|Recorded in 1954
'That's All Right'
Bill Black's slap-back bass establishes a souped-up tempo, and
Scotty Moore chimes in with his bee-sting guitar, sending a jolt
to radio listeners in Memphis - and soon around the world. By
all accounts, the song sort of fell together as Elvis Presley and
mates banged around in the studio, but producer Sam Phillips
knew thunder when he heard it. Together, they transformed
Arthur Crudup's 1946 blues song into their first commercial
single - and a cultural milestone.
'Baby, Let's Play House'
Here we get an early taste of the sexual and slightly menacing
Elvis as he takes an Arthur Gunter blues song recorded a year
earlier and transforms it into a percolating, horn-dog classic.
He pants out "baby" 15 times in the opening chorus alone, and
his rendering of "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be
with another man" was so nervy that John Lennon later stole it
for his own purposes. Best of all, Elvis tweaked the lyrics to
introduce us to his "pink Cadillac."
When Elvis adopts that slight hiccuppy vocal affectation on "16
coaches long," you immediately grasp his fear and desperation
that his baby has left the station and may never return.
This is a blues classic by Junior Parker to which guitarist Scotty
Moore gives a country feel, and the result is one of the
greatest rockabilly performances ever.
Elvis got a rare songwriting co-credit (with Mae Axton and
Tommy Durden) on his first smash hit after moving from tiny
Sun Records to major-league label RCA. But it's the alchemy of
guitarists Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins, bassist Bill Black,
drummer D.J. Fontana and pianist Floyd Cramer all the way
through that sets the tone for this searing blues about a
D.J. Fontana's furious drum roll between the verses caught
listeners' ears, but it was Elvis' hip-thrusting gyrations during
live performances of the song that caused the destruction of
American civilization as we then knew it. It hardly mattered that
his version was a goofy (and lyric-mangling) reworking of "Big
Mama" Thornton's original 1952 R&B stomper, written by Jerry
Leiber and Mike Stoller.
'Love Me Tender'
On the second verse, Elvis ups the intensity and kicks into a
full creamy croon, making even musicologists forget
momentarily that this song was based on Civil War ballad Aura
Lee. He gets another co-writing credit, though (with Vera
Matson, George Poulton and Ken Darby). Elvis sang this on
The Ed Sullivan Show before the single and movie of the same
name were released, and more than a million advance orders
for the single poured in to RCA. Better yet, the single
succeeded Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel at No. 1.
'(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)'
From the opening "Well, I'm tired and so weary, but I must go
along," Elvis never sounded more natural and at ease, as he
fronted The Jordanaires on the Thomas Dorsey standard. It
was as though he had been singing gospel all his life - which
The opening two-chord riff and drum beat presage the rock riot
to come in the Leiber and Stoller-penned soundtrack hit, which
spent seven weeks at No. 1. No wonder millions of parents went
"Ye gads! He's a juvenile delinquent!'' And there probably
wasn't a better staged performance caught on film until Michael
Jackson came along.
'Santa Claus Is Back in Town'
What's he packing in that bag? Whether he's "coming down
your chimney tonight" or cruising through the snow in "a big
black Cadillac," the King serves notice that your holiday
traditions are about to come unwrapped. Hide the children.
Mae West herself tried to out-swagger Elvis with a 1967 version
of the lascivious Leiber and Stoller R&B ditty - and failed
The wimpy Are You Lonesome Tonight? (a song that Elvis
himself would eventually parody in concert) and the slightly
over-the-top It's Now or Never signaled that he was back
commercially after his Army stint. But this gritty cover of Lowell
Fulson's 1954 blues standard showed that he and his backing
team were as musically sharp as ever. Listen to how Boots
Randolph's sax breaks heighten the intensity of Elvis'
'Can't Help Falling in Love
"Take my hand, take my whole life, too." Sigh. And it's based
on an 18th-century French love song, yet. Elvis was in full
swoon-inducing splendor, and The Jordanaires gave it their all
in the background, but the single was blocked from the No. 1
slot by Joey Dee & the Starliters' Peppermint Twist.
'Viva Las Vegas'
The jittery Latin beat and swinging delivery on this movie title
track captured the Cheez Whiz-with-an-edge allure of the
"bright light city" in a way the Rat Pack never did. Elvis never
rolled the dice and sang this Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman song
live, and it stalled out at No. 29 on the Hot 100. However, this is
a rare example of an Elvis song that continued to gain in
popularity long after he crapped out - more than 30 artists
have covered it, from Bruce Springsteen to the Dead Kennedys
and, perhaps most memorably, Shawn Colvin.
When Elvis hits the refrain "God almighty gonna cut you down,"
you sense that he's washed in gospel from both white and
black traditions. This traditional spiritual from the How Great
Thou Art album is arranged and sung in the jubilee style. If it
moves you as it moved him, check out Joshua Fit the Battle of
Jericho or Swing Down Sweet Chariot (singles from the 1960
His Hand in Mine album).
'If I Can Dream'
With its gospel fervor and direct quotations from Martin Luther
King Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis two months
before the song was recorded, Dream is a far more
inspirational piece of social commentary than In the Ghetto.
When Elvis cries out, "We're caught in a cloud with too much
rain," he captures the despair of the time. The public first heard
this as the finale to his 1968 NBC concert Elvis, commonly
called the "Comeback Special."
The first blast of the horn section and the fervent backup
singers signaled that a soul revival - and an Elvis career
comeback - were afoot, courtesy of producer Chips Moman at
American Sound Studio in Memphis. That just-fakin' fade
out/fade in section toward the end seemed a bit daring at the
time, as did the lyrics about dysfunctional love. Curiously, the
studio version of the song, recorded in January, didn't make it
onto the stellar From Elvis in Memphis album, whose songs
were recorded around the same time. (It did make it onto 1998
and 2008 reissues.) Nevertheless, it became his 17th - and
final - No. 1 single in the USA.
'Long Black Limousine'
The irony of Elvis singing this cautionary tale about excess
crystallized after his death, of course. But at the time he
recorded it, for the From Elvis in Memphis album, he seemed
wholly invested in putting a tense R&B spin on what was a
basic country tune. Listen to how his voice sounds a little raw
on the line "the party, the party and the fatal crash that night.''
And by the time he hits "a chauffeur, a chauffeur at the wheel
dressed up so fine,'' he was approaching hysteria.
'The Wonder of You'
Elvis never recorded this in a studio, but it was a staple of his
concerts later in his career. This version, captured at a Feb.
18, 1970, date in Las Vegas and released as a single in April
(the studio B-side Mama Liked the Roses is an
underappreciated sentimental gem), was a showstopper. When
he climbs the scale at the very end, repeating the song title,
the words were what every woman wanted to hear.
Those final "just a hunk a hunk'' lines were dynamic, sexy and
thoroughly convincing (though open to parody by lesser
beings), but they invite the question: Why were this and 1973's
Promised Land the last of the elite Elvis rockers? He would
never again hit the top 10 on the domestic charts (Burning
Love went to No. 2, behind Chuck Berry's My Ding-a-Ling, of all
things), and the recording sessions over the final five years of
his life were mostly devoted to ballads. That's a burning,
'An American Trilogy'
The song's final word is just two letters long but Elvis,
sometimes kneeling onstage, could stretch "on'' to a half-dozen
syllables as he belted it to the rafters. Over the top? Sure. But
he was a military veteran, a patriot and a son of the South, and
this mashup of Dixie,All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the
Republic created by Mickey Newbury was right in the King's
wheelhouse. Elvis recorded live versions several times, the first
from a 1972 Las Vegas show; a 1973 version from the
just-reissued Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite is particularly fine.
When backup singer and gospel legend J.D. Sumner sings the
phrase "Way on down'' at the end of each chorus, he's digging
deep for a sound that's three octaves below middle C, one of
the lowest notes ever recorded by a human voice. The last
single released before Elvis' death shows that his voice was still
compelling - "feel it, feel it, feeeel it'' - up to the very end.