Elvis Presley’s 68 Comeback Special Revealed a Past Sin

In the midst of deeply committed gospel, Elvis gave in to sin by accident one night in 1968.

HBO’s documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher details Elvis’ development as a musical artist. The two-part special catalogs his movement through stardom, the army, and the movies, but keeps its focus on the notes and the space between the notes. The special repeatedly refers to the “1968 Elvis Presley Comeback Special” as a major turning point in the singer’s artistic trajectory. The special hit all the notes, Las Vegas swing, down and dirty blues, a passionate gospel sequence, and a sit-down jam session with nothing but fingers and strings and voices.

Rehearsed yet raw, a few minor mistakes made it to the national broadcast. One, however, stands out. It happens just before a more obvious technical difficulty prods the song to the pantheon of performance art. Elvis is clearly lost in his performance of “One Night With You,” so lost, he time travels to a place where he was listening to the original and sings the wrong lyrics. It is a brilliant mistake, if it was a mistake, because it gives an intense insight into the artist.

Presley ushered in rock and roll, swiveling his hips to mix the racial divides between blues, country and gospel music, while secretly wishing he could sing like Mario Lanza.  After The Beatles launched the British Invasion, further whitening pop music even as they made it more revolutionary, the hound dog appeared to be chasing his tail. Presley lost what could have been his most progressive musical period to increasingly disappointing film work, and when he came back to the music he did it in a black leather outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on The Doors’ Jim Morrison.

Presley had a lot riding on NBC’s Singer Presents…ELVIS. Was he still relevant? Could he still move a crowd? Did the musical landscape change so much there was no room left for his sideburns and his sneer? The broadcast offered a variety of entertainment formats, but the centerpiece of the show is Elvis and his musicians in the round, surrounded by an audience. He invented MTV’s Unplugged that one night, singing songs and telling stories as a prematurely elder statesman. Elvis tries desperately to sit through his performance, but he can’t keep up the charade of his veteran status. Presley had to move. He took up martial arts some time later, if that gives you any idea how much this man needed propulsion.

“One Night” was written by Dave Bartholomew, Pearl King, and Anita Steinman. Smiley Lewis’ version is propelled by piano triplets and an insinuating sax solo. You can barely hear Smiley’s grin through the remorse. He is beyond redemption and he’s got no one to blame but himself. Lewis hit Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues charts with it in 1956, just shy of the top 10, at number 11. Elvis’s remake cracked the top ten on the R&B charts, and put the song at number four on the pop singles chart in 1959. But he had to tame the wild song.

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Presley recorded a version of the song with its original lyrics on January 18, 1957, but it wasn’t released until 1983. Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker and his record company RCA shot the song down because the lyrics were too risqué for radio play. Presley loved that song so much he rewrote the lyrics himself. He did it while making the movie Loving You. His interpretation is inspirational. He inverts the entire intent of the original line and finds a promised redemption in the original sin. Presley is praying for that one night. It is romantic, and yet promises a little something more.

It’s not quite The Rolling Stones singing “I just wanna make love to you,” but Elvis has enough sexual tension pent up to rival all five of the British band. And all he wants is one night.

“One Night of Sin” has been interpreted as describing an orgy. The original opening lines are “one night of sin is what I’m now paying for. The things I did and I saw, would make the earth stand still.” That must have been one hell of an orgy. “Don’t call my name. It makes me feel so ashamed,” Smiley continues in a smooth delivery. This guy is not ashamed at all, he’s bragging. Although I’m sure the good people at Vigilant Citizen would probably spin this into some kind of Eyes Wide Shut, Illuminati get down, it seems to be a much more intimate occasion.

Smiley Davis admits his “very quiet life” caused him “nothing but harm.” He was unprepared. Presley is not only ready. He is past due. He’s “been too lonely, too long.” Presley constricts his voice throughout the song. And on this line, while he is still squeezing this delivery through a clenched throat, he goes deep and pushes his entire body into the climax. It’s a full release of sexual tension begging for more relief. He has seen the Promised Land. Redemption lies at the end of one night of sin. And what does he mean by “I ain’t never did no wrong?” He must be hiding some kind of wrong in that negative trifecta because he sounds as contrite as he does pleading. Whether he’s done wrong or not, he wants to, and wants it very badly. A wrong so wrong and so sinful he’s got to deny it three times before the cock crows.

