'One Night' and the casual command of Elvis
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Just a guitar. Or just a microphone. Maybe just a mic and a piano. A band in a room, acoustic with one mic in the middle.
There’s no one way to play a great song, but there are common themes in putting forth a song as a showcase for pure artistic skill. The setting gets stripped down to the bare essentials and what’s left is what’s pure. There are unplugged specials and acoustic showcases, video clips of stripped-down performances and stark performances of those most captivating songs. There are thousands of these out there that could be pulled as an example.
My favorite for the past few years has been Elvis Presley in 1968, joking around in front of a small studio audience and simultaneously laying waste to everything in his path. And he does it with a smile.
“We don’t have a strap? No strap? I gotta keep my leg up here all night. ... Well let’s see, man.”
Let’s see. After jokingly singing the chorus of “MacArthur Park,” he decides to jump full force into “One Night,” one of his biggest hits released during his tenure in the U.S. Army and coming before his career became dragged down by a string of mediocre soundtracks to even less-enthralling films. As the 1960s wore on and a string of incredible bands caught the public eye, Elvis just sort of faded into the background of stardom — ever-present but not to be taken seriously.
And that’s why what we now call the ’68 Comeback Special was so riveting. It was a reminder that this hurricane was still swirling inside him, and that he was capable of destroying an audience with just a few lines. It was illustrated best during the seated, stripped-down performances, and “One Night” serves as a stirring example.
On this take, which was the second version recorded, he’s propped up with Scotty Moore’s Gibson on his leg. He starts the opening line, waves in the band, he’s off and Elvis the showman is on full display. Without too much outward movement, he rocks his head, taps his foot and shoots little winks and smiles and the crowd. Moore has his guitar, D.J. Fontana has a drum case, elsewhere there’s a tambourine and sometimes another acoustic guitar.
And that’s it. It’s as minimal as it gets and it’s more than enough, because immediately, Elvis is a barrel down a waterfall. Every line that comes out of his mouth is absolutely captivating. His guitar playing — as it is through all these sets — is surprisingly good and shows that the instrument was much more than just art decoration. He has rhythm and style and serves as an incredible bandleader.
Midway through what is supposed to be the final verse, the chord pops out of the bottom of the guitar, and he almost breaks stride here — the closest we get is when he sings, “Is what I’m now—somebodypulledtheplug...” He keeps singing, shrugs it off mid-lyric, then counters with a “Gotta do it again boys, gotta do it again” without ever breaking rhythm. It’s a funny moment and serves as evidence that, even after a long layoff from the stage, he can still keep the show going.
And does this show ever keep going. On every bellow of the chorus’s capper, he leaves the audience and likely his band floored:
“And I know that very quiet life
HAS BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG
Ooonnne niiight, with you...”
Every time those lines come out, there’s a moment of stunned-silence followed by shrieks from the tiny crowd and smiles from the band. He’s a force of nature and he’s having a blast reminding everyone of just that.
Considering he hadn’t played live for a paying audience for the better part of a decade, it’s jaw-dropping. He’s still only 33 years old here, but he’s supposed to be washed out and left in the dust, one of the earlier used-up entries of an unforgiving star machine. But his star burned brighter than anyone before and arguably anyone since. There are a number of reasons and circumstances that led Elvis to becoming a phenomenon that somehow hasn’t slowed in the nearly 40 years since his death, but that otherworldly talent certainly didn’t hurt.
And here it is in its rawest form. Outside of his initial Sun recordings, where he and his band played into one microphone and reset the course of popular music, this is as real as it gets. He’s screwing around — ostensibly just being himself — and it’s stunning. No one else could just be themselves and still be Elvis.
Jan. 9, 2017
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org