I grew up in the ’60s loving the Beatles. It took me a long time to hear the music of Elvis Presley with ears attuned to its riches, but Elvis was the man, even for the Beatles themselves. Yesterday was his birthday. I thought we might note the occasion with a look back that draws on the availability of his work on YouTube. In addition to hitting a few highlights, I hope also to hit on a few less familiar tracks. Am I wrong in thinking that immersing ourselves in his music can deepen our love of America? You can certainly hear America singing.
This is not a representative sample even of the highlights. The breadth and depth of Elvis’s career preclude it. I can only say that these are all personal favorites that have something to offer on their own terms and perhaps send you back to the body of his work. Forgive me for overlooking your own favorites, as I surely have. There is simply too much from which to choose.
First a bibliographic note. Like his music, the story of Elvis’s life is all-American. Peter Guralnick does it justice in the two-volume biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Guralnick is a dogged researcher with a gift for narrative. He seems to me to get inside the heart of the lives he chronicles in telling the story. His treatment of Colonel Parker in the first volume is a particularly good example. If you want the story in full, Guralnick’s books are the place to go. Guralnick filled out the story in Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll adds to the story, but the Elvis books are essential.
I have been a fan of Guralnick since reading Sweet Soul Music back in the ’80s. His work offers a wealth of riches. I went to see Guralnick speak to a small standing room only audience at St. Paul’s now closed Hungry Mind Bookstore when he had completed the Elvis biographies and was embarking on his biography of Sam Cooke. He mentioned that he had just read Dawn Powell’s autobiographical novel My Home Is Far Away and that he had tried to learn from it in terms of narrative art.
RCA 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. I found the boxed sets 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.
Here is a modest selection of great Elvis numbers accompanied by a brief comment. The selection is purely for illustrative purposes. The first five derive from Elvis’s initial recordings for Sun Records with Scotty Moore and Bill Black with Sam Phillips at the controls. They are available separately on Sunrise, collecting all his Sun recordings.
“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 digs 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.
Elvis revisited the song in the stunning performance captured live for his Singer (sewing machine) comeback special in 1968.
“Crying In the Chapel.” Elvis seems to have been a deeply religious man. Guralnick writes that Elvis wanted to seize on his early success to share his enthusiasm for the gospel music that meant so much to him. Indeed, 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.
“Reconsider Baby.” I first heard this on the RCA album Elvis Blue, the 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. It originally appeared on Elvis Is Back! (1960) — from the Army, that is.
“It’s Now or Never.” It was Elvis’s idea to have an English version worked up for the Italian original on which “It’s Now or Never” was based. The single was a huge hit. As I recall from from reading Guralnick, Elvis refused to use overdubs to get his vocal right. He thought that would be cheating. Double checking the facts via Wikipedia, I see I’m not the only one who found the song inspirational: “Barry White credited this song as his inspiration for changing his life and becoming a singer following his release from prison.”
“A Mess of Blues.” Written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, “A Mess Of Blues” was the B side of “It’s Now or Never.”
“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 the Spinout soundtrack album.
“Suspicious Minds.” When Elvis reclaimed his career from Hollywood and the Colonel following the 1968 Singer Special, he headed to American Sound Studio and producer Chips Moman in Memphis. Elvis poured himself into this song that Moman knew Elvis could turn into a hit. In the event, it was one of Elvis’s last number one hits.
“Kentucky Rain.” I can’t leave this one out. By Eddie Rabbitt and Dick Heard, the single made it to number 16 on the Billboard chart. The song is over the top in its sentimentality, but Elvis makes it real. The production is simply great.
“Stranger In My Own Home Town.” I think Elvis’s sessions in Memphis following the Singer Special were the most productive of his career. Elvis was at the top of his form. He was feeling the music. The material, the arrangements, the musicians were all excellent. You can hear how into it Elvis is as he growls behind the beat on this fantastic Percy Mayfield number.
“Long Black Limousine.” Also from the sessions at American in Memphis, this elicited something special from Elvis. Did he hear a portent of doom? As in “Reconsider Baby,” the feeling he brings to it is almost shocking.
“Only the Strong Survive.” Written by Jerry Butler, this song is just so beautiful in its own way. Elvis was catching up with the strands of popular music he had neglected in the course of his career in Hollywood. I have to think that the speaking intro referring to the singer’s mother grabbed Elvis.
“American Trilogy.” From Elvis’s groundbreaking 1973 Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite live show. God, guts and glory. This is it. Mickey Newbury put the medley together.
“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” I’m afraid I’m shortchanging the 70’s in this retrospective. They make up five magnificent compact discs in the RCA compilation. Elvis toured constantly nearly until the end. I love the songs that became set pieces in his shows. This is one.
“Twenty Days and Twenty Nights.” Overproduced, but Elvis was still delivering.
“Funny How Time Slips Away.” This Willie Nelson classic is just right.
“Never Been to Spain.” RCA included the live recording of the song written by Hoyt Axton on Walk A Mile In My Shoes, the 70’s compilation. I think it became a staple of his live shows.
“You Gave Me a Mountain.” RCA also included the live recording of this number on Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Guralnick points out somewhere in the biography that Elvis resonated to what I had thought of as cornball songs and made something of them. “Don’t Cry Daddy” from the Memphis sessions is one example. “Kentucky Rain” is over the top in its own way too. So is this Marty Robbins song, which seems like an okay place to sign off this morning.