Presley recorded his cleaned up version at LA’s Radio Recorders on February 23, 1957. One mix includes a sax. It came out as a double A-side with “I Got Stung” in October 1958 and peaked at No. 4 on singles chart. Presley’s recording was published by Elvis Presley Music and credits himself, Anita Steinman, Bartholomew and King. The slow and sultry rock and roll ballad was his last single to come out at fast speed, 78 RPM.

Even with the changed lyrics, there would be no way to play this in front of Ed Sullivan, who’d already aimed his show’s cameras high on the performer to avert America’s gaze from what was happening down below. The momentary lapse of reason on stage in 1968, takes this into consideration. A billion ideas probably ran through Presley’s mind as he spun back to the performance at hand, one might have been how far television had come.

NBC’s Singer Presents…ELVIS was originally planned as a Christmas special, but director Steve Binder put together a variety of Presley’s performance styles, through several genres. The special also included a section for gospel music, which included the legendary Darlene Love and her vocal group The Blossoms in the choir. For much of the special, Presley played 1968 Red Hagstrom Viking II he borrowed from NBC session guitarist Al Casey. Presley rehearsed the show for a few weeks, before it was recorded at Western Recorders in Burbank, California, on June 20, 21, 22, and 23, 1968, and at NBC Studios on June 27 and 29, 1968. Four hours of performance were edited down to 50 charismatic minutes. The most magnetic part of the evening was the most intimate.

The sit down session was barely rehearsed. Presley was accompanied by his long time sidemen, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DC Fontana banging his sticks against a guitar case, along with guitarist Charlie Hodge and percussionists Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault. 

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Presley’s performance of “One Night” on the special begins flawlessly. He has to do the song with a foot on a chair because he didn’t bring a strap, but at least the man is on his feet. After an impassioned first verse where he enjoys singing the song so much he actually makes himself giggle, he reverts to the original lyrics on the second line of the second verse. Presley is so wrapped up in the performance, no one can tell, it’s so smooth. After he sings the line “would make the earth stand still” he looks up (and yes I know I’m examining this like it’s the Zapruder film) in what could be either an inner recognition of the lyrical misplacement or a response to a face in the crowd. Then he bursts out through the crescendo so energetically his guitar gets unplugged.

A rock god without a guitar is a naked performer when everyone else onstage is playing, and Presley knows the song needs that extra rhythm guitar buildup, something he obviously has fun doing, and conducts the band with a friendly “we gotta do that again” before repeating the sequence. It is a split decision on stage to save a performance that needed no saving anyway, except maybe visually. Presley makes up for this by pounding and grinding the Gibson Super 400 CES guitar against his famed and aching pelvis.

Presley doesn’t call attention to the lyrical collision. He may not have noticed during the taping, but could it have been intentional? Maybe Elvis knew exactly what he was doing, who he was crediting, and was subversively correcting a generation’s worth of hypocrisy and repression. He could have knowingly sung the original lyrics just to prove he was hipper than the listening audience who were unaware of great nuggets of music. Or he could have done it to underpin television’s micromanagement of his body, to the point where the only thing he could wiggle was his finger.

TV had a major growing up period in the ’60s. Besides the musical and fashion changes, and the beginnings of diversification in prime time programming, the news was throwing nightmarish images of wars, riots and unrest into homes accustomed to family fare. Rock music grew out of rock and roll, and Presley’s gaff is a microcosmic reminder of the history of censorship on the small screen.

The performance also came out as Elvis (NBC-TV Special), RCA Records’ 34th Presley album, in December 1968. Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) came out on April 6. Elvis Presley: The Searcher debuts on HBO on Saturday, April 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET.