back catalogue would be re-recorded and re-performed with top contemporary musicians. There would be a blend of live performance before a studio audience and elaborately choreographed set pieces. They might even work in a segment where Elvis would talk music with no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein.

Elvis responded to all this with a positivity and amenability that took Binder, Bearde and Blye aback. Never before had they met a star with so little ego.

Barely had Elvis and the team moved into preparation mode at the Binder/Howe offices when Robert Kennedy was shot in LA’s Ambassador Hotel. He died twenty-six hours later. Elvis was appalled by this tragedy, just as he had been back on 4 April by the assassination a few miles from Graceland of Martin Luther King, Jr. His long, anguish-filled conversations with Binder about the state of the country brought the two closer together over the coming days. They also sowed the seeds of an idea that would furnish the TV special with a truly memorable closing statement in song.

Elvis sits down

NBC Burbank Studio. Thursday, 27 June 1968. It’s coming on close to 6pm. An audience sits expectantly around the red-bordered white boxing-ring-style square in the middle of the studio, awaiting Elvis Presley’s first live appearance in seven years. Guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D. J. Fontana, and friends Alan Fortas and Charlie Hodge are sitting inside the square, ready to greet the man of the hour for an informal jam session. At the edge of the stage sits Lance LeGault, tambourine at the ready.

Steve Binder gets a message that Elvis wants to see him in his dressing room. He goes to Elvis, who is dressed in the black leather suit specially designed for him by Bill Belew. Elvis tells him he’s sorry but he just can’t go out there because, well, his mind’s a blank. He doesn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of everyone.

Ironically, this is the same dressing-room that a few days back gave Binder the idea for the very sit-down show out front that Elvis is now saying he can’t do. After working on the production numbers, Elvis would come here and unwind with the guys by jamming away into the wee hours.

Binder, feeling that the Elvis who came to life in these sessions was an even greater revelation than the Elvis emerging in the segments being rehearsed out in studio, decided he wanted to film just such a session for inclusion in the show. Colonel Parker vetoed the idea, so Binder opted for next best thing: a sit-down impromptu show in front of a live audience.

And now here’s Elvis, losing his nerve at the last minute.

Binder tells him he has to go out there, even if only to say hello and goodbye. He scribbles down, from memory, some talking points that have been spitballed for the segment, and gives them to Elvis. He reminds Elvis that this is not going out live on TV, so if it doesn’t go well they can just not use any of the footage. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it a shot.

In the end, Binder prevails and Elvis goes out. Both men know that this could go either way. Although he hasn’t said so, Binder knows just how disastrously demoralising it will be for Elvis if he dies on his ass out there.

A terrified Elvis takes his seat in the boxing ring, says “Okay… Well, good night!”, and stands back up as if to make his exit. Up in the control room, Binder’s heart sinks. But it’s just a gag, delivered by the singer to deflect from the all too real panic in his nervous system. Elvis sits back down, puts the strap of his acoustic guitar around his neck and self-consciously asks the audience, “See, what do I do now?” The question is not rhetorical. The guys on stage are already working hard to gee him up with banter and laughter. Elvis steadies his nerves by thanking the audience for coming and explains briefly what this session is all about. He then introduces Scotty and D.J. Fontana. And then he tees up ‘That’s All Right, Little [sic.] Mama’,  the song that launched his career fourteen years ago. He strums the chord of A and starts singing…

An hour later, Bill Belew comes to Steve Binder with a rather delicate problem. He has picked up Elvis’ sweat-drenched leather suit from his dressing room so he can dry it in time for the second sit-down show at 8pm. To his horror, he has discovered that sweat is not the only thing the pants are drenched with. It turns out, incredibly, that Elvis got so energised during his performance that he experienced what might decorously be described as an uncontrollable libidinal surge. The pants need to be cleaned as well as dried out. (At the risk of committing unpardonable lèse-majesté: the video evidence suggests that it may have happened either towards the end of or immediately after the second and last rendition of ‘One Night.’)

In the forty-five minutes that Elvis has spent jamming with the boys he has done some talking, cracked some jokes, and sung the following suite of oldies but very goodies:

‘That’s All Right’
‘Heartbreak Hotel’
‘Love Me’
‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ (another Jimmy Reed number)
‘Blue Suede Shoes’
‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’
‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’
‘When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again’
‘Blue Christmas’
‘Trying to Get to You’
‘One Night’

From the moment he starts in on ‘That’s All Right,’ his voice takes him where his psyche and body need to go: away from self-consciousness, and into that primal zone whose feeling he once, as a much younger man, compared to the sensation of making love. On songs like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, ‘Trying To Get To You’ and ‘One Night’, he lets his voice rip for real. E through to G# are his power notes. Some of these big choruses he just doesn’t want to let go of. “One more! One more!” he cries, sending himself and the guys back into the place that makes him feel most alive. 

These songs may represent a return to some earlier pages in his songbook, but this is far from a nostalgia trip. It is a direct experiential reconnection with the source of his art. No less importantly, it is the revisiting of old songs with a new voice, one whose raw power seems to be taking even him by surprise. It is almost as though his voice has broken for the second time, and the results are proving no less strange and promising than first time round. (Though he doesn’t know it, he is actually en route to his mature bel canto of 1972-77.) And it has taken a live audience, and the extreme pressure of the situation, to bring out the barbaric yawp that has been building inside him since the Eisenhower era.

At 8pm, he returns for the second sit-down show. It too goes gloriously, albeit some of the electric nervous energy that sponsored the intensity of the first performance has left his system. Here he is no longer discovering just how much power he can command in front of an audience, more confirming the delightful fact to his and everyone else’s satisfaction. He is also, by the end anyway, exhausted. Forty-five minutes in, he camps up a couple of lines from the recent Richard Harris hit ‘MacArthur Park’ before launching into ‘When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again.’ Only he starts that number on the second verse: “Well, memories that linger in my heart” and says with a smile “A cue, Steve!” As in, it’s time to get me the heck out of here — hurry up and press play on the goddamn ‘Memories’ backing track.

Elvis stands up

If the two sit-down shows of 27 June represent Peak New Presley, then the two stand-up ‘Arena Shows’ taped a couple of evenings later represent, if anything, an even higher peak.

Elvis is back in his black leather suit. He is now on his own in the boxing ring, armed with an electric guitar. Tucked out of view, and at quite a remove, are the band of L.A. session musicians Binder has assembled for the set-piece pre-records down at Western Recording Studios, as well as the orchestra led by Billy Goldenberg, who has also assumed the arranger role after Billy Strange’s firing at an early point in rehearsals. The Blossoms (Fanita James, Jean King and Darlene Love) are there to lend support on backing vocals.

The Elvis who takes to the stage is clearly very nervous, very self-conscious. “Well, I gotta do this sooner or later so I might as well do it now, baby,” he half-jokes. He fluffs the opening line of ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ but recovers well. Then there are issues with the sound. He goes into an impromptu ‘One Night,’ before announcing, “Now we’re ready to start the show!” There is an excruciating delay, due it seems to some confusion as to where exactly the band needs to start from. Elvis tries to dispel his awkwardness by doing a quick riff from ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do,’ a song which he kept coming back to in the sit-down shows and whose lyrics may well have taken on private significance for him as a ‘Screw you’ message to the control-freak Colonel.  

Finally, Elvis gets the cue that everything’s good to go.

What happens next is quite simply fifteen minutes that make the jaw drop.

Elvis bosses it, from very start to very finish. His second run at ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is both more assured and looser than the first. As the band takes him into ‘Hound Dog’, he loses the guitar, takes the mic off the stand, and goes for absolute broke, both vocally and corporeally. This is not Elvis Presley as his own tribute act. The voice is utterly different from his ‘heyday’ voice, and the moves are more suggestive of an enviably supple karate aficionado on speed than an ageing Teddy Boy. There is a flash of savage anger on the words “Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit / You ain’t no friend of mine."

By the time he’s through with a sublime version of ‘All Shook Up’, Elvis’ face tells us he knows just how insanely well this is going.

Time for a between-songs breather. “It’s been a long time, baby, a long time,” he says to the audience. They applaud, and then, as though the full magnitude of what is unfolding before their eyes hits the back of their brains, erupt into a second and much louder show of appreciation.

Elvis then goes into a deliciously vibrato-rich version of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’ This is an important moment for him. He is doing for the first time what he will so brilliantly do on stage from 1969 onwards: singing an orchestrally-accompanied ballad into a hand-held microphone. And this gorgeous song from Blue Hawaii will become the signature show-closer that will see him out for the rest of his live career. 

There follow three up-tempo Fifties numbers — 'Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ — the first two of which he sings without guitar and delivers with renewed kinetic energy. Perhaps his attendance at a Tom Jones show in Las Vegas back in April, during which he paid close attention to the Welshman’s every move, has emboldened him in ways he is only now beginning to realise.

He finishes out with an exquisitely tender rendition of ‘Love Me Tender.’ As the song progresses, Elvis seems to disappear inside himself. Back in 1956, at the screening of his eponymous debut movie, his mother Gladys became terribly distressed at the sight of Elvis dying on screen and then singing this song from beyond the grave as his fictive family walk away from his burial. 

Now, as he sings the words “For my darling I love you” in the last chorus, a visibly moved Elvis gives a heavenwards look. No prizes for guessing who it’s meant for.

In the second stand-up show later this evening, he dispenses with the guitar for all but one song (‘Blue Suede Shoes’). As was the case with the two sit-down shows a couple of evenings ago, the second is a less nerve-racking affair for him. But here there is no loss of intensity whatsoever. He only brings an extra dash of focus and self-assurance to proceedings. The result is quite, quite astonishing. 

After delivering the first punchline in ‘Hound Dog’, he suddenly growls and shakes down his body like a hound dog that has just experienced the bliss of catching that poor dumb low-classed rabbit that has been eluding him all this time. If the first show gave him a sense of his range, he now feels free to attack each song with utmost relish and abandon. By the time he comes to ‘Love Me Tender’ — which this time he dedicates, through a hand gesture, to Priscilla, who is in attendance and cannot quite believe the Elvis who has revealed himself over the last few minutes — he knows he has given ‘Steve B.’ more than enough sensational footage to work with in the editing suite.

What America saw that night

Binder somehow managed to edit the TV special down to a 90-minute show. But his pleas to NBC to modify their TV schedule to allow for the extra half hour were unavailing. He was forced to edit the show further, down to a measly 48 minutes (taking ad breaks into account). A production scene set in a bordello had to be cut, lest America’s moral fibre be compromised. Only after Elvis’ death in 1977 did NBC broadcast Binder’s original 90-minute edit (bordello scene and all). And Elvis fans had to wait years more before they got to see the unedited footage from the extraordinary sit-down and stand-up shows.

Gillian G. Gaar, in her book Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback (2010), offers a useful breakdown of what actually went out in the original 3 December 1968 broadcast:

“The ‘Trouble’/‘Guitar Man’ opening; ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ from the second sit-down show; ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ from the first sit-down show; the ‘Heartbreak Hotel’/Hound Dog’/‘All Shook Up’ medley, and ‘Can't Help Falling In Love’ from the first stand-up show; ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Love Me Tender’ from the second stand-up show; ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ from the first sit-down show; the gospel production number; ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do,’ ‘Blue Christmas,’ ‘One Night,’ and ‘Memories’ from the first sit-down show; the ‘Guitar Man’ production number, and ‘If I Can Dream.’”

Binder was delighted with the live-audience segments, though he still wished the Colonel hadn’t blocked filming of an actual, fully-unplugged dressing-room jam session: to this day he swears that he saw Elvis do things in there that went beyond even what he pulled off in the sit-downs out in studio. He was proud too of the ‘Trouble’/’Guitar Man’ intro, with all those pseudo-Elvises on the raised background, ‘Jailhouse Rock’-style. 

As for the production numbers, he was especially well pleased with the way Elvis’ pointed remark (in the sit-down show) on the debt owed by contemporary music to gospel segued into black choreographer (Claude Thompson) dancing to ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ and the entrance of a mixed-race dance cast. He was kicking himself however for having allowed Elvis lip-sync his way through the production numbers. He felt — rightly — that the lip-syncing lessened authenticity and power. He also assumed — wrongly — that folks would pick up on the fact that the ‘Guitar Man’ production sequence towards show’s end was tongue-in-cheek, a send-up of all those stock Elvis movie scenarios.

A despicable coda: At the start of the process, Parker had indicated to Binder that the director role for Change of Habit, the movie NBC was to finance, was his for the taking. After Binder had salvaged Elvis’ career, however, Parker punished Binder for his having gone rogue with the special: he was never ever allowed speak to Elvis again. 

There was nothing that could hold me

Four elements of what Binder caught on camera that June have stood the test of time magnificently:

When my blue moon turns to gold again

The ’68 Comeback Special changed everything for Elvis. The Colonel’s original vision for the special, whereby Elvis would be reinvented into a bland TV crooner, had been shown up as risibly misjudged. Elvis, for his part, had just as little interest in basking in the reflected glory of his 1950s recording self: 1969 would see him go into American Studios in Memphis and record stunning, contemporary-sounding hit songs like ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds.’ And that summer he would return to full live performance by opening to ecstatic reviews at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. As soon as Singer Presents ELVIS had gone out, Elvis knew he had more than earned the right to be taken seriously again.

Never in the field of human endeavour was so special a Christmas present given by one man to himself. 

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About the author

Daragh Downes is a writer, critic and musician. He has written music features and reviews for The Irish Times and has discussed musical, literary and cultural matters on Irish national radio. For many years he lectured on literature, aesthetic theory and cultural history at Trinity College, Dublin.

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1 comment

I was a serious Elvis fan since I was a teenager. I did several of his songs in high school and got on stage at a couple of casinos in Vegas. I felt sorry for him when he got hooked on prescription drugs and he became a parody of himself. This article reminds me of his heyday and makes me smile. Well done!

Jim Elling

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