The Annotated Elvis

Like John, I grew up in the ’60s idolizing the Beatles. It took me a long time to hear the music of Elvis Presley with fresh ears attuned to its riches. I’ve written a lot here sharing my discoveries and am easily prompted to return to the subject. If I had to choose male and female artists of the century in popular music, Elvis and Ella Fitzgerald would be my picks.
RCA has facilitated the efforts of latecomers like me to Elvis’s artistry by bundling Elvis’s principal popular work into three beautifully presented boxed sets organized by decade, with separate sets devoted to his gospel and film work. The boxed sets are revelatory; perhaps most surprising to me is the magnitude of Elvis’s accomplishment continuing into the ’70’s, represented in the third of the three boxed sets.
Having immersed myself in this music over the past several years, I offer ten great songs of Elvis Presley and a comment or two on each, purely for illustrative purposes. The first five derive from Elvis’s initial recordings for Sun Records and are available on the magnificent “Sunrise” or on the first of the RCA boxed sets. The others are available as indicated following the song:
“That’s All Right.” Elvis, Scotty and Bill discover the heart of the Cosmic American Music at the junction of blues, country, and rock. They all laughed at Christopher Columbus…
“Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Proving that the discovery was no accident, Elvis and the boys dig a little deeper into the motherlode.
“Baby, Let’s Play House.” Pleading, naughty, fun. This is still 1955, right? Is this legal? Elvis’s mom declared the song one of her favorites of Elvis’s to date — what a lady! John Lennon listened carefully and copped a few lines for his “Run For Your Life” on the Beatles’ beautiful “Rubber Soul” album.
“Mystery Train.” Elvis transformed the slow 1953 Junior Parker blues number into a stunning blend of blues and country. This was Elvis’s last Sun single; it peaked at number 11 on the Billboard country chart. Colin Escott writes that it “marked Elvis Presley’s elevation to greatness.”
“Trying To Get To You.” Mixing the sacred and the profane, the song touched Elvis’s deepest feelings of yearning and fulfillment. Elvis responds with a blistering performance.
“Crying In the Chapel.” Elvis seems to have been a deeply religious man. Peter Guralnick writes that Elvis felt impelled to use his early success to share his enthusiasm for the gospel music that meant so much to him; he sang and recorded gospel music throughout his career. Here he takes the lilting Sonny Til and the Orioles doo-wop number and turns it into a moving personal meditation. It became a surprise number one hit in 1965 when RCA lifted it from Elvis’s 1960 gospel album and released it as a single. (“Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings.”)
“Reconsider Baby.” I first heard this on the RCA album “Elvis Blue,” a long out-of-print RCA compilation of Elvis’s blues recordings on blue vinyl. Elvis brings an almost shocking intensity to the Lowell Fulson blues number. Elvis’s rendition of it opened my ears to him. (“Elvis Is Back!”)
“Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970’s, Bob Dylan pronounced this his favorite cover of one of his songs — and it’s one of Dylan’s best. Formerly available only on a soundtrack album (was it “Spinout”?) filled with the usual dreck from Elvis’s pre-comeback Hollywood years, the years the locusts ate. (“Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”)
“Suspicious Minds.” When Elvis reclaimed his career from Hollywood and the Colonel following the 1968 Singer Special, he headed to American Sound Studios in Memphis and producer Chips Moman. Elvis poured himself into this song that Moman knew Elvis could turn into a hit; it was one of Elvis’s last number one hits. (The sessions with Moman at American produced many highlights, now collected on “Suspicious Minds.”)
“American Trilogy.” God, guts and glory. The King is dead, long live the King! (“Aloha From Hawaii — Via Satellite.”)

